100 Peaks #21: Tusk O’ Granite and as Many Mountaineering Cliches as Possible

We started down the narrow, winding path nearly a mile from Interstate 90. Our third party member was out, victim of having gone to a bachelor party the day before. Another unexpected setback befell us when the coffee shop was more expensive than I expected. I didn’t buy any pastries for the hike, so I only had two slices of bread and some mozzarella cheese.

What could bring us to such a remote place with so little in the way of supplies and rations? It was an appealing objective, two peaks in one day: the classic Granite, and the not-often-climbed Tusk O’ Granite. Eva had walked past Granite many times, missing the sign and taking a wrong turn. I’d been to the top of Granite before, but with such poor visibility that I didn’t pursue the second peak. Not this time. This time was different. Eva brought peanut butter pretzels; we didn’t miss the sign at the turnoff.

We were all alone out there in the wilderness, not a single family with children and not too many tracks. It was all well and good for a while, with the snow remaining stable even in the avalanche chutes, even though eventually we were breaking trail in fresh snow. Maybe everyone before us had turned back, but not us. We pressed on, despite the underwhelming views in the fog. Some tricky sections where the snow had melted required me to use my hands and ice axe to scale some small wet rocks. “It’s just drytool bouldering,” Eva assured me from above. “You got this.” It was no small comfort to have a pioneer of the sport of alpine bouldering to guide me.

After facing two of my personal weaknesses, bouldering and drytooling with a shitty ice axe, we reached the top of Granite. Wild 15 mph winds threatened to blow away the corner of my cheese wrapper. We sat on our jackets behind a rock and took a welcome snack break. Despite the whiteout conditions, the visibility was good enough to see the abandoned fire lookout. Since we hadn’t seen much steep terrain so far and Caltopo had shown little ahead, we carried on to the Tusk in good hopes.

We took turns breaking trail in the deep snow, moving much slower than we would have liked. The terrain went from fine, to a little avalanchey, to pretty steep and also right below a giant cornice, in rapidly melting snow. We were concerned about making it, but we were traveling light and couldn’t reasonably bivy and wait for favorable conditions. I tried to go up, but it was too technical. Down was just asking for trouble. We found a forested spot and stopped to reconsider. Realistically, we had spent so long hoping it would be better around the next corner that it was now not exactly desirable to go back. We decided to try descending to the lake and going back around it to meet our trail.

We walked down the hill to meet… a smallish but threatening cliff that wasn’t obvious on the topo map but which totally impeded our ability to get to the lake. We went back up and continued traversing the ridge toward the Tusk to look for another access point. It was all guessing, since there was basically zero visibility at this point. No luck, we kept getting cliffed out until we were at the base of the Tusk. Looked like the only way back down was up. This part looked safer, an obvious line up a beautiful, gentle and treed ridge. We completed the grueling 500ft ascent in thigh-deep snow. I wasn’t always confident in my ability to make it to the top, but when we did, the stunning view of three trees, a rock, and a bunch of fog was worth it. We began our descent in better spirits, past the mental crux and most of the danger.

But not all. Soon, we came to very sloppy snow that we slid down joyfully on our feet. But lurking below could be any number of random holes. Eventually, near the Pratt Lake Trail that we planned to take back, we saw the silhouette of another human, shrouded in the mist. Civilization! We approached two snowshoers in hammocks, who said, “where did you come from? The top?!?” We nodded solemnly, and chatted a bit with our new fans before descending the rest of the way to the forested trail. We talked about birds, evolution, and future plans, and sighed with relief when we reached the car. We had plenty of time to stop for pho before her movie date, and to revel in the satisfaction of having conquered this worthy objective despite the decidedly alpine conditions. We are grateful to our sponsor, American Apparel’s new performance line of cotton leggings, for making this adventure possible.

Note: While this is tongue-in-cheek, we did truly encounter somewhat worse avalanche conditions than we anticipated and more steep terrain. Check the NWAC website, take a class, and practice conservative decision-making, even on roadside day hikes.

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