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Ah, the Grouse Grind -- referred to as "Mother Nature's StairMaster" by outdoorsy types, and "What the hell was I thinking?" by the rest of us lowly mortals. It is located on Grouse Mountain, one of Vancouver, BC's tourist attractions, which is a 20-minute drive from the downtown core provided that traffic conditions are agreeable. This weekend jaunt involves 2.9 kilometres (1.8 miles for those of you who haven't caught up with the metric system yet) of climbing up a path that may or may not have steps cut into it, may or may not be slippery, and may or may not be infested with the loudest damned squirrels you'll ever hear in your life. Those who complete the hike can be proud of the knowledge that they just climbed 853 metres (2,800 feet) straight up to 1,128 metres (3,700 feet) above sea level.

Hiking times to get to the top of the trail can range anywhere from three hours (a leisurely stroll) to thirty minutes (a flat-out run); an hour and a half is considered an average time for hikers, whereas a novice can be expected to take approximately two hours to complete the hike. The fastest time from bottom to top is 27:18, held by one male Derek Reed, who set it at the 1997 Grouse Grind Mountain Run. The fastest completion time for women to date is 32:54, set by Kelly Matoul at the 2002 Grouse Grind Mountain Run.

Before setting out to tackle this favorite target of the Lower Mainland weekend warrior -- and, according to the official Grouse Mountain site, a training ground for the Vancouver Canucks -- certain precautions need to be taken: for starters, you need to make sure that you are in good physical condition. That means you'll need normal blood pressure, no cardiovascular or respiratory problems, and no joint problems that will interfere with your ability to climb up 2.9 km of steep hillside. Also, the Grouse Grind trail is not patrolled; thus, it is a good idea (as always) to hike with a friend or have a cellular phone in case of emergency. Finally, if you have the above criteria filled, remember to bring the following: an adequate supply of water (or some sort of sports drink), enough trail rations for emergency energy lows, a good pair of shoes -- hiking boots offer the best ankle support, but I've done the hike three times in a good pair of cross-trainers -- and appropriate clothing for the trip. Remember: even if it's the middle of summer, the mountain can still get cold, weather conditions are always unpredictable at high elevations, and the Vancouver area isn't known for its friendly weather. Due to these weather unpredictabilities, the trail is closed from the onset of winter (usually November) until snowmelt; short-term closures can occur during the open season if rain or other weather conditions will lead to dangerous debris flow at the bottom of the trail.

To show you that it is not screwing with you, the GVRD has posted the following disclaimer on a large plastic board at the entrance to the trail:

Anyone who travels on the Grouse Grind Trail, BCMC Trail, or traverses the area adjacent thereto, or in the vicinity thereof does so assuming all risks of injury or death. The Greater Vancouver Water District and the Greater Vancouver Regional District and their directors, officers, servants, employees, agents and representatives (collectively the "Released Parties") will not in any way be responsible for your safety, and if you use the Grouse Grind Trail, the BCMC Trail, you and your heirs, dependents, administrators, executors and successors agree to RELEASE, WAIVE, SAVE HARMLESS AND FOREVER DISCHARGE the Released Parties from and against all actions, claims, demands, causes of action, proceedings, suits, losses, damages, costs (including legal fees) and expenses of whatsoever kind or nature, including but not limiting the generality of the foregoing, in respect of death, injury, loss or damage to person or property, arising in any way out of, or connected with, or as a consequence of passage along or use of the Grouse Grind or BCMC Trail.
Translation: "Foolish mortal! If you use this trail, it's your own damn fault if something happens to you. You have been warned."

As for me? I was stupid the first time I did the Grind. Sure, I brought a light backpack with water and a PowerBar or two, and I hiked with a friend -- but this was with the understanding that we would be going at our separate paces, and at the time I wasn't in very good physical shape to boot. It took me an hour and thirty-five minutes to get from the bottom to the top, much of which I spent wheezing and convinced I was experiencing heart failure; my state of mind wasn't helped by the fact that when I reached a plateau and sat down on a handy log, my legs shaking, I saw the "1/2" marker posted up on a nearby tree. I nearly wept like a little schoolgirl.

However, I did find the last quarter of the trail to be the easiest part that first time, and the next two times I did the Grind I kept that opinion; maybe that's a completely psychological phenomenon, but just because it's a psychological phenomenon doesn't mean that it's completely invalid. Anyhow, I came out of the first hike with an imminent cold sore, a dry cough, and a whistling in my lungs that would take the better part of three weeks to go away. And just to prove how much of an idiot I was, just before those three weeks were up, I did the damn hike again. I found that the sense of accomplishment gained by stumbling out of the wooded trail onto the sunny clearing at the top was addictive enough for me to want to see if I could really make it back down. I wasn't stupid enough to try, though, and caught the gondola for the ride down ($5 each way).

Is the Grind for you? You decide. Some people say that you haven't really experienced Vancouver until you've done the hike; others really could care less, but only if they made the effort to do so. As for me, it didn't kill me, but during parts of it I certainly wished I were dead--it was a truly humbling experience. However, it also spurred me to adopt a fitness regimen to increase my stamina so that I wouldn't ever need to feel that way again. It might just be the kick in the rear that inspires you to do that half-hour daily jog you've been meaning to take up; it might also cause some real damage to you if you're truly not physically ready for it. Who knows?

Personal experiences of May and June 2003

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