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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Vancouver: The Grouse Grind

At Changeways Clinic, we often encourage people to become more familiar with the resources of their surroundings. And we're convinced that exercise is one of the most potent enhancers of mental health and life satisfaction. Plus, people coming to Vancouver to go to a workshop or conference often want to know what to do. To this end, I'll be posting occasionally about getting around Vancouver and BC.

First up: The Grouse Grind.

The Grind: Up, endlessly up.

Grouse Mountain looms over Vancouver from its vantage point across Burrard Inlet. In the winter it’s home to a smallish ski facility whose main claim to fame is an amazing view of the city on cloudless days.

Like most ski resorts, Grouse has tended to suffer during the summer. Enter the Grouse Grind, a trail that leads up the mountain from the gondola base to the main chalet. The trail is short, only 2.9 km (1.8 miles), but climbs 853 m (2800 feet). That makes an average grade of 29.4%. Along the way there are 2830 stairs, as well as stretches of rock and root to clamber over.

The Grind is notable for being perhaps the least scenic trail in British Columbia, with no views to speak of until you reach the chalet at the top. There are virtually no flat stretches. Not even aficionados claim that the hike is “pretty.”  There’s nothing pretty about it.

Furthermore, the Grind is crowded. Grouse’s own website (located here) reports that over 100,000 people hike the trail annually. Given that it’s only open half the year, that’s over 550 people per day. In practice, the crowd is thicker: on a sunny weekend day there are thousands of people sweating their way up the mountain.

For many years I looked down my nose at the Grind. People had taken an idyllic, peaceful wilderness activity - hiking - and turned it into a competitive gym craze. If you want to go hiking, I thought, go where there aren’t so many people. And get some variety. Routinely scrambling up the same trail seemed stupid given that Vancouver is surrounded by mountains, all of which can be hiked.

It was the very comparison I made that eventually changed my mind: the gym. I was on a Stairmaster in a poorly ventilated gym, pointed at a television tuned to CNN. “Anything woud be better than this,” I thought. Even, perhaps, a hike in the wilderness. Any hike at all.

I realized that I had been contrasting the Grind with something I love: hiking. And it’s a bad comparison. Match the Grind up against almost any trail between the towns of Hope and Whistler and it loses. Badly. But compare it to a Stairmaster at the gym and it wins by a long shot.

The Grouse Grind is not a hike. It’s exactly what Grouse itself calls it: Mother Nature’s Stairmaster. The object of the Grind is not to commune with nature, it is to work out. To this end, most Grinders (as they’re known) time themselves. Go up to some fit-ish people in Vancouver and ask them their “Grind Time.” At least half will know, though they might deduct a few minutes when they tell you.

If you spend an extra $20 you can get a Grind Timer card that you swipe in front of obelisks (straight out of 2001 A Space Odyssey) at the bottom and top of the trail. Your time comes out on television monitors in the chalet, and you can access your history of times on the mountain website. Most people don’t bother with the timer, however.

The all-time best time on the Grind is 23 minutes, 48 seconds. This is essentially an airborne individual that no one should compare themselves against. For most people a time in the 50-90 minute mark is more realistic, with exceptionally fit individuals dipping into the low 40s and, apparently, the upper 30s.

If you go, here are some tips:

