Grouse Mountain has become a grand symbol of Vancouver’s recreational and cultural capital coming together. The “Grind” trail up the mountain has a special role in how people in this city connect to natural spaces and physical activity. It’s tough, it burns, and most people only feel good about it at the beginning and end.
The climbed mountain holds that rare dichotomy of being both Icon and Vista. From the perspective of downtown, Grouse Mountain helps define the skyline. Views to the Pacific Range, that include: Seymour, Grouse, Cypress and the iconic “Lions”, have become the celebrated backdrop to the city. Enough so, that Vancouver’s controversial View Cone policy was created in the 1990s to limited heights on tower development to avoid obscuring public visual access to these mountains.
For many, the North Shore Mountains are the city’s natural ‘backyard’ playground and the Grind itself carries a lot of meaning as a symbol of valued recreation in Vancouver. For the uninitiated, the Grouse Grind is a 2.9 km hike that takes you up 853 m (2,800 ft) from the base of the Gondola to the top of its run. The winter operations extend with chair lifts beyond that point and represent the winter emblem of the city’s leisure brand of Biking or Sailing in the morning and Skiing at night. The Grind is the punishing achievement on the mountain’s summer off-season. By all means it is doable… and to many –us now included– it is worth it.
Seeking out adventures that can be taken by human power and/or public transit, my partner and I set out to do the Grind. We weren’t looking for an elite athletic experience. We wanted fun and casual activities that allow us to explore different and special places within the region.
This was Megan’s first and my second time up the Grind. My first, almost a decade ago, is still what I consider my worst date ever—where a tiny gazelle-like woman bounded up the trail ahead of me, while I clambered over rocks praying for death.
Megan and I traveled to the Grind by transit on a sunny Saturday at the end of May. Hopping on the SeaBus to the Lonsdale Quay interchange, one can easily jump on the 236 Grouse Mountain Bus. During the day, the bus runs about every 15 minutes so, unlike us, if you see the bus you don’t have to run for it. You can enjoy a leisurely breakfast or coffee at the Quay, if you wish, and catch the next one.
The bus runs straight up through MacKay Avenue diverting up Capilano Road and arrives at the base of the SkyRide Gondola just past the entrance to the Capilano Watershed.
For many, arriving in the cool of the early morning also means avoiding the more touristy crowds, and allows you to push harder up the slope. We did not arrive overly early, of course, and the trail felt at times like a marching anthill. But, by no means did this ruin the experience.
For some, the trail is little more than “nature’s stairmaster”. As many know, a fair number of peopl challenge the course on a regular basis. The record for accents was set at 14 in 2010. A few take it so serious as to push less athletic, inexperienced, or simply ‘gawking’ hikers out of their flustered way. Yet, the trail remains filled with young and old, and an equal mix of male and female hikers–some who even carry children on their backs–that climb the trail with a shared goal: ‘the top’.
Highly athletic types push to ascend the trail in less than 45 minutes while 1.5 hours is considered average for climbers not taking in the surroundings. For first timers, giving yourself 2 or 3 hours allows you to take it slow where needed and enjoy the accent and its surroundings as much as you can.
We did the accent in just under 2 hours. Admittedly, I held Megan back, stopping whenever I lost balance, for regular ‘picture breaks’, or when I could “only hear my heart in my ears”. The stops were as welcomed for their beauty as for their relief, though.
It is recommended to take a litre of water per hiker and to ration it out over the climb. Megan, who has become a more competitive runner this year, also wisely packed apples for a much appreciated break at the ½ Marker, as well as a couple of gels that we didn’t use, but were a blessing for an experienced, but near passed-out, ‘grinder’ at the ¾ Marker – she had skipped breakfast.
Proper footwear –runners or hiking boots– is recommended since the trail can get rather muddy depending on the weather. But a few adventuring hikers were seen making the climb in bare feet!
I also recommend bring some money as the Gondola down does costs $10 –vs. $40 for a round trip and admission– and you might also want a drink, bite to eat, or something else for sale at the top. It is now generally considered bad form to climb back down the trail – unless you’ve had to stop and/or given up mid-hike, or simply don’t value your knees.
Most who give up do so at or before the ¼ Marker, where audible swearing and despair is can be heard as people realize the pain they’ve endured so far hasn’t really amounted to a lot of distance. Once one makes it past the ½ Marker, however, the accent becomes psychologically easier as “It’s just as far up as it is down, now”.
Near the top, as the tree line was breaking, we were met with the faint singing of a gospel choir, not metaphorically mind you. The day we tackled the Grind, we were greeted with a surprise party hosted by Lululemon to mark the opening of the season. “Why Bump When You Can Grind” was a secret event where those who found a way to defeat the Grind that day were welcomed with free tickets for the ride down and a beer or fruit smoothie.
Free yoga sessions – mats included – were presented throughout the morning and afternoon for those willing to attend, as well. I did my best, but know from Megan, that I made a bit of a fool of myself. Chatting with instructor Kat Wong, she and Y-Yoga will be presenting similar free at the top at 10:30 am on a number of Saturdays over this summer.
Lindsay Claydon, Regional Community Manager for Lululemon, stated that the company was working with Grouse and the Community on the event to present the Grind in its best light and start off a “great season”. Comedic signs were placed at regular intervals up the trail goading Grinders–both new and seasoned–on. Teasing jokes about free beer at the top turned out to be happily more than just light spirited jabs. The event was refreshingly low in overt branding for its size. In Claydon’s words: “We just want people to experience ‘this’.”
The trail was reputedly developed unofficially in the early 1980s by Don McPherson and Phil Severy. The North Vancouver Regional District that controls the area did not originally have knowledge of them cutting a trail into the mountain side and placing steps and landings, until the trail had already become a popular challenge for local hikers. Over the last decades, the pair has worked in conjunction with the municipality and the ski hill to improve the trail, and their efforts are obvious as you climb the some 2830 stairs etched into the mountainside.
Now, the trail is regularly maintained against the wear and tear of the approximately 100,000 users who annually ascend. Treads have been formalized, in many cases with angular stone steps, bridges and landings.
Despite the masses, there is still a distinctly west-coast bucolic nature to the space as you climb under the canopy of the thick coniferous trees, over their roots, through their under brush, across mountain streams, and past local wildlife. Occasionally, a peek-a-boo view of the surrounding landscape, mountains, or ocean is presented. But spectacular, yet sobering views of the city and region below are arguably the most prominent.
Patrick Geddes, urban thinker and ‘father of town planning’, often argued that a high place was needed to observe and survey the city in order to give a wide perspective on the urban form and place. The stunning panoramic view from the top of Grouse Mountain is such a place: the general public can subtly observe the relationship of social activity to the environment, as Vancouver and its region stretch below.
Grouse Mountain has recently constructed a Wind Turbine for power generation for the mountain’s operations along with an integrated observation tower to view the region. It has also become a discrete symbol of sustainable thinking on the Vancouver skyline quietly spinning in the background near the visual peak of the mountain.
As a public space, Grouse Mountain and its Grind provide a place where one can intimately get a sense of one’s own physical limits while getting a sense of one’s place in the landscape. It is a place for both athletic and aesthetic recreation. A challenge to be sure, and one that is not without pain, but the Grind is a way to push your self to the edge of what is possible and being surrounded by spectacular environmental beauty just outside the city.
Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is acting as Assistant Editor of Spacing Vancouver, but also consults as director of the UrbanCondition design collective.