Black Tusk – Trail Running and Climbing, Canada

View of Garibaldi lake.

View of Garibaldi lake, 20 kilometers south of Whistler, BC.


Other than this week, the only time I’ve visited Canada was as a 10 year old boy when my family road-tripped from San Diego county up the entire Pacific coast.  One of the few things I remember about Canada is how excited my Mom was to go to The Butchart Gardens.

My family road tripped to Canada when I was a boy, I'm on the ground on the right.

My family road-tripped to Canada when I was a boy, I’m on the ground on the right.

This week I was in the Olympic city of Whistler, BC on a business trip. The conference had a couple breaks between meetings which allowed some time for sightseeing which I took full advantage of. While searching online I learned about a volcanic rock formation called Black Tusk. Set on top of a 2,319 meter tall mountain (7,608 ft) the formation is visible for miles. On the maps the trail to the base looked worthwhile and the climb to the top would require climbing up a narrow, steep, unstable volcanic rock chimney. I wanted to hit the top.

On Wednesday there was a three hour break between a meeting and dinner so I set out on foot from the hotel for a two hour exploration of the nearby ski slopes. The chairlift was actively shuttling sightseers up the steep mountain slope. I ran uphill weaving beneath the lift and under the canopy of the nearby trees. I was the only one on foot on the mountain and often heard lift passengers wonder about me…”It’s going to be a long trip back for that guy…” one person said.

Ski slopes of Whistler, BC

Ski slopes of Whistler, BC

I wasn’t totally sure if I was even allowed to be on that part of the mountain since there were a lot of people around but nobody was on foot! I played a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with maintenance vehicles switch-backing by; as I heard them coming I would jet into the forest fearing they would direct me back to the village trails.

Whistler,BC5

  Whistler Whistler,BC3

Olympic village and mountains of Whistler, BC in view below.

Olympic village and mountains of Whistler, BC in view below.

After an hour of climbing I paused and enjoyed the view then it was time to return. On my way down I realized that my yellow shirt and green shorts camouflaged me perfectly, I felt connected to the good earth.

My clothes matched the green hills and yellow wildflowers.

My clothes matched the green hills and yellow wildflowers.

Halfway down I descended a steep section of tall slippery grass where the sprinklers were on. I had climbed this stretch earlier without incident but my downhill attempt proved otherwise. My feet slipped out from under me and I took a fall. Other than a couple small cuts on my left hand I was just fine. Then I noticed my left palm became stiff and I realized I was hurt. At best it was a bad sprain and at the time I thought there was a chance I had a hairline fracture.

At first look my hand didn't seem to bad, then it started to hurt.

At first look my hand didn’t seem to bad, then it started to hurt.

I scampered back to the hotel, picking up bandaids in the gift shop along the way. That night I held my hand up against my ice water at the business dinner for some relief. Since I didn’t tell those present about what happened I wonder what they thought about my unusual hand placement. It probably looked like I was “protecting” my water from something.


The next morning I got up early and did some work then had a decent break before the next conference event. My hand was still in pain. I had no grip and was not able to hold my breakfast plate or o.j. glass.

Earlier, Bj’s Canadian friend had suggested I run the trail between Garibaldi Lake and Cheakamus Lake. With my hand injury, climbing Black Tusk was off the table so I headed out for this alternate run – knowing that I would pass by Black Tusk and would at least be able to see the formation up close and in person.

The first several kilometers of the run were fantastic. Dense tall pines with the soundtrack of a roaring river below. The trail feels like a well groomed single-track trail but it is wide enough for two to pass comfortably. The ascent was steep, as the canyon floor quickly became farther and farther away.

Canopy of trees on he trail heading to Black Tusk.

Canopy of trees on the trail heading to Black Tusk.

Upper section of the trail, felt like single-track trail yet wider.

Upper section of the trail, felt like single-track trail yet wider.

