The Grouse Grind: Climbing Mother Nature’s Stairmaster
Now that the sun has finally hit the West Coast of British Columbia I’ve been making more of an effort to do all the things I read about in the guidebooks. Swimming at Kitsilano Outdoor Pool, jogging round the seawall and drinks at Granville Island have all been great fun to tick off the list, however my latest adventure was a little less relaxing. The Grouse Grind is a 2.9 kilometre hike up the side of Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, is open from May to November, and is the alternative to taking the four minute gondola ride up from the mountain base. ‘Up’ being the operative word. The trail consists solely of steps and rocks, and is a relentless climb with an elevation of 2,800 feet. Despite this, Grouse Mountain estimate that over 100,000 people a year complete the hike. The average time to get to the top is up to 90 minutes, though the current course record is 25:01. No pressure then.
As well as being one of those things you just have to do whilst in Vancouver, the Grouse Grind is a fantastic workout. With over 2,830 steps, they don’t call it ‘Mother Nature’s Stairmaster’ for nothing. This is why I decided to tackle the Grind for the first time this week whilst on a visit to the mountain with my brother and his girlfriend. I set them up with their lift tickets, handed them my backpack with a change of clothes, pointed them in the direction of the gondola, and off I went to the entrance. I’d been building up to this day for a while and was surprisingly nervous. The fact that the Grind had been closed for some hours that morning due to a medical emergency didn’t help. I had that feeling in the pit of my stomach as if I was about to walk in front of a million people and make an important speech. In French. Naked. Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and set off.
I sought advice from many experienced Grinders before I made the journey, and all the hints and tips were the same. Stick to a consistent pace that allows you to keep going without stopping, and don’t be disheartened when you get to the ¼ mark and would rather throw yourself off the mountain than keep going for a further three times. The markings are based on elevation rather than distance, which means the first quarter is the longest as it isn’t as steep. The higher you go, the steeper it gets and the shorter the quarters. At least that was the plan. I was definitely feeling the strain when I hit the ¼ mark, but I was also ecstatic to have the so called hardest section behind me in 16 minutes. I kept a steady pace, and felt a surge of energy every time I overtook a sorry looking tourist in flip flops. The adrenalin kept me going until close to the half way mark, but then I started to struggle. My thighs were burning, my heart was racing and I was running out of water.
As the trail got steeper, the steps turned into rocks and I began to use my hands to scramble up parts of the course. Some sections had ropes along the side which I used to pull myself up, and I was a dusty mess from wiping my muddy hands all over my clothes. At 42 minutes I reached what I thought was the ¾ mark. It wasn’t one of the big blue signs I’d been expecting, but who writes ¾ on a tree in orange paint if it’s not really ¾ of the way up? Someone with a sick sense of humour apparently, as my burst of energy and optimism sank through my trainers when I came across the real ¾ mark around 5 minutes later. I was absolutely devastated that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I’d been, and didn’t even stop to take a picture. At one point I was breathing so hard that I swallowed a fly who dared to pass a little too close to my open mouth. Yes, swallowed a fly. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised, but I plodded on determined to just finish the damn hike. Just as I took my final swig of water the trees thinned out and I could see the finish up ahead of me. This was the boost I needed, and I ran with one arm outstretched for the official course end whilst grabbing my phone to check the time with the other. I made it in 56 mins 45 seconds, and couldn’t have been happier.
Once I stopped to catch my breath I realised that the same sick twisted person who painted the fake ¾ mark on the tree had an even more evil twin. This twin was an architect, and had installed four flights of wooden stairs between the finish line and the entrance to the chalet. At first I thought this was a joke, but the laughter turned to tears when I realised I wasn’t quite done with steps for the day. I hauled myself up and headed straight for the water fountain and a bench in the sunshine. I was so happy to have made it to the top in one piece, and even happier to have finished in under an hour. My new white trainers were more than a little dusty, my legs were covered in streaks of mud and my top was stuck to my body in a sweaty mess, but none of that mattered. I had conquered Mother Nature’s Stairwell for the first time, and headed straight for Lupin’s cafe and a portion of pulled pork poutine.
Completing the Grouse Grind has been one of the highlights of my time in Vancouver, and it felt great to be a part of a local tradition. Although I don’t recommend this hike to anyone wearing sandals or carrying a camera, if you’re looking for a challenge and are physically fit then I cannot encourage you enough. If the workout wasn’t enough to persuade you, you’ll get to experience all the activities at the top and save $30 on the admission pass (those who climb up just pay $10 to get down). I’ll definitely be back for a second go, and maybe even a third.
For more information, check out www.grousemountain.com/grousegrind.