The Grouse Grind

I may have mentioned this once or twice, but Vancouver locals are a little on the insane side when it comes to sports. Whether it’s doing the Tough Mudder – a 20km obstacle course with such fun challenges as electric shocks and tear gas – or cycling 200km from Whistler to Vancouver, or partaking in one of the weekly marathons that the city hosts, Vancouverites seem to spend most of their free time trying to find their limits, and then waving cheerfully to them as they blow right on past.

And nowhere is this better evidenced than on something called “The Grouse Grind”.

Grouse mountain is one of three mountains on the north shore of Vancouver. The Three Sisters, as they’re known, provide endless hours of playtime for the locals. In winter, we spend our evenings, weekends (and the occasional sick day) downhill skiing and snowboarding, cross-country skiing, or snow shoeing. In summer, we head to the mountains to hike and mountain bike, while the top of Grouse mountain is also host to kinda-cheesy-but-also-really-fun tourist activities that out-of-towners flock to, with lumberjack shows, bird of prey displays, and two resident grizzly bears.

There’s no public vehicle access to the top of Grouse mountain, so most people take the skychair, a 6 minute gondola ride to the top of the mountain.

That’s most people.

If, however, you like your exercise with a side of crazy, you can join the locals and do something called the Grouse Grind.

The Grind is a pleasant three kilometre hike that climbs the one kilometre vertical height of the mountain. It is known (quite rightly) as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”. It is three kilometres and almost three thousand steps of seemingly never-ending up. 

If you’ve ever wanted to know what it’s like to walk to the top of the One World Trade Centre  – twice – then this is the hike for you.

Doing it is a ridiculously popular past time here in Vancouver.

I managed to avoid it for the first three years I lived in Canada. The stairmaster had never been my favourite exercise, so I didn’t really see why I would trek up the side of a mountain when there’s a perfectly good gondola.

Then, I somehow ended up agreeing to climb a mountain in Alaska in July, something that will probably require a staggering amount of fitness. Since the last eight months of my life have consisted of sitting in a dark theatre watching dailies and snacking on candy from the reception desk, I needed a way to get in shape, fast.

Hello, Grouse Grind.

At the start of the climb, I passed a timing station. If you’re that kind of person (and most people in Vancouver are), you can buy a card containing a radio frequency chip which will time and log your climb. And because Vancouverites are not only annoyingly fit, but also annoyingly vocal about their annoying fitness, these times are then auto-published to the Leaderboard on the internet.

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The timer at the start of the trail. Nope.

 

On the day I went to hike the grind, the fastest time was 32 minutes, with most people clocking in around an hour. Some people had done it four times that day.

Yeah, I decided not to time my hike.

I started off feeling positive. After all, I’d done plenty of hiking, how hard could this be?

Mmm. That optimism didn’t last long, as the toll from trying to hike up 233 flights of stairs quickly became felt.

I started passing little signs stuck to the trees. They appeared every hundred meters or so, and seemed to be counting down the distance.

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I thought the “GG” stood for “Good Going”.

It does not.

It stands for “Grouse Grind”.

I am not a smart woman at times.

It wasn’t long before a group passed me on the trail. They were all decked out in proper hiking gear, with no bags, just water bottles tucked into a pouch at the back of their waist. They were obviously dedicated “grinders”; I didn’t feel too bad about them passing me.

Next to pass me was a group of university students chatting about school. I was impressed that they could both hike and carry on a conversation at the same time. I was having trouble just hiking and breathing.

Then a woman ran past me while carrying on a business conversation on her mobile phone. She didn’t even sound out of breath.

Being a considerate hiker, I pulled off the trail to let her pass (and take the opportunity to apologise to my heart and lungs). As I was doing that, another runner passed by – a guy in his late thirties carrying a toddler on his back.

Fine, Vancouver. I get it. Everyone is fitter than me. Stupid city with stupid fit people.

The Grouse Grind

The Grind: 2830 steps of up

 

Eventually I hit the quarter way mark. Yay. Perfect spot to sit down and not-die for a few minutes.

