The Grouse Grind lies outside any conventional notion of walking. This is no promenade. Want to commune with nature? Find another trail.
This is sheer exercise, a cocktail of pure adrenaline spiked with a shot of danger.
The Grind rises from the residential edge of North Vancouver and steadily, steeply rises up the slope of Grouse Mountain to its end point at the ski lodge near the crest of the mountain. In distance, it is a mere 2.9 kilometres. But it climbs 853 metres over 2,830 steps at an average grade of 30º. It was designed to be a physical challenge. Mission accomplished.
My ascent begins at 9:00 on a sunny November morning. I had already walked the gentle but continuous uphill from my sister’s house in North Vancouver to the base of the Grouse Mountain gondola and the start of the Grouse Grind. Already slick with sweat, I undress down to my T-shirt. It is clear nothing more will be tolerable as I continue up the slope.
The Grouse Grind website warned that, although the average time to complete the Grind was 1.5 hours, newbies should count on two. I am that novice. Loaded with a pack of unneeded outerwear and carrying a heavy camera. No doubt a sorry picture to the addicted grinders looking askance as they pass. If only they knew I was a prairie dweller used to fast but flat walking.
The trail starts at an ominous chain link gateway. A large yellow sign warns of the hike’s dangers; essentially, if I pursue this ridiculous adventure, it’s all on me. The City assumes no liability for my foolishness. Knowing that I am imprudent, the garish yellow sign appears again just a few metres further along the trail, mounted incongruously among the tall conifers.
The trail begins with a moderate climb. At this point, the trail seems doable. In fact, I am passing others! Have I not climbed difficult slopes in Ireland? Or steep trails in Japan on my way to mountaintop shrines? I can do this!
But the trail steepens soon enough and, by the one-quarter point, I am taking deep breaths. My pace has slowed considerably. By the halfway point, my legs are giving out. Hikers I had gleefully passed down below are now passing me, not losing their stride, not gulping for air.
As I sit here at the halfway marker, sipping water, trying to recover, I am thankfully unaware that, in 2013, a 50 year-old hiker had died of a suspected heart attack. Right here, at the halfway point.
This unfortunate fact would only be discovered in my post-Grind research. Nor did I realize that Grouse Grind was rated one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the world by Outside Magazine in 2013. As of that date, three people had died on the slope – two of heart attacks and one by avalanche – and 80 others required rescue.
It is a mentally long and physically draining stretch up to the three-quarter marker. My thighs seem to have lost all strength. Their rubbery consistency lead to hazardous missteps as I climb the rocks and steps that lie between me and the conclusion of this death crawl. I need to stop and regroup every few metres. A continuous stream of hikers are passing me. Mostly youngsters with lithe bodies, minimally clad in tights and tee-shirts. By this point, even their conversation has ended. There are only deep breathes to be heard.
The three-quarter point, it turns out, marks yet another fatality. In 2015, a 55 year-old hiker died of a heart attack near this very location. And, just a few months ago, another Grinder was felled by a heart attack somewhere along the trail.
Strangely, the last quarter of the Grind passes quickly. Soon the welcome sight of a ski lodge appears through the rocks and trees.
I have done it! It took one hour, 35 minutes to complete. Not bad, I’m thinking, for a 64 year-old prairie boy. My GPS tracker tells me my average speed was two kilometres per hour, which seems faster than it felt during the climb, but much slower than the five to six kilometres per hour I maintain on the flats.
This is a trail about numbers. How fast you can do it. How many times you have done it. I am far from the 25 minute record holder. Nor can I claim 900-plus climbs. I am happy with one. Pleased with my modest time.
My Grouse Grind experience ends with a coffee overlooking the city far below. My legs recover quickly and I feel like doing another walk. So it’s down by gondola to my starting point. From here it is delightfully downhill walk to Cleveland Dam. The Capilano Pacific Trail leads south through cedar and fir forests as it parallels the deep gorge of the Capilano River. Gentle ups and downs lead to new vistas, occasions to observe and reflect. Opportunities to explore.
It’s 15 kilometres to the endpoint at Vancouver Harbour. Longer than the Grind. But closer to my idea of a fulfilling walk.