Black Tusk or bust

Mountain landscape

The view from the peak of Black Tusk. (Photo by Claudia Garzitto)

I’ve been hiking for hours, and yet it’s not exhaustion that takes my breath away. My fingertips turn white under the pressure of my grip, clasping the ashy rock face even as it crumbles under them. With nails ragged from scrabbling at the stone, I drag myself up a few inches. A tap from below on one of my heavy hiking boots signals a sure foothold to the left. The wind has started to whip up ahead, beyond the crevice we’re currently free-climbing inside, loud and thick as a giant birds’ wings.

My muscles are seizing, and my face turned toward the mountain, desperate tears choking me. Voices from below spur me on. “You’re close!” “It’s worth it!” Chest quaking, I drag myself over the edge of the rocky outcropping, scraping my knees on the loose rubble and bruising my arms.

In the throes of an anxiety attack, I can’t look up from the rock for a moment. But when I do pull away, I’m not the only silent one. Everyone clambers over the edge and stops, stunned for a moment. Looking out over the tops of ancient mountains, above the cloud line, with entire ranges laid out in front of you, nobody can help but to be overcome by their achievement.

Mount Garibaldi is known to locals and tourists alike for its world-class hiking, camping and rock climbing, as well as the stunning alpine views that Canada’s mountainous coast boasts. From the Singing Pass trailhead entering from Whistler Mountain, to the 16km-long hike to Cheakamus Lake, the climb still seen as the most impressive among the mountaineers is the trek up to the Black Tusk.

Mountain ridge

The steep climb. (Photo by Claudia Garzitto)

It’s an impressive sight, visible from the Sea to Sky highway: A tall, black precipice rising into the sky. It stands out starkly against the drowsy blue colour of the mountains surrounding it. A million-year-old stratovolcano — steep, periodically eruptive volcanoes, like Krakatoa or Vesuvius — the 2,319 metre peak is believed to have once been much taller. After years of glacial erosion, the top of the mountain was worn down to the hardened, lava core. The outstanding summit is made up of lava, ash, pumice and tephra, giving it that iconic dark colour and ashen texture. It would have been a conduit for the molten lava at one time, which gives it a deep crater on the side, a feature many compare to a chimney. It is up this crevice that you must free-climb to the true summit, with a dangerous drop on both sides of the loose, crumbling lava.

First climbed in 1912, by a Mr. William J Grey and company, the mountain is now party to a number of adventurers, like Zachary, 26, who lives nearby and makes the ascent multiple times a year, camping at the glacial lakeside. “That’s where you can catch the best fish. Huge ones, trout or something. My brother and I caught our limit in the first day.”

The daunting climb has attracted world-wide attention as well, drawing admirers from around the globe, like Slovakian father-daughter duo Manca and Stefan, ages 24 and 46, who made the ascent alongside us, also for the first time. “We saw pictures on the internet, of the views. We had to see it, we are here, and we had to.”

As well as social media attention, the fame of the Black Tusk peak has attracted an internet presence in websites such as TrueNorth Geospatial. Squamish-local Michael Coyle developed the technology to create accurate and consistently updated, online 3D models of mountains and their backcountry trails. True to Canadian spirit, we not only want to share the natural splendour of our country but we also strive to make it as safe as we can.

The idea that this natural wonder inspires us to be more peaceful and coexistent is not a new one. As indigenous history goes, the Garibaldi Mountain range was disputed land between the Squamish and Lil’wat people. When the two nations would not settle their differences, the Thunderbird flew down to intervene, causing a landslide and lightning to scorch the mountainside black.

The Bishop’s Mitre. (Photo by Taesa Hodel)

The Thunderbird is a symbol of power, strength and nobility throughout indigenous mythology, a special messenger to the gods, a supernatural bird with wings twice as long as war canoes, that conceal snakes it throws to create lightning. It lives atop the Black Tusk and doesn’t appreciate visitors — if people approach, it is said that the Thunderbird will send down thunder and landslides. While climbing the spire, rock breaking under your steps and chunks falling around you, it feels unwelcoming.

And yet, people continue to hike up, nine arduous kilometres to Garibaldi Lake and campsites, then another four kilometres, steeply uphill, to the top. The rubble-like rock is so difficult to walk on ‐ constantly crumbling and sliding back — that the hunched form with which hikers clamber up has been named the “exposed rock scramble.”

Even this method, and all the preparation we have to offer, cannot get us to some heights, though. On the north side of the Tusk, connected via a precipitous ridge with a 10-metre drop, there’s a thin and isolated formation. It is called the Bishops Mire, for its wavy edges, similar to the shape of the Pope’s cap. Rumour has it that this edge has never been climbed.

Maybe it’s the fear and exhilaration that stops well-prepared hikers in their tracks at the top of the Black Tusk. It’s geography and history alone is astounding. Perhaps it’s the attention we give it, taking photos and posting about it online. When you turn around, after a difficult free-climb, you can see entire mountain ranges still beneath you, rising up above the cloud line, while above it all, alone on a precipice in the sky.

“Are you doing okay?”

I turned away from the view and watched as Manca walked farther up the summit behind me. “Yeah, but I’ll just stay here a moment.” Everyone is taking photos, gazing around. It’s this sharing of the experience, as well as the stunning sights, that’s the real spirit of Canadiana. It’s difficult, but it’s worth sharing. And doing.

Mountain meadow

The alpine meadows and Black Tusk summit of Mt. Garibaldi. (Photo by Taesa Hodel)

Be first to comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.