Mountain High: Tasmanian Abels
TASMANIA HAS LONG been celebrated for its mountains. Early last century, the island was billed as the ‘Switzerland of the South’, while the bowed figure of Cradle Mountain has been one of Australia’s pin-up peaks for decades.
Fittingly, Tasmanian summits have come to represent some of Australia’s ultimate mountain challenges. The fang-like Federation Peak has a reputation as the most challenging and exposed climb in the country, while the traverse across the Western Arthurs has become almost universally known as Australia’s most difficult bushwalk.
But there are other challenges on the island that stretch beyond a single bushwalk, with quests that can last years or decades. Some walkers aspire to climb every Abel, Tasmania’s mountains above 1100m; others dream of going the whole mountain hog and climbing every peak in the state.
Every journey begins with a single step, and mine begins over four days – 100 hours or so to start a lifetime quest of Tasmanian peak bagging.
Day 1: Mt Field West
Little more than an hour’s drive from Hobart, Mt Field National Park is more than its name suggests. Though singular in title, it’s a crown of peaks ringed around the popular Tarn Shelf. I’ve come to climb Mt Field West, the most distant of the summits from the trailhead at Lake Dobson.
Mt Field West is one of five peaks in the national park that’s classified as an Abel. Devised in the early 1990s by local bushwalker Bill Wilkinson, the Abels are a list of Tasmanian mountains above 1100m in height, with a drop of at least 150m on all sides. It’s a concept modelled directly on Scotland’s famed Munros – the Scottish peaks higher than 3000 feet.
“I went over to Scotland a couple of times, and the second time, there was a fella who was effectively climbing all the Munros and I went around with him and climbed a number over a few days,” Wilkinson says. “When I got home I started to wonder if that would work in Tasmania.”
Three years later Wilkinson had a list of 160 mountains, and a published guidebook to half of them. A second volume, incorporating the remaining, would follow 17 years later.
“I was very wary not to rush in,” he says. “I spent probably a couple of years of just chilling things over – height, drop etc – and then a fair bit of time in libraries going through maps.
“The reason I decided in the end on 1100m (as the cut-off) is that virtually every peak then gives you a view. So you’re not climbing 980m-high scrubby peaks and saying, ‘well I got to the top but you can’t see anything’.
“I didn’t expect many people to climb all the Abels. When you put something like this out there, obviously over time someone is going to say, ‘oh, I’ll do all of these’. But I just thought people might say, ‘we’ve got the information here to go out to climb quite a few peaks in different areas’. That was the main focus.”
I’ve begun my own quest on Mt Field West because to reach it I must first climb another Abel: the 1377m Rodway Range. A virtual pile of boulders rising above the Tarn Shelf, the Rodway Range is seemingly mortared by snow this day.
The trail rises up its eastern slopes, and then dips to K Col before the final climb to Mt Field West, the highest point in the national park. Florentine Peak – another Abel – is in tempting reach, but by the time I return from Mt Field West, it’s been excised by cloud.
But I’ve climbed two Abels; I’m on my way.
Day 2 on the Tasmanian Abels
On the dry, eucalyptus-covered Dial Range, I could be almost anywhere in Australia – the Cathedral Range, the Adelaide Hills – were it not for the fertile, blood-red soil of the plains mapped out below.
To the north, the view reaches over the rooftops of Ulverstone to the white caps of Bass Strait. To the west is the distant lump of Mt Roland, furrowed with sunlight. It’s a view worthy of almost any mountain, and yet I’m less than 500m above sea level.
The Dial Range is a long way shy of Abels status, but Tasmanian mountains don’t begin or end with the Abels. Though they’re the highest summits in the state, the Abels represent little more than one-third of Tasmania’s recognised peaks.
For many peak baggers, the mountain urge goes far beyond the Abels to encompass just about every summit in the state, guided invariably by a peak-bagging spreadsheet produced by the Hobart Walking Club.
First drawn up by Tim Christie in 1968, it was expanded and updated 15 years later (and again in 2000) by Geoff Morffew. Each mountain is assigned a point value between one and 10, set according to difficulty of access and climb, with the 466 peaks totalling 883 points. Peak baggers are classified according to their number of points, from Downright Idle (0 to 50 points) to Peak-Bagger Supreme (600-plus points).
“It started off as a bit of a joke really – you’d have these young fellas charging off to climb these peaks to get their points – but it’s become quite serious for some people,” Morffew says.
As I set out onto the Dial Range, my own rating is deep in Downright Idle country, but it’s rising quickly because, short of driving to the top of Mt Wellington, Mt Gnomon will be the simplest ascent of my week. Within half an hour of leaving the carpark, I’m standing among gums and lichen-covered granite on its 490m summit, before ambling across the ridge to nondescript Mt Dial.
Across the Dial Creek valley, Mt Duncan is the highest point in the range, and demands a little more effort – the climb rises 500m from the fern-lined banks of Dial Creek – but it’d be a shame to leave it unclimbed, so I continue.
From its summit, the view stares across at the cliffs of Gnomon and Dial, a pair of bumps in a scrubby line of hills that you might barely notice were they not also valued as points on a spreadsheet. Surely, I think, it’s taken a truly obsessive peak bagger to create a list featuring even these otherwise anonymous mountains.
