Running the Grouse Grind
Vancouver's favourite urban escapestart
The Grouse Grind
Mother Nature's Stairmaster
Often referred to as ‘Mother Nature’s Stairmaster,’ The Grouse Grind is a short, sharp, shock of a trail a stone’s throw from downtown Vancouver. The trail itself is a little shy of 2 miles long, but in that short distance manages to rise 2800 ft at an average gradient of 56%. Although it sounds tough, it attracts 150,000 visitors annually to take on the challenge and has even become a race in the form of the Grouse Grind Mountain Run. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to give it a go.
- Trail length: 1.8mi
- Climb: 2800ft
One minute you’re in Vancouver’s bustling city center surrounded by ladies who lunch and besuited businessmen, a brisk 15-minute drive later and you’re at the business end of a wild trail up a sheer, snow-capped mountain.
This swift and complete transition encapsulates the Vancouver experience. This is a big city packed with all the trappings of modern urban living yet flanked on all sides by wilderness so vast and varied you could spend ten years exploring and still not see the half of it.
And boy do the Vancouverites love their outdoor playground. The city’s downtown area is on a peninsula which means as the population has swelled, building development has only had one way to go. Up. The area is packed with modern high-rises, so it was a surprise to find the streets so relatively peaceful day and night.
"Where is everyone?" I asked a passing local (unlike in London, passersby in Vancouver don’t think you’re a serial killer in waiting if you talk to them out of the blue).
‘They’re all out - enjoying that,’ he smiled, waving an arm toward the expanse of water, peaks and wilderness clearly visible beyond the city.
Deciding to do the same, I hopped in the car and headed across the massive Lionsgate Bridge that links downtown to North Vancouver’s shoreline. In no time I was pulling up to Grouse Mountain with its chairlifts, cable cars, ski slopes and of course, the Grouse Grind Trail.
Are you running the Grouse Grind?
The 1.8 mile trail rises 2798 vertical feet at an average gradient of 56%. What it lacks in length it more than makes up for in challenge. But when I spoke to the nice lady in the information office, I was told it was closed. Ah.
The city owns and maintains the trail, and it’s only open in summer once the snow’s cleared. From October to May, the trail entrance is blocked and the official timer cards you can buy to automatically record your time (just touch in and out at the top and bottom), can’t be used.
Dejected, I was driving back down to the city when I saw a runner coming towards me. The trail running shoes, easy uphill gait, and small backpack with water bottles told me he wasn’t just enjoying an evening trot around the block. Besides, the road he was running up was a dead end, unless you were running into the mountains beyond… I pulled over.
"Excuse me, are you running the Grouse Grind?"
"Yup, run it all year round," came the reply as I learned that while the trail is officially closed through winter, it’s still a trail. In the wild. Which means it’s easy to hop around the fences and although not officially condoned, this behaviour isn’t officially penalized either. Instead, official closure stops less prepared or untrained tourists from attempting a Grind when conditions may be far from ideal, while seasoned trail runners and anyone with a brighter sense of adventure are left free to attack.
With a renewed spring in my step I parked my car, and headed for the start of the trail, following my new friend’s directions to find the gap in the fence and a well-worn scramble up to join the trail beyond. Game on.
The early stages were steep but far from brutal, winding through the deep lush forest around and towering trees above. With the pine-fresh mountain air, deep loamy soil and a near absence of people, this was a powerful shot of natural energy and I was grinning from ear to ear as I settled into a nice uphill shuffle.
Then I rounded a corner and the trail went up. Seriously up. I paused, craned my neck and only saw more of the same. Partly to protect it from erosion, partly to protect Grinders from themselves, and partly because it’s so steep, from here on in the Grouse Grind Trail is basically one very long staircase.
However, the trail builders have done a stunning job of making said staircase out of rocks, boulders and tree roots for the most part, so it’s a rough, uneven, scramble of a haul. Maintaining any sort of running rhythm on this type of incline is all but impossible.
This didn’t stop me from trying and I was quickly battered into the sort of running action that still looks like running, but is in fact only a fraction faster than a determined march despite using around twice the energy.
Lunging for breath
The Grouse Grind Trail is handily marked at quarter-distance, halfway, and then three-quarter distance. Seeing that first quarter marker through a haze of sweat as my lungs rasped and my legs burned was a rude awakening. With ten minutes gone on my watch, the official record ascent of Sebastian Salas – 25:01, unbeaten since 2010 – was looking more superhuman by the second. I was going to be lucky to make it in under an hour.
Hauling on, as the sweat poured into my eyes despite noticeably dropping temperatures as the altitude rose and the snowy summit neared. All I could do was stumble from one lunging step to the next, hands pumping atop my thighs fell-running style in an attempt to somehow spread the increasing load.
Halfway and then three-quarters went by however, and by now the forest was already feeling wildly different from the base of the climb and shrouded in drifting mist. Fans of the film First Blood could at this point live out their John Rambo fantasies – the film was shot nearby and the mountainous wooded landscape here is exactly like that Stallone’s character escapes to in the film.
Coffee for one
Then as suddenly as it had begun, the trail sent me up one last hands and knees rocky scramble as a burgeoning meltwater stream coming the other way did its best to send me back down again. Beyond this push to the summit, a snow-banked path led to the cable car station ahead.
Staggering into the station’s warm log-cabin confines I was immediately confronted with a coffee bar where in suitable Englishman-abroad style I ordered an Earl Grey tea, only to discover yet another gem of Vancouver hospitality.
"Would you like a small or a large?" asked the waitress. "They’re the same price."
Of course this makes logical sense. The teabag and the cup are the real expenses here – an extra splash of water makes no difference. But anywhere else in the western world, let alone in a major tourist hotspot where you have no alternatives, the expected norm would be to fleece customers for all they’re worth. But not here. Playing nice is as natural to Canadians as putting maple syrup on bacon.
And so with a huge cup of steaming tea and happily knackered legs, I hopped into a cable car and made for the base below, soaking up the most well-earned view of the city on the way.
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