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#GetOutside: The Black Tusk

I'm intending for #GetOutside to be a recurring series of posts about my ventures into the wilderness. Black Tusk, in BC's Garibaldi Provincial Park, is this week's feature.

I'd wanted to climb the Black Tusk from the moment I saw it. It's the last remnant of an extinct volcano that towers above the highway between Vancouver and Whistler, a narrow, jagged finger of lava rock jutting out among snow-capped peaks, lonely and foreboding.

One of my best childhood buddies, Jason, had never been to BC and was looking for a change of pace from his usual portaging trips in Ontario's Algonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks. He and his portaging companion, Stan, a fellow army reservist and talented filmmaker, made plans to come out to my neck of the woods in the fall of 2015, and we agreed to try and tackle the Tusk.

It's possible to climb the Tusk in a day, but as the trail is a 29km round trip with a 1740m elevation gain, we opted to camp out at Garibaldi Lake on day one, about midway between the trailhead and the peak. It's a popular campground, and with good reason; Garibaldi is absolutely stunning.

The first day of hiking was comprised mainly of switchbacks--six kilometres worth, on a wide, well-maintained and somewhat boring trail. The last three kilometres to Garibaldi were more interesting, though; the land levels off a little bit, and winds past myriad streams and glacial lakes. It was a beautiful day, though Garibaldi's altitude at 1450m above sea level meant it got chilly fast, whenever we stopped moving.

We found a campsite and in reluctant accordance with Garibaldi Park's year-round no campfire policy, we cooked steaks over our campstoves. Then we drank beer by the lake before I turned in early, because I'm always turning in early on these trips, but not before I put on every article of clothing I'd brought, toque and gloves included, and snuggled deep into my sleeping bag to ward off the bitter overnight cold.

The next day we were up and on the go early under beautiful skies, climbing out of the forest on a narrow, empty trail into the subalpine. We could see the lake spread out below us as we hiked, a beautiful aquamarine jewel amid endless rugged peaks. And soon, we could see the Tusk itself.

It was a daunting sight to behold from up close. Nearly all vegetation disappears near the Tusk; it's all broken lava rock, and scree, as otherworldly as the surface of Mars.

We knew we had to hike to the base of the Tusk itself, then find and ascend a steep, thirty-metre chimney of crumbling volcanic rock, before making the final push to the summit.

Did I mention that Jay's afraid of heights?

We found the chimney with minimal difficulty. Stopped to gather our wits and combine gear (and don helmets) and then, slow and steady, we began our climb.

It was a little unnerving. I'd watched YouTube videos of the chimney before we set out, but they didn't really capture the sense of vertigo you'd get if you happened to look down to the narrow, sloping ledge where we'd paused, or the steepness of the grade and the way the volcanic rock had the unsettling habit of loosening in your hand just as you were about to put your weight on it.

Also, the weather had turned; flakes of snow were falling and heavy cloud cover was rolling in.

I was glad I'd brought a helmet.

After the chimney comes a narrow chasm through high volcanic walls, terminating in a sudden sheer drop into oblivion. The goal is to avoid the drop, obviously, but climbing further requires scaling one of the walls and then leaping across the chasm to the other side.

From there, it's a pretty easy, if exposed, scramble on rock to the summit. We stopped for energy bars and water about halfway up before making the final push, where a little rock cairn marked the spot, and heavy cloud cover meant we had to take it on faith that the view would have been stunning.

We chilled up there for a bit, but not too long; the weather was getting worse, and the boys hadn't been impressed by the fire ban; we planned to head down to base camp, grab our tents and the rest of our gear and make it down to my vehicle by dark.

I'd promised them a campfire that night, and a bath in some hot springs to boot, but that's a story for another time.

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