Australia is the world’s flattest continent. Mount Kosciusko, its highest peak, is the Danny DeVito of mountains. It’s a mere 7,312 feet high.
I grew up in Southern California’s San Bernardino Valley, an area known for mountains, but certainly not for towering peaks, yet Mount Kosciusko would not rank among the San Bernardino Mountains’ top ten peaks.
In fact, if you could move Kosciusko to California, the highest peak in Oz would only rank as the 73rd highest peak in the San Bernardino Mountains. Mount San Gorgonio, visible on a clear day from the deYong family farm, is more than 50% higher than Mount Kosciusko. But the comparisons get even more unkind because Kosciusko would be only the 553rd highest mountain in California, and just the 2,117th highest in the United States. The average elevation of Colorado is 6,800 feet, not that much less than the highest peak in Australia.
You don’t scale Mount Kosciusko. You don’t climb it. You don’t ascend it. You hike it. You walk it. And you can make the round-trip up and down in just 6-8 hours. From bottom to top and back down to bottom is just 11.5 miles. No base camp is necessary. No sherpas, either.
Oddly enough, the mountain was named after a Polish military hero who never set foot in Australia. And even odder, it isn’t even spelled the same way Tadeusz Kosciuszko spelled his name.
The mountain is spelled Kosciusko. The hero spelled his name Kosciuszko. For some reason a ”z” was deleted from the mountain that bears most of his name. Nothing honors a man better than misspelling his name on the thing that’s named after him.
Who was Kosciuszko? Back in the 18th century, Prussia’s preferred route to invade Russia cut through the heart of Poland. And Russia returned the favor by marching through Poland on its way to invade Prussia. As you might imagine, these frequent uninvited visitors annoyed the hell out of the Polish people, but Kosciuszko was the one who finally did something about it. He became a hero by leading uprisings against both invading armies. And he was just getting warmed up.
Inspired by the noble concept behind the American Revolution, he sailed in 1776 to America to join the cause. By 1783 he had been promoted to the rank of brigadier general, which allowed him to add some lovely epaulettes to the uniform he wore while defending American military forts from West Point down to the Carolinas. He was tight with the Founding Fathers. So tight, in fact, that he might be thought of as a Founding Uncle. He so revered Thomas Jefferson that he named our third president as the executor of his estate.
Australia’s highest peak is far from the only thing named after this forgotten Polish hero. Hundreds of places in America also bear his name, including a county in Indiana (without the “z”), a city in Mississippi (also without the ”z”), and a bridge in New York City (finally one that uses the Pole’s preferred spelling).
So why was the highest point in the Australian Alps named for a guy who never set foot on the continent? Simple. The first man to climb it (Hike it? Walk it?) was Paweł Strzelecki, a Polish explorer. The peak reminded Strzelecki of Kosciuszko Mound, a monument in Krakow dedicated to the Polish hero.
Now here’s another really odd thing. Mount Kosciuszko isn’t technically the highest peak in Australia, just the highest peak on mainland Oz.
Back in 1947, Great Britain handed over to Australia one of its most remote territories, Heard and McDonald Islands in the southern Indian Ocean. Heard Island is home to Mawson Peak which stands nearly 1,700 feet higher than Kosciuszko. It’s an active volcano, so I suppose that means it grows a bit higher with each eruption, leaving Mount K further and further behind.
Believe it or not, two even higher peaks lie in what’s called the Australian Antarctic Territory, but the rest of the world refuses to recognize Australia’s claim to anything on that icy continent.
To review: Mount Kosciusko is the misspelled name of mountain that was named after a mound, that’s called Australia’s highest peak even though it really isn’t
This may just be the original Polish joke.