Explore BC: A Snowy Trek Up Black Tusk
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road and if you don't keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to." -- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
When my group and I began planning our journey to the Black Tusk in Squamish, we really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. Through sheer luck, we managed to have one of the most incredible experiences within the backyard of our gorgeous province. More specifically, after hiking a total of 29 km and 11 hours to get up and down from the Black Tusk (height: 2300 m), I can truly say that I have witnessed British Columbia in all of its wintery beauty.
We started the day before the break of dawn at 4 am which, thanks to Daylights Savings Time, previously had been 3 am. The night before, we had prepared ourselves by packing plenty of food supplies, trying on our crampons, and watching a harrowing mountaineering docudrama called Touching the Void. If any of you plan to do a winter hike in the snow or go mountaineering any time soon, avoid watching this movie at all costs. As it was, the entire journey was interlaced with our half-joking comments about falling into this and that crevasse or severely injuring ourselves on the way down.
After our poor driver navigated the treacherous Sea to Sky highway in the dark, we arrived at the trailhead located in Garibaldi Provincial Park by 7 am. The first 6 km of this journey follow the same path as the trail to Garibaldi Lake; however, our ambitious and slightly foolhardy plans would take us much further and higher up than the glacier lake.
Upon the completion of the first portion of monotonous switchbacks, we finally made it to the trail marker that would show us the way to Taylor Meadows and the Black Tusk Junction. From here on, we began slipping and sliding over icy sections of the trail that signalled our ascent into higher elevations and colder climes.
Another 2 km later, we would find ourselves entering into Taylor Meadows, which was a veritable winter wonderland of tranquil sunlight and peaceful stillness. We also chanced upon the only two other individuals who would be climbing the Black Tusk that day, a very friendly and experienced couple who actually cross-country skied up to the top of the mountain and then skied to their hearts' content all the way down the alpine slopes. Thanks for their encouraging but necessary advice, we were able to avoid causing any avalanches or plunging through some ice to our deaths.
The empty Black Tusk Ranger station.
Tia enjoying a quick break while checking out the glacier water.
One of my favourite memories from this trip, other than the slightly terrifying experience of sitting on the chilly ridge right beside the summit of the Black Tusk, was hiking through the meadow through over a metre of snow while singing random Christmas songs, like Walking in the a Winter Wonderland or Frosty the Snowman.
Once we began a more serious ascent up the slopes of the mountain, we took a break to put on our crampons and refuel with various snacks. Of course, the view was spectacular.
One useful thing I did glean from watching Touching the Void was that one should make definite and realistic goals when physically exerting your body to its maximum (Joe Simpson had to force his battered body and broken leg over an extraordinary distance in order to survive). When we were hiking up almost vertical slopes, our legs and lungs were burning to seemingly unbearable extents.
While our group was fit enough to accomplish this task, lack of sleep definitely contributed to a lessened motivation to push ourselves the very edge of our physical ability. However, we found that concentrating on shorter distances and setting visible goals was easier than thinking of the enormous ground we still had to cover. For example, I would say, "Let's make it over there to that clump of trees and then take a mini-break." Breaking down the distance was exactly what we needed to keep motivated and positive.
Panorama Ridge and the frozen Garibaldi Lake. When Tia and I hike the Black Tusk again in the summertime, it will be very interesting to view this landscape once again without the snow.
Slowly gaining ground towards reaching the Black Tusk.
Even though we set off before this couple, they managed to catch up and even overtake us at the very end! Not only did the guy (we later found out that his name is Cyrus) beat all of us to look at the chimney of the Black Tusk, he skied up and down the trail to the Black Tusk twice so that he could enjoy the beautiful snow as much as possible. On hindsight, we realized that he and his partner had probably done this in order to keep an eye on us inexperienced hikers, especially since we didn't have any transmitters with which we could reach help in case of emergency.
He also tried to teach us how to spot slopes that were potential hazards for avalanches and informed us that we were lucky to be hiking this trail since usually winter snows would make it impassable. While we had no knowledge of this beforehand, the combination of warm weather and sunshine had made the winter trail conditions perfect for the first time in about thirty years.
Apparently somewhere around those mountains lies Whistler (I wasn't able to catch every detail from our knowledgeable friend).
Our friend Pedro in his usual hipster pose-- lying like a sunning turtle on his back.
These shots were taken from the rocky ridge right beside the Black Tusk summit. Unfortunately, it was too dangerous to actually climb to the actual summit with the ice and snow; however, we did feel precarious enough sitting on a thin ridge of volcanic rock that featured a spectacular drop right behind us.
While the windchill was very noticeable, we found that it was more bearable than our two hours waiting at the top of the first peak of the Chief for the sunrise, which soon will be described in a future post. Also, this time we all made sure to dress much more warmly with thicker jackets, gloves, toques, and several layers of pants. I would also recommend wearing sunscreen and sunglasses when spending any time in the snow as the glare from the snow and the reflected UV rays can be twice as harmful.
Our skier friend enjoying himself on the pristine slopes.
Here ends my photographic record of the trip-- with a stunning shot of Pedro and Hannes on the ridge right beside the Black Tusk. However, the descent down the mountain (another 14 km) was quite a story to tell. First off, my knee began to hurt quite intensely as soon as I started going down the ridge. Luckily the soft snow in later sections cushioned the impact of walking for my knee and I was even able to 'toboggan' down some sections of the slopes on a plastic bag. The next 8 km after the soft snow are now a vague nightmare of endless icy paths and muddy trails down to the parking lot. While I was unfortunately hobbling in pain by the end, I still don't regret going on this spectacular journey.
After we had safely packed into the car, Tia, our wonderful driver, then drove us another hour to a White Spot in downtown Vancouver. There, we ate delicious burgers and bottomless fries with absolutely no guilt. It was a great way to end such an intense day of adventure and wind down by discussing our favourite parts of the trip.
Although I'm glad to be home safe and sound, I'll be dreaming of those pristine slopes and majestic mountains for a long time to come. I can't wait for my next adventure!