Louise Fairfax overcame grief to become third woman to climb all Tasmania's Abels

Originally published at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-26/louise-fairfax-third-woman-to-climb-all-tasmanian-abels/100847606 ABC Radio Hobart / By Georgie Burgess

When champion orienteer and mountain runner Louise Fairfax started "bagging" Abels, she had her late husband Bruce by her side.

She gradually gave up orienteering and returned to her love of bushwalking when Bruce became ill with Parkinson's disease and could no longer problem solve.

This year, Dr Fairfax became the third woman and 20th person to climb all of Tasmania's Abels, which are a group of 158 mountains more than 1,100 metres high with a 150-metre drop on all sides.

The achievement was a journey that started with Bruce, was on hold as she dealt with the grief of losing him, and ended with unexpected companionship.

"I spent a lot of my life orienteering and I adored the sport, and I still do," Dr Fairfax told Mel Bush on ABC Radio Hobart.

"We could no longer do it by 2012 because Bruce's Parkinson's had taken over and he couldn't read a map and run at the same time."

The pair began climbing Abels together, with Dr Fairfax as the navigator and leader.

"Bruce could follow in my wake, he still had motor skills. He'd just lost the ability to plan and to navigate," she said.

"I led us up mountains and thus began our Abel-ing together."

Bagging the first Abel

The pair were not new to bushwalking and mountain climbing and had started walking together after only one month into their almost 50-year relationship.

The first Abel they ticked off as part of their new challenge was Mt Picton in Tasmania's south-west in 2012.

"It was very adventurous, I really didn't know if I could get both of us up there," Dr Fairfax said.

"We were both awfully excited to reach the top and know we'd done something like that all by ourselves, and not just following a track."

Dr Fairfax said walking with Bruce and his Parkinson's was second nature.

"I'd been taking care of him right from the start when I noticed him deteriorating," she said.

She and her daughter Kirsten diagnosed his condition after noticing he was running differently and there was a change in his voice.

"I just got this little epiphany that my husband had Parkinson's and I looked up the signs and symptoms and they ticked all the boxes," she said.

Dr Fairfax took him to a specialist who formally diagnosed him.

"He prescribed for Bruce a million drugs and told him to stay on smooth surfaces with a handrail and no hills," she said.

She wanted Bruce to keep his brain stimulated for as long as possible.

"I was defiant," she said. We went out and I said, "Right, you are having rough surfaces, never a handrail and we are climbing as much as we can."

Providing 'a safety net'

Dr Fairfax became Bruce's full-time carer in about 2013, giving up her work as an academic which involved regularly travelling to a university in Melbourne.

"One of us had to give, he needed a safety net and a person doing everything for him," she said.

"He loved his work dearly and I didn't want him to have to stop working because I was busy."

Mr Fairfax was a much-loved teacher at the Launceston Church Grammar School, and worked up until eight months before his death with the help of Dr Fairfax.

"His students still loved him, even when they were straining their ears to hear him," she said.

She said being a full-time carer wasn't easy, and it wasn't always safe to leave him alone - no matter how tired she was.

"He'd accidentally put all the dirty dishes in the oven and turn it on full or do something else odd and I'd have to race down the stairs."

To help with the loneliness of being a full-time carer, her daughters helped her set up a blog called NatureLoversWalks where she could record all the walks she'd been on and have a world beyond the house.

"I love the mountains and each one deserved a story," she said.

A lost soulmate

Bruce went missing in 2017 while they were out for a walk in a forest near Duck Hole Lake in the state's far south.

He was about 150 metres behind her, and they had smiled and waved at each other as he walked slowly and ate an apple.

In the months before his final walk, he had walked the Walls of Jerusalem in the snow and climbed Meander Falls.

But after this walk, Dr Fairfax never saw her husband again and his body was never recovered.

There was a huge search effort by the State Emergency Service, former students, teachers and members of their various walking and orienteering clubs.

For Dr Fairfax, grief then took over.

"Bruce was my soulmate, he was the only person who has ever known how to read me," she said.

"So that put me pretty much in a slump, I took quite a while to get over that.

"The idea of wanting to complete Abels or do anything much else, all of a sudden seemed so trivial compared to losing your soulmate."

Returning to the Abels

Dr Fairfax slowly started seeing people again and found support from other members of the walking community.

"I just decided it was time to see if I could finish off these Abels," she said.

"I didn't really have anyone to do it with and I set off to do the Southern Ranges by myself.

"I broke my wrist doing that and it wasn't very successful."

A friend got in touch with her and said he also wanted to do the Southern Ranges, which includes Precipitous Bluff.

"It's hard to get people who want to do something horrific like that," she said.

Dr Fairfax and her new Abel companion set off so she could "bag" the final seven.

The first climb was Pindars Peak in the ice.

"I stood at the bottom of an ice cliff, and I said, 'I can't do this'," she said.

Her companion found an alternative route for her.

"I was grabbing bits of grass and really inadequate things to get around this ice cliff," she said.

"I got to the summit in the snow and thought, 'OK, I can still think about doing the rest of the Abels'."

'If you fall, you die'

Dr Fairfax said the last four mountain climbs were full of emotion and celebration.

She completed the fourth last Abel with her daughter Kirsten, which she said was a special walk.

After that, she had to complete Precipitous Bluff and Federation Peak, two extremely challenging walks.

The Bluff involved wading through a lagoon for more than seven kilometres, after two days of walking.

"I did it, and we got there and first I sang and then I cried," she said.

The second last Abel was Federation Peak, which she kept dreaming about in the lead-up.

It was once described by Sir Edmund Hillary as Australia's only true mountain.

"I had all these nightmares and I always died, landing in the lake," she said.

"I never in my wildest dreams expected I could climb it.

"If you make one slip you fall 600 metres through space into Lake Geeves down the bottom.

"If you fall, you die, there's no question about it."

What's next?

Dr Fairfax is an internationally recognised photographer, who is known to lug tripods and big lenses up the mountains with her.

"Photography represents my relationship to nature," she said.

"The Abels were the smorgasbord, I've now tasted everything and now I'll go back for my favourites.

"I want to sleep on top of all my favourites and photograph dawn and dusk from up there.

"If it's high enough and the view is beautiful enough then you might find me up there with my camera."

Georgie Burgess

Georgie is a reporter with ABC Hobart. She began her journalism career at The Examiner and The Advocate and joined the ABC in 2016. She was a political reporter in Tasmania between 2013 and 2018 and is currently ABC Hobart's cross media reporter.