The first time I decided to climb the Grouse Grind, I made several typical beginner’s errors. I wore jeans rather than shorts. My shoes weren’t ideal. And I had no idea how much I would sweat, so I didn’t bring enough fluid. I only survived the 2.9-kilometre climb because I was a commuter cyclist used to huffing and puffing over long distances.
Since then, I’ve hiked up the 853-metre-tall incline dozens of times, and over that period I have seen many others make similar blunders. Early this season, for instance, I passed an older woman wearing two-inch pumps along with her long black pants. Her husband was dressed like he was ready to go to a dinner party. More recently, I saw a young guy doing the Grind in jeans.
On Saturday and Sunday (July 19 and 20), a team of experts will gather at the base of the mountain to help the newbies. It’s part of the third annual Trail Sense Days. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., North Shore Rescue, the North Shore Black Bear Network, the British Columbia Lung Association, firefighters, and other safety specialists will provide tips and answer questions.
Grouse Mountain spokesperson Chris Dagenais told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that there will be 10 tents in the gravel area near the entrance to the Grind. “We ended up talking to about 3,000 people last year,” Dagenais said. And yes, he added, this included stopping people who were in jeans or high heels or who planned to haul young children up the Grind.
“It’s a Vancouver phenomenon, which is what I think is so appealing to people,” Dagenais continued. “They hear about this thing to do in Vancouver, but this is not a simple walk in the park. It’s a very gruelling cardio workout.”
Metro Vancouver owns the trail, which was created in the early 1980s by mountaineers. Every year, the Grind attracts more than 100,000 hikers, according to Dagenais. The unofficial course record is 24:22, which was accomplished in 2004 by New Zealander Jonathan Wyatt.
Hearing that someone could go up the Grind in less time than it takes to walk from the West End to Library Square makes it sound easy. Don’t be fooled. It’s tough, particularly the first time. But it’s far from impossible for those in reasonable shape. Once you start doing it regularly, you’ll discover it’s one of the least expensive workouts in town: free to go up, and only $5 to ride the cable car back down.
I’ve assembled a few tips for those who’ve wanted to try it for years but have held off because they think it will be too punishing on their bodies. Make this the year you try the Grouse Grind. Just don’t sue me if anything goes wrong.
Preparation: Make sure you eat carbohydrates the night before so you’ll have enough stamina in your thighs and calves for the second half of the mountain. In the morning, it’s a good idea to eat a light meal and drink lots of fluid. Take a bottle of Gatorade with you for the hike, because unlike water, it will replace the salts and sugars lost through sweating.
Also, make sure you go to the washroom (there is one in the parking lot) before you begin, because you could be on the mountain for 90 minutes or longer during your first hike. Don’t forget your cellphone if you have one, and bring along an energy bar, an apple, or a banana for an extra burst of energy. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going. Don’t worry if you don’t have a car. The 232 bus from Phibbs Exchange or the 236 bus from Lonsdale Quay takes you within 50 metres of the base.
The beginning: The Grouse Grind has signs indicating when you’ve passed each quarter. The first quarter is deceptively long, perhaps because the signs indicate the altitude rather than the distance travelled.
The first part of the hike isn’t as steep, and this is where rookies often make their biggest mistake. They walk quickly over relatively flat terrain when they should be moving very, very slowly. For those with a competitive streak, the Grouse Grind is often a case of the tortoise versus the hares, and on many occasions, I’ve passed those bunny rabbits halfway up the hill because they zipped through the beginning too quickly.
Conserving energy: The secret to a successful first trip is to take small steps. The incline gets quite steep after the midway mark, and that’s where first-timers start to feel serious fatigue in their thighs and their calves. You can see them off to the side gulping fluid and making comments like “The longer I stop, the faster I want to get the fuck out of here.”
Watch the ground. Look for rocks or ledges that enable you to keep moving up without taking long strides. You’ll thank yourself by the time you get to the rather steep fourth quarter.
Timing: This subject can be very discouraging for rookies, who may have heard about the exploits of Wyatt and other racers, who equate a 40-minute ascent with being a slowpoke. Even really fit people sometimes fare poorly with their times on their debut climbs because they haven’t learned the tricks of shaving off a few minutes here and there.
Here’s a rough guide for your first trip: reach the quarter point in 16 to 20 minutes. If you’re in this range, it means you’re probably moving slowly enough through the first section to make it to the top without collapsing. The going gets steeper after the quarter point, and that’s when you’ll really need your energy. If you check your watch and you’re at the halfway point within 45 minutes, you’re probably doing fine.
And if you feel embarrassed by people passing you, here’s what you say: “Gee, I think I’m making pretty good time considering it’s my second trip up the Grind today.” That will wipe any smugness off their faces.
The biggest surprise: The steep incline after the halfway mark can be very challenging for many first-timers. If you’re feeling exhausted at the halfway point, sit down and take a rest. You won’t regret this by the time you begin the steepest section of the trail. It’s also a good idea to rest at the three-quarter mark if you’re feeling fatigued.
Two of the best things about the Ground Grind are the lack of mosquitoes and bears. The worst aspect? It’s getting extremely crowded. So arrive early. The best time to get there is before 9:30 a.m., because after that on summer weekends it sometimes turns into a minor stampede.