“It’s known as the workout from hell – but loved for its heavenly reward” The Globe and Mail July 24, 2009.
During my summer vacation it struck me that I would turn 50 on my next birthday. When I say ‘struck’ I mean just that. It really hit me. I also realized that since I left Toronto I had spent very little time hiking or doing the physical things I used to enjoy regularly. I needed to find a challenging objective that would motivate me to add physical activity into my week. Since I live in the most beautiful corner of North America I started to look around for something local and compelling. I found it in the Grouse Grind.
The Grouse Grind is a steep trail running through pacific rainforest on Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, British Columbia. Here is Wikipedia’s description of the Grouse Grind: “It is an extremely steep and mountainous trail that climbs 853 m (2,799 ft) over a distance of 2.9 km (2 mi), with an average grade of 30 degrees. The trail, nicknamed “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”, is notoriously gruelling due to its steepness and mountainous terrain”. Despite the challenging nature of the trail it attracts 100,000 hikers each year – and a number of local people do it often.
In preparation I started climbing the stairs in my high rise that very day. Someone told me that going up the stairs would be good for me but going down would be too hard on the knees so up I went as far as I could – which turned out to be only 6 flights – whereupon I exited the stairwell and made my way to the elevator. The elevator doors opened to reveal several people on their way down. That’s when I realized I had not fully thought out my plan. I was not only standing in the hallway wearing shorts and looking like I had just completed a marathon, I was – may as well say it – panting noisily. I found this a bit embarrassing and nearly passed out on the ride down to the lobby from trying not to breathe hard. I soon figured out that walking down the stairs was a great way to bring my heart rate down, slow my breathing to normal, and stop my neighbors from looking at me with worried faces. It took quite a few weeks but I finally worked my way to the top of the building – 15 full flights – and I maintained that routine several times a week over the last year.
On my chosen day for the climb I opened my eyes at 5:22 a.m. and was instantly excited to be awake. It was a cool 50 degrees F / 10 Celsius and no sign of rain. Being a wimp the no rain thing was a big deal for me. I dressed quickly and got into my car for the drive to North Vancouver. Once off the highway I was on meandering roads with beautiful homes, mature landscaping and glimpses of rainforest that only Vancouver can provide.
At the entrance to the trail was a big yellow sign warning that the trail can be treacherous and not to start unless you are physically fit and prepared to finish. There were already 30 cars in the parking lot and about a dozen people stretching. All encouraging signs. I was taking this on by myself but didn’t want to be totally alone on the trail.
The entrance is quite beautiful. Lush ferns, immense trees that seem to rise into the sky for miles, and stairs made of natural materials. The stairs soon gave way to a steeper, trickier path which I was excited to be on. I was very surprised at how often I needed to stop and rest. It became evident to me that although I had made an excellent choice in footwear (hiking boots) the decision to wear jeans was not a good one. Looking around me – or rather, in front of me as everyone seemed to be taking the trail faster than I was – I was the only person wearing pants. I saw all manner of shorts but no pants. After a number of pushes up the hill I finally came to a sign announcing the one-quarter mark. This was really quite startling as it feels like it should be at least halfway. I heard many other hikers express the same sentiment. The sign reads: The remainder of the trail is extremely steep and difficult. Proceed at your own risk.
This is where I began to enjoy my hiking comrades. In contrast to the first quarter where I was the only noob in need of rest, somewhere during the second quarter I finally began meeting others who needed to stop from time to time. Mind you, I didn’t get to know any of them very well as we were only together long enough for them to stop for 60 seconds, share a few words and then they passed me, never to be seen again. Although brief, I did enjoy these exchanges — except for Gazelle Woman who must have been trying to break her own best time. She yelled at me “Lady that is not a good place to stand on the trail”. I wanted to reply back to her that I was not standing, I was just moving very very slowly but I didn’t have enough breath at that moment to speak so I just scooted over as best I could without toppling over into the ravine to let her leap past me.
At the halfway mark I really began enjoying myself. I had learned how to pace myself and even figured out which people were the best ones to follow. When I got behind experienced Grinders I learned tricks about choosing the next foothold. It can mean the difference between moderately difficult climbing and having to scale a 30” gap. I also learned why real Grinders carry nice round water bottles and not juice boxes. It doesn’t matter what kind of backpack or fanny pack you choose, those juice boxes have mean little square corners that will poke you in the rudest ways when you are stretching out to reach that next boulder.
Around the three-quarter mark everyone was breathing hard and pushing for the finish. Finally! They all sounded as challenged as I was feeling. It made me feel a little less conspicuous. I took some time out for gratitude and was truly thankful to have this opportunity. I had even begun to laugh at the words of that twenty-something girl who said after observing me struggling to catch my breath: “Gee I hope when I’m your age I can still do the Grind”. I was happy for the elderly gentleman - bent over and apparently in his seventies – stumbling his way up the trail. Though he was breathing so loudly we heard him coming for at least 5 minutes he had passed by and was now nowhere in sight.
The rainforest is dark and on this day we were walking in cloud mist since about the 1,800 foot mark. You know you’re near the top when sun rays begin to poke through the tree tops. Emerging from the Grind is absolutely fantastic. There’s a comraderie as you sit on the hard granite smiling at all the others knowing you just shared something cool.
They say completing the Grouse Grind is the equivalent of walking up Toronto’s CN tower twice. Yeah, right. If the steps of the CN tower were made of rough boulders interspersed with gnarly tree roots and slick moss.
Some of you asked how I got back down the mountain. Here is a picture of the gondola…