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Nothing else in Canada – not even the CN Tower – compares to the elevation gain hikers endure when they take on the Grouse Grind. No wonder it’s one of Vancouver’s top outdoor destinations. (Jonathan Hayward/Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Nothing else in Canada – not even the CN Tower – compares to the elevation gain hikers endure when they take on the Grouse Grind. No wonder it’s one of Vancouver’s top outdoor destinations. (Jonathan Hayward/Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Doing the Grouse Grind Add to ...

A stabbing pain in the right shoulder jolted Don McPherson awake. It was 1980, the middle of the night, and McPherson went wincing to the emergency room in a downtown Vancouver hospital. There he met Phil Severy, the physician in charge. His shoulder was fixed, a friendship was founded and the Grind, up Grouse Mountain, was born.

The one view shared by all Vancouverites most days is the North Shore mountains, which rise above Burrard Inlet, standing sentinel in a long wall over the inhabitants below. Here, in the early 1980s, in a public forest of Douglas fir and western red cedar - the city so close but real wilderness at hand - McPherson and Severy spent a couple years on Grouse Mountain carefully carving a tight and tough trail, thousands of steps, a work of physical art, a practical poetry etched into the earth.

Today, their handiwork is enjoyed (or endured) by more than 100,000 hikers who take on the Grind each year - a panoply of age, colour, size; a symphony of languages - with as many as 5,000 on a busy Saturday or Sunday. It's only natural that Canada's most-fit city would feature an arduous climb up a mountain as one of its best-known tourist attractions.

But that attraction was uninvited, either by civic officials or the owners of the small ski hill near the top. The mountains had been hiked for decades and another trail was nearby. In the early 1980s, though, McPherson and Severy were looking to create something a little more difficult. Rising 853 metres over 2.9 kilometres, the Grind is not a pleasant hike; rather, it's a hard huff soaked in sweat as the trail wends but mostly just ascends.

There's not much in Canada to compare it with. The Stawamus Chief north of Vancouver at Squamish is a tough climb, a 700-metre gain over 3.4 kilometres. Of man-made marvels, the stairs up the CN Tower have a similar gradient - but only 40 per cent of the elevation gain.

"We were hikers, and climbers, and put in a grade that's not a grandma route," McPherson, 66, remembers. "It doesn't wander its way up there. … We were totally absorbed in what we were doing. Nothing existed but for building the next little bit of trail, figuring it out, getting stuff there, making it. It was a good way of quieting the mind."

And it caught on.

Imagined as an easy-to-access hike for the hard-core - the base parking lot can be reached by city bus and is a 25-minute drive from downtown - by the 1990s the original Grind had been worn down by the tyranny of constant erosion, feet and nature. A rebuild, this time somewhat officially endorsed, was undertaken with McPherson and Severy leading a crew of volunteers.

Today, at the base of the Grind, a three-metre yellow sign bolted to two trees blares a warning of "steep and challenging wilderness terrain," the legalese waiving liability due to "personal injury," "death," "encounters with domestic or wild animals" and the rest.

About 20 minutes up, at the one-quarter mark, a smaller sign is more concise: "The remainder of the trail is extremely steep and difficult. Proceed at your own risk." Some people turn around. The unprepared - in jeans, flip-flops and even high heels - retreat. But most forge on.

The warning of danger is warranted. The sound of ambulances speeding up Capilano Road, sirens wailing, is common in summer, as paramedics attend to those suffering heart attacks, broken ankles and twisted knees. Black bear sightings are also common. In 1999, a young man died in an avalanche, his buried body looming over the city until spring when the melt revealed the corpse. Now, the Grind officially closes each autumn, reopening in the spring.

At the three-quarter point, people trudge slowly, the constant conversation evaporated in exercise. The trail is tricky, with loose rocks and the exposed roots of trees - hard veins - serving well as holds.

Finally, usually an hour to an hour-and-a-half from the start, it is over. The top, especially on a clear day, is a joy, a flush of relief mixed with accomplishment and injected with beauty. Mount Baker in Washington State stands to the southeast. The Lions Gate Bridge, Stanley Park and Vancouver sit below. To the west are the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island, and farther south is Puget Sound.

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