"The Grouse Grind, have you been up? How long did you take?"
"You haven't been up Grouse yet? You've gotta do it!" (followed by maniacal laughter).
New arrivals to Vancouver will invariably be asked some version of this question many times during their first few weeks in this beautiful city. The collective obsession with leading a healthy active lifestyle here is second only to the obsession with talking about one's healthy active lifestyle. The Grind question goes hand in hand with the equally common (though less ominous) quiz on Stanley Park and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, and will probably be followed up with a recommendation that you go stand-up paddle boarding in English Bay (a yoga paddle boarding option is also available).
Grouse Mountain is a 1,200m peak that belongs to the North Shore Mountains, located just a half-hour's drive from downtown Vancouver. The Grouse Grind is the popular name for the gruelling 2.9km hike up the mountain. Three kilometres doesn’t sound so bad, until you learn that the trail climbs 853m in that short distance, with an average grade of 17° that increases to 30° in certain is-this-what-dying-feels-like? sections. I would hesitate to call it a hike at all; really it is the world's most devilish, unending flight of stairs. Every single step requires the pronounced lifting of a knee and the hoisting of your body to move farther vertically than horizontally. At no point are you ever just walking; the Grind is an unrelenting fight with gravity. The trail has gained the nickname "Mother Nature's Stairmaster", but I think that is misleading; Mother Nature had nothing to do with it. The Grouse Grind was clearly designed by Satan.
I managed to crawl my way to the top in one hour and eleven minutes. The Grouse Mountain official website says the average time is 90 minutes, though certain exceptional human beings can make it in less than half an hour. The current record holder is Sebastian Salas, who clocked in at 23 minutes and 48 seconds. Oliver Bibby holds the record for most ascents in a 24-hour period, having made the climb 16 times within 20 hours. Personally, I don't mind if I never do it again in this lifetime.
When I did finally make it to the top of the Grind I found a quiet spot in the sunshine, texted Stephen to let him know I was alive, and then sat still for a good 15 minutes. I was very tired. It is tempting to head straight to the Skyride and its promise of more natural altitudes as soon as your jelly legs will allow, but I strongly urge you to resist the impulse. You will have all day to enjoy the olfactory experience that is 40 sweaty strangers packed into a floating perspex box, whimpering quietly in disbelief as the mental and physical sacrifices you all made to get to the top of the mountain slip away mockingly beneath you.
I ended up spending a good three hours up the mountain, despite missing both the Lumberjack Show and the Birds in Motion Demonstration. Grinder and Coola, the mountain's resident grizzlies, were on fine form, and the views from the Eye of the Wind and chairlift area are worth the extra effort. You really can see all of Vancouver from up there, with a clear line of sight stretching south past Richmond and the airport all the way to Delta.
By two o'clock I was ready to begin the land, sea and (thanks to the gondola) air travel necessary to get back to downtown Vancouver. I’m not sure whether I would count the Grind as a positive experience, but it is definitely An Experience, and one I’m glad to have suffered.