“I don’t call myself a peak bagger,” Morffew says. “In fact, my score – 322 points – is just in the middle of the Honourable Peak-Bagger rating. I’m not so good on exposed rock areas, so on a few peaks I’ve gotten close to the top but not on the top.
“I’m 62 now, and I now rate the success of a trip on how many photos I take, not how many peaks I climb. I’ve got to that stage of life, though I know there are others even older than me that are still going for points.”
Day 3: Sandbanks Tier
Tasmania has a wealth of celebrated peaks – Cradle Mountain, Frenchman’s Cap, Mt Wellington, Federation Peak – but it also has mountains such as Sandbanks Tier.
From across Great Lake on the Central Highlands, the 1401m peak looks like little more than a pile of rubble. Scree slopes leak down from its summit ridge, and the unmarked walk to its summit begins appropriately from a gravel pit.
The walk is short, and the most exhausting thing is the view, which stretches from Mt Wellington, above Hobart, to Ben Lomond, near Launceston, seemingly taking in most of the state and uncountable mountains. The very thought of climbing so many peaks is wearying and, to date, only three people have climbed all 466 of them. Paul Geeves is one of them.
“When I joined the Hobart Walking Club, I fell in with a group of people who were peak baggers and wanted to go to all these out-of-the-way places,” Geeves says. “So I kind of got the bug off them.
“I’d usually take my leave in one-week lots over summer. That way I could get four trips in. Even over winter I’d go out every second weekend or something to chase down some of the easier winter-walking peaks.”
By the time I arrive at the foot of Sandbanks Tier, most of the climbing is already done, with Great Lake pooled at about 1000m above sea level. I need climb only 400m, a walk of less than an hour, complicated only by the terrain.
From the gravel pit it’s essentially a rock hop all the way to the summit, weaving from boulder field to boulder field. It will be my eighth summit in three days (I’ve already climbed Quamby Bluff and Mother Cummings Peak this day); maintain this pace and I could feasibly complete the list in less than a year.
In reality, that’s an absurd suggestion. By most estimates, completing the HWC peak-bagging list is a 15- to 25-year commitment. Paul Geeves was almost lightning quick, completing the list in only 12 years.
“I think my best year was a little over 200 points, which included the Western Arthurs, which is around 50-odd points in a week,” he says.
“The last few peaks started to become a bit of a chore. It was good to complete the list. There was a feeling of elation but also a feeling of relief, of not having your life organised by the list any more.”
Day 4: Mt Wellington
The easiest summit possible on the HWC peak-bagging list is Mt Wellington – one point earned for a 20km car drive from central Hobart. But to the surprise of many, there are peaks on Mt Wellington that aren’t Mt Wellington.
From Collinsvale, tracks funnel up Myrtle Gully to the plateau behind the tower-tipped summit, and from here rise the likes of Collins Bonnet, Collins Cap, Trestle Mountain and Mt Marian.
I begin my final day walking towards Mt Marian, the most distant of the peaks. It’s a long approach, following firetrails and then a faint, overgrown track scribbled through the scrub and pineapple grass.
On the summit, the view takes in every peak on the Mt Wellington range except Mt Wellington itself, which is hidden behind the haggard escarpment of Collins Bonnet, so that
I feel worlds away from the carpark crowds. There’s a purity to the view that you rarely expect 20km from the heart of a capital city, but then I wonder also about the purity of what I’m trying to achieve.
To its critics, the pursuit of peak bagging lacks the integrity of straightforward bushwalking – the suggestion being that it’s as much about the maths as the mountains. Accounting in boots.
Does the fact that I’m here now, lured by an arbitrary number, make me a peak bagger, or a lover of mountains? Or are they the same thing?
“My inclination is that, for most people who do it, the climbing of the peak comes before the points and that, really, they might just keep their list on the side,” Morffew says.
From Mt Marian I return across the plateau, detouring to climb Trestle Mountain and Collins Bonnet as I go. By the time I ascend to the trig-pointed summit of Collins Bonnet, the day is getting old. I’ve climbed 11 peaks in the last four days, one short of the clean dozen.
From here I could round out the number by doubling back to climb Collins Cap, or
I could even return to my car and drive to the summit of Mt Wellington. Or I could heed the words of Bill Wilkinson.
“The main thing I try to venture (with the Abels) is that when people are on top, they should really spend as much time as they can on the summit – really take the view in,” he says. “You almost need to meditate on the top and imprint the view in your memory forever. I think that’s very important.”
I have finished. For now.
Getting there: Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly to Tasmania from the mainland. There are direct flights into Hobart from Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. To access most walking tracks you’ll need private transport. Major car rental companies have offices at Hobart and Launceston airports.
Staying there: See www.discovertasmania.com.au
When to go: Many Tasmanian mountains can be reached year-round, but the main walking season is from around October to April. Autumn is often the most stable window of weather.
More information: The two-volume The Abels, edited by Bill Wilkinson, is the definitive guide to Tasmania’s Abels. The ‘peak baggers’ spreadsheet, listing all the Tasmanian mountains and their points value, can be downloaded from the ‘Bushwalking Links’ page of the Hobart Walking Club website at www.hobartwalkingclub.org.au