  • Know your medical status, and get advice from your physician if you have any reason to think there may be an issue with strenuous hiking. The Grind is no picnic, and it's not the place to start an exercise program after years of inactivity.
  • Don’t overdress or overpack. You will not get lost if you stay on the Grind trail (this is about the only trail in BC that I would say this about). Do bring at least a litre of water, and perhaps a granola bar.
  • Park in the free gravel lot on the right as you arrive rather than in the pay lots to your left.
  • Stretch first; it’s worth it.
  • Consider the alternative. If you can’t stand the thought of a crowded trail, take the BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC) trail, which climbs the same distance, ends at the same place, and is about 100 m east of the Grind for most of the way. The entrance is the same as for the Grind; look for the sign just inside the entry fence.
  • If there is an emergency on the trail, it will be closed by the Fire Department while they bring the person out. Yes, this happens. Rather than standing around waiting for the trail to reopen, take the BCMC trail instead. There is an alternate start to the BCMC trail in the gravel parking lot about 100m beyond the yellow gate at the east end of the first bit of gravel parking. Go with someone who knows the trail so you don’t get lost, however.
  • Take it easy. The first time you go you’ll be familiarizing yourself with the trail. Don't try your hardest. Make your Grind time something that you'll find it easy to beat the next time you go.
  • Don’t overdo it on the first quarter; you’ll be miserable the rest of the way.
  • Gain a small amount of vertical with each step. If you reach upward so that your leg bends at a 90 degree angle and levers you up 15 inches, you will use much more energy than if you took three steps that lifted you 5 inches each. It’s generally more efficient to take many small steps than fewer big ones.
  • When you get tired, see if you can keep going but deliberately slow yourself right down to a snail's pace. You will still make at least some progress toward your goal, and if you are slow enough you will recover without having to stop altogether.
  • If you stop (and most do), make your stops shorter and more frequent.  You will get more relief from the first 15 seconds of a break than from the next 15 seconds. So a five-minute break will not revive you nearly as much as 20 breaks of 15 seconds each.
  • Avoid stopping in the middle of the trail. You'll hold up people behind you. There are wider spots off the trail at the end of most switchbacks. Note: You will get a few eye rolls if you are texting or talking loudly on the phone the whole way.
  • Don’t get discouraged at the ¾ mark. The signs don’t seem to be evenly spaced, and the last quarter appears to be the shortest.
  • Don’t walk down. There’s limited fitness value in walking downhill and the trail isn’t suited to two-way travel anyway. Get a download ticket at the chalet and take the gondola. If you must walk down, take the BC Mountaineering Club trail (provided you have hiked up it at least once so you know where to find it).
  • Keep a record of your times. Improvement is motivating, and you will almost certainly improve your time if you do the Grind regularly.
  • Hike other trails. As I’ve said, the Grind isn’t a scenic trail. Get a few friends (or join a hiking club) and try out some of the other trails on the North Shore. The pace is more relaxed, the views are better, and there are no crowds. Just make sure you are equipped in case the weather moves in, and tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to be back.
Try it closer to home. Is the Grind a bit daunting or inaccessible? You can still approximate it in any gym. Get on a Stairmaster and do 280 floors. It's close to the same thing.

Coming to Vancouver? Find the Grind by crossing the Lion's Gate Bridge northbound, then follow the signs to North Vancouver and Grouse Mountain. As you approach the gondola base, look for the free gravel lot on the right. Park there, and walk back to the road you came in on. The trailhead is just uphill from the entrance to the gravel lot.

Make a day of it. Grouse is part of the tourist trail in Vancouver, but with some justification. The views at the top on a sunny day are spectacular, there are attractions at the top (a lumberjack show in summer, a zipline area, a pair of orphaned grizzlies, and - if you are fully equipped - some less well-marked trails that lead behind the mountain). The chalet's cafe and informal bistro are good and reasonably priced. Unfortunately the higher-end restaurant has seen better days and is priced more for the view than the quality of the food.

In the neighbourhood. At the base of the Skyride there is a wolf enclosure, and further down the mountain (a drive of a few km) you'll find Cleveland Dam (part of Vancouver's water supply) and walking trails down to a salmon hatchery. If you like suspension bridges, you could visit the startlingly expensive and crowded Capilano Suspension Bridge along with every other visitor to our city, or get in the car and go a bit east to Lynn Canyon Park, where there is a free and markedly less touristy version of the same thing, plus nicer walking trails. 

1 comment:

  1. The 15 second rest tip is worth the price of the book. ��