Shortly after reaching the top of the climb Black Tusk came in view. I had two hikers take my photo and I snapped my own artistic shot of the formation. The closer I got to Black Tusk the more I knew I would be attempting the summit – bad hand or not. If someone without any rock climbing experience can do it with four appendages I could surely do it with three.

Look close, the Black Tusk formation is above my head.

Look close, the Black Tusk formation is above my head.

Black Tusk reflection pool.

Black Tusk reflection pool.

So as I approached the sign that pointed 3k to the left for Black Tusk or Cheakamus Lake straight ahead, without flinching I turned left.

The approach to the base was spectacular. The emerald green Garibaldi Lake became more and more in view as did snow-capped mountains in the distance. I crossed several streams, all of which I stopped at and nursed my palm in the frigid water.

View of Garibaldi Lake.

View of Garibaldi Lake and creek.

Shortly before the left turn to Black Tusk.

Shortly before the left turn to Black Tusk.

Beautiful Canada mountains along the trail.

Beautiful Canada mountains along the trail.

The final pitch to the base of Black Tusk included ascending a scree field of lava rock pebbles. With each step the ground churned and slid downward, reminding me just how unstable the holds for the coming climb would be. Once I reached the shoulder I again ran into a hiker who snapped my photo.

Getting closer to Black Tusk.

Getting closer to Black Tusk, the scree-field is in view above.

Some stretched neat the top felt like a different planet.

Some stretches near the top felt like a different planet.

On the shoulder of Black Tusk, just after the scree-field.

On the shoulder of Black Tusk, just after the scree-field.

I scrambled and traversed around the left side of the formation until I reached the base of the chimney. There were two guys just starting the climb. I enjoyed the view while I waited my turn.

Look close for the climber that I was about to follow.

Look close for the climber that I was about to follow.

Loose holds? Yes. All of them? No. On the ascent I double-checked each hold. If one wiggled I left it alone even if it protruded out and looked inviting. If this route were granite the technical rating would be 5.1. But with the instability of the holds I would rate it a 5.3 (keep in mind that anything rated 5.0 or higher technically should be climbed with protective ropes). I climbed up slow and steady, carefully placing each foot. About halfway up, as I exited the chimney I had to transition to a scree field on the very top pitch. There is a long drop to the left at this transition point that really gets your attention.

Inside the chimney as I climbed Black Tusk.

Inside the chimney as I climbed Black Tusk.

A few more paces and I reached the top where three guys were having lunch. It was a great view but I was not totally Zen because I knew that down-climbing is always much harder than climbing up. Mainly because you cannot see where to place your feet below. And the old advice of “don’t look down” is really not applicable here!

In 2001 I shattered my left foot while down-climbing on a simple 20 foot man-made retaining wall. At that time I didn’t see a foot hold below but I was confident that when I made the downward move a hold would be there, but one wasn’t and down I went.

I didn’t want to be stuck on top of Black Tusk waiting behind these three so I said hello and then a quick good-bye and started my descent.

Me on top of Black Tusk! Garibaldi lake in the background.

Me on top of Black Tusk! Garibaldi lake in the background.

My shoe, to give perspective of the view from near the top of Black Tusk.

My shoe, to give perspective of the view from near the top of Black Tusk.

I transitioned from the upper scree field back into the chimney and turned around to face the “rock.” My experience was again confirmed that down-climbing is far more difficult than climbing up. With only one good hand, added to the challenge of this descent as I could not test some of the foot holds below; I had to visually inspect them and then go for it. I really had to commit. My heart was racing and I had to remind myself to breathe at each long down-step as I clung to the black rock.

As I passed below the crux move and was about 20 feet from the bottom I was relieved and actually said to myself, “this is a reasonable distance to fall, looks like you made it.”

I foot-skied down the scree field, crossed the streams, and ran the gorgeous trails back down the mountain to the car. Time to get back to work.

Whistler for an actual vacation some day? Yes, absolutely. After three weeks of ice and rest my hand is now mostly recovered.

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