Unfortunately,  Grouse Mountain had other ideas.

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Mosquitos – Grouse Grind’s natural incentive to keep moving

 

Sigh. I struggled to my feet and pressed on upwards. By now, I was being passed by every other person on the trail, from four year olds, to sixty year olds. It was not at all demoralising.

A few years ago, Outside magazine listed The Grouse Grind as one of the ten most dangerous hikes in the world – a listing that caused a fair amount of derision here in Vancouver, with many locals pointing out that kids do it, as well as people in flip-flops and high heels. Although I think that says more about Vancouverites than it does the trail.

Still, the hike has claimed lives; there was an avalanche on the trail in ’99 that killed a man, and since then, there have been several deaths from heart attacks on the trail, but with over 3,000 doing it every day in summer, those statistics seem pretty small.

Hoping I wouldn’t add to the list of fatalities, I continued upwards, slowly putting one foot after another. Not that I had a choice – the Grind is one-way only, no down-hiking allowed.

Eventually I reached the halfway mark, a moment I decided to celebrate by trying to vomit up my lungs.

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This would be a very encouraging sign if it didn’t mean I still had half the trail to go

 

 

Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one feeling the strain. Around me, my fellow hikers now wore looks of grim determination, with many of them bent over double as they slogged their way uphill. There was no talking anymore; the only sounds on the trail were the tramp of our feet, and the rasping of our breath.

You know how most hikes have little plateaus where the trail levels out and you can catch your breath for a beat? Yeah, the Grind doesn’t believe in them. It’s just all up.

 

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A sign at the end of the trail. The signs were put up by Lululemon, a Vancouver-based exercise clothing store. The CEO likes to hold business meetings while doing the Grind. Because that’s normal.

 

Then it happened. I began to see light through the trees. This meant one of two things: either I was near the end of the grind, or I had collapsed from a heart attack and was going to the afterlife.

At this point, it was 50-50 either way.

On the off-chance I was still alive, I pushed forward, trying to dredge up one or two final molecules of energy to get to the top. Finally! I burst through the thick tree growth and out into the open mountain top of Grouse Mountain.

Hallelujah, I had actually made it.

Cruelly, the Grind timer sits a good fifty meters away from the end of the hike, meaning that those timing their climb have to walk the extra distance to have their hike recorded. Fortunately, since I wasn’t doing that, I decided to just collapse on the ground and gasp for breath.

Eventually I made my way up to the chalet where a bar, a grind-themed sporting goods store, and the gondola back down to Vancouver awaited.

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This is the point where I’m supposed to tell you all about the pride and sense of achievement I felt. Yeah, I mostly just felt exhausted. And sweaty.

But… I could see why the grind is so popular. It’s an extreme work out, and incredibly accessible. It’s the sort of exercise you could do once a week and get in pretty good shape. Besides, why go to the gym when there’s a free stairmaster on your doorstep?*

So, because everyone in Vancouver is so proud of their GG stats, here are some to take away with you:

The record for the fastest climb is 25 minutes for men, and 30:52 minutes for women. The record number of climbs in a single day is sixteen, or 45,280 steps. Overall, the most grinds ever done by the same person is 2668 climbs – although, by the time you read this, that number will probably have increased.

In the end, my time wasn’t too bad. The average time to hike the grind is an hour and thirty minutes. I snuck in under that at an hour and twenty. Hopefully, I can get that down to an hour before I head to Alaska in a few weeks.

And then never do it again.

 

*Although, the gym doesn’t have mosquitoes, so that is kind of a bonus.

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3 comments so far

  1. mark wendell on

    I hate to be pedantic, but you have an egregious spelling error in the third paragraph.

    Where you wrote “In summer, we head to the mountains to hike and mountain bike…”, it clearly should have read “In summer, we head to the mountains to hike and mountain unicycle…”

  2. vikram on

    Too much hype about nothing..

  3. wlkthwrld on

    Congratulations on completing the hike! I just published an article about my experience on this trail, so I really enjoyed reading yours. Definitely a good workout 🙂


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