Classic climbing

Nescient Peak is an uninspiring, nondescript Tasmanian mountain that has existed in relative obscurity for about 150 million years. Easy to overlook, it is mostly covered in mundane scrub, offers little in the way of views and almost certainly gets teased by the big boys at Tasmanian mountain get-togethers. Nescient even translates as “lacking knowledge” or “ignorant”.

One man changed all that and firmly planted the 1125-metre peak on the map. The reason why is that all-important 25 metres.

In 1973, passionate bushwalker Bill Wilkinson devised a Tasmanian mountain classification system through which any peak with a minimum height of 1100 metres or more, and which had a drop of at least 150 metres on all sides, would be known as an Abel. The name is in honour of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who was not only the first European to lay eyes on them in 1642, but also had the lovely middle name Janszoon – two perfectly good reasons to have a series of topographical tribulations named after you.

Wilkinson meticulously catalogued all the Tasmanian peaks which met his criteria in a system similar to the Munros in Scotland, which indeed represent a useful comparison. There are 282 Munros but the designated minimum height of 3000 feet (914.4m) falls well short of Abel distinction. At 1345m, the highest Munro, Ben Nevis, would come in 56th among the Abels. Meanwhile the peak’s Tasmanian namesake (situated adjacent to the similarly Scottish sounding Ben Lomond) sits 49th at 1368m.

Wilkinson’s tally was 157, until it was realised that someone had been nescient about Nescient, and the figure rose to 158.

Not bad for an island barely 300km by 360km.

Their names are as diverse, colourful and fascinating as their appearance. There are mounts, peaks, bluffs, ranges, tiers, bens, crags, hills, knobs, towers, spires, tors and lookouts as well as a cap, sugarloaf, castle, dome, moor, bonnet, head and portal. There are those – like Madonna, Pele and Eminem – famous enough to get by with just one distinctive name. The likes of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon and Tramontane sound like evil adversaries of Harry Potter.

A select few have roads leading to their summits, most make do with basic tracks, the vast majority need a day’s walking, and many require multi-night camping trips, considerable navigational expertise and a tolerance to becoming intimate with leeches.

Federation Peak (1225m) may languish in 95th place on the list but is widely regarded as Australia’s most extreme mountain. More people have been to the summit of Everest (7623m higher) than Federation Peak.

. . .

Bill Wilkinson published his work in two beautiful volumes. Suddenly the word was out and disciples were swift to join the religion. Cue mass pilgrimages to unlikely shrines like Nescient Peak.

Confirming my own unflattering observations, Wilkinson describes the modest mount overlooking Lake Bill and squeezed between Cradle Mountain and Walls of Jerusalem national parks as “a small rounded mass above which rises the tiny obscure peak”. No wonder it gets picked on by big bad Ben Lomond and his cronies.

But at least Nescient made the cut. Many other mountains – some considerably higher – missed out due to Wilkinson’s unwavering criteria.

Take Kunanyi/Mount Wellington. The mountain looms over Hobart like a particularly strict grandparent and features several peaks within its boundaries. The highest is the recognised 1271m summit complete, with its perfect views of the Tasmanian capital which adorn countless postcards down in the tourist shops of Salamanca.

In contrast to the cavalcade of visitors that take advantage of the winding summit road, somewhat less frequented are three neighbouring peaks on the northern fringes of Wellington Park in an area known as Sleeping Beauty because, from the right angle and after sufficient post-hike alcohol, it resembles the outline of a dozing maiden. Trestle Mountain (1164m) and Mount Marian (1144m) tick the required boxes for Abel distinction but compare the fates of sibling namesakes Collins Bonnet and Collins Cap, which exist in apparent harmony in close sight of each other.

Located either side of the Collins Cap Trail, one of several four-wheel drive tracks criss-crossing Wellington Park, both are majestic protrusions offering fine views north over the numerous peaks around the Overland Track and south down the Huon Valley towards Bruny Island and the formidable delights of the vast South-West National Park.

However, as the former tips the scales at 1261m and the latter at 1094m, no prizes for guessing which one gets more traffic.

For the sake of a measly six metres and a mountain climbing bible devised by a fiendish genius, Collins Cap is destined to spend its existence watching admirers stroll under its nose bent on paying homage to a slightly more impressive brother. Collins Cap is the Trevor Chappell of Tasmanian mountains.

Contrast that to St Valentines Peak in the north-west near Hampshire, a settlement so small that even people in nearby Burnie respond “Where?” when asked for directions. Stuck out on its own with an outline uncannily similar to that of a volcano, St Valentine’s clocks in just the other side of the ledger, at 1107m.

And a good job too because without those pivotal seven metres I would probably never have experienced the glorious delights of a spectacular ridgeline traverse offering the genuine belief you are exploring uncharted territory – until you reach the trig point, communications tower and helipad at the summit.

Wilkinson’s conception of the Abels, described in his book as “a life-changing vision”, has transformed previously-ignored parts of Tasmania into must-visit locations for those of the Abel persuasion.

The series made the grade as one of 10 mountain quests considered the finest in the world by Lonely Planet.

Andrew Davey, who became just the fifth person to achieve all 158 Abels, writes in Wilkinson’s book, “Many Tasmanian mountains are girt by intimidating dense, spiky or entangled scrub requiring arduous effort. For those embarking on their first few Abels, a sense of adventure usually prevails.”

This is both a splendid summary of their appeal and possibly just the second recorded use of the word girt after our national anthem.

Competition soon develops in the eagerness to bag an Abel. But Wilkinson, whose descriptions can be as flowery as anything growing on the mountains, wisely stresses the importance of enjoying the peaks rather than simply conquering them.

“In a bushwalker’s lifetime, the great majority of Abels will only be climbed once,” he writes. “Some walkers overlook this fact, concentrating instead on a hurried ascent to add to their tally of climbs. A more rewarding and satisfying philosophy lies in soaking up the atmosphere, the mood and the scenery. Time ought to be allowed to probe the Abel’s secrets.”

These are wise words.

Without heeding such advice it would be possible to overlook the stunning rock formation halfway up Drys Bluff; the haunting proliferation of pandanis beneath Brewery Knob resembling a scene from The Day of the Triffids; the spectacular river of scree cascading down Stacks Bluff to the aptly-named Tranquil Tarn; or miss out on the pure pleasure of cooling overworked feet in Lake Dobson after a day of rock-hopping around Mount Field National Park.

From my experience, there are many more such examples - and I've only ventured onto a quarter of the Abels. Look hard enough and maybe even Nescient Peak has something going for it.

. . .

After 13 years as a journalist in his native England, Rob Shaw moved to Tasmania with his young family in 2002. He has since continued to write about sport, covering two Olympics, three Commonwealth Games and many other major events, while also exploring the Tasmanian wilderness.

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