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.
And there's beer on the sun-drenched patios of Grouse Mountain lodge and a $5 ride down on the tram. On summer nights, it's a pickup scene where the young, the hot and the fit mingle.
But the real essence of the Grouse Grind is best divined through those who built it and people like them, fanatics who go by the handle Grinders.
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, probably the best-known Grinder, tries to hike the Grind more times a year than his current age (54). "I get that runner's high, which I absolutely love," he says.
Sebastian Albrecht, a 34-year-old realtor, is another. Last year, trying to match a fellow Grinder, he hiked it 12 times in one day. Last month, Albrecht did it one better, this time for charity: 13 times, for a total of 11,089 metres of elevation, greater than Mount Everest.
Why do they do it?
I imagined, when starting work on this story, that I'd discover some whispered secrets of the universe, or at least uncover a half-complete sequence of Vancouver DNA. The standard answer - "It's a challenge" - seemed too simplistic. It was Harvey Nelsen who convinced me. Nelsen, 75, started doing the Grind when he was 60. At 66, he set his personal best time, 37:20, to which most men half his age (like me) could not come close. At 68, he did it 54 times in one week. Twice he completed it nine times in a day. He overcame cancer last year and still hikes the Grind.
After our conversation, he mailed me a telling tale.
"There's a bridge over a creek 10 minutes up the Grind," the story began, in the slightly shaky but precise penmanship of an older person. "On Aug. 11, 2002, there was no railing, only logs. I made a misstep and fell, rolling down 30 metres end over end over the rock surface. I finally crashed on to a huge rock. I landed on my back, crushing the left area. I crawled back up to the path. My legs were okay. So I completed the Grind. Time in total: 1:03. I was rushed to Lions Gate Hospital by ambulance. After seven hours in hospital emergency - out. No broken bones but a bad bruise. Two days later I was back at it! Result: The next week the powers that be put a railing on the bridge. And I'm still alive."
For Grinders, it's about time: how many times, and how fast. It's both an embrace of life and a kind of warding off of death.
Today, McPherson and Severy's hobby has become a defining Vancouver destination for fitness fanatics and casual visitors alike. On a recent Sunday, Severy, at 69, beams as he points out the original trail and the details of the rebuild, encouraging hikers, especially children, who work their way up. His smile seems almost permanent, each hiker implicitly saluting the work done long ago, though not one knows the trail's co-designer is in their midst. "Continuous streams of humanity. Families together, all out here in nature, getting a good workout," he says.
"Is it not wonderful?"
If you go
Getting there By car From downtown Vancouver, take West Georgia Street in to and through Stanley Park, over the Lions Gate Bridge. Turn right on Marine Drive and a quick left up Capilano Road, which becomes Nancy Greene Way as one nears the base of Grouse Mountain. By transit Several options. The easiest is the SeaBus passenger-only ferry from Gastown to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. Hop on the 236 bus and you're there. By bicycle The Lions Gate has bike sidewalks and the SeaBus and buses can accommodate bikes. The ride up to the Grouse Mountain base is a grind in itself - but the ride down is a real ripper, so try a bike-on-bus trip up and jet back down.
What to wear and bring A small pack with a small towel; one litre of water; a spare shirt; a mobile phone; and sturdy footwear (or Converse All-stars for experienced hikers).
A record, in 29 tweets
On June 22, Sebastian Albrecht, a 34-year-old Vancouver realtor, ascended the 853-metre vertical slog of the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver a record-setting ridiculous 13 times in a single day, for a total of 11,089-metres, 25 per cent more elevation gained than Mount Everest. A social-media lover, @salbrecht told his tale on Twitter.
June 21, 5:44 p.m. About 12 hours 2 go before my #grousegrind record attempt. Wouldn't you know? I have two offers 2 negotiate before tomorrow morning.
June 22, 12:31 a.m. Just got in frm negotiating multi offers on my King Edward Village listing, time 2 focus on getting ready 2 break #grousegrind record tmrw.
12:33 a.m. Thanks to everyone that is RTing and making donations and offering support and encouragement (and planning on climbing with me). U all rock!
5:40 a.m. Getting ready to head up to @grousemountain for first #grousegrind. Awoken at 5:15am by first calls from media.
5:57 a.m. Rushing to @grousemountain early as Global TV wants to do a last minute interview and is waiting for me. Eating breakfast in the car.
7:24 a.m. First #grousegrind of the day with @buzzbishop in about 47 minutes. Easy one behind me. 12 more to go.
7:48 a.m. Starting the 2nd #grousegrind of the day. Feeling great. Everything on schedule.
8:33 a.m. Finished number two in 43 minutes. Well a head of schedule so far and feeling great! On the way down the #grousegrind now.
9:19 a.m. Cool. Just ran into someone vthat is doing #grousegrind 1st time ever. She said she was inspired by hearing my story in media. Love it!
9:46 a.m. Finished #grousegrind #3 in about 50 (forgot 2 check)? Going up on # 4 right now. It's tough getting used to having TV cameras in year face.
10:04 a.m. heard Jason Chong is on #grousegrind. He's a legend on here + only other man to do grind 12 times. Looking forward to doing a cpl together.
10:43 a.m. Finished #grousegrind # 4 in 46 minutes. Was 45 minutes a head but missed the gondola by 1 minute. That puts me half an hour a head.
11:02 a.m. Heading up #grousegrind # 5. Working through some cramps.
11:06 a.m. Obnoxious guy on #grousegrind hiking with a boombox. Lol.
12:04 p.m. Finished # 5 in 50 minutes. Heading down for #6.
12:33 p.m. In the middle of #grousegrind # 6. Those nasty cramps are ruining my fun. Otherwise feeling great. 13 within reach.
1:38 p.m. #grousegrind #6 is behind me. Slowest yet @ 54 minutes but still under my 55 minute goal. Had to stop fr 5 due 2 cramps. Going up on #7 now.
2:06 p.m. Past the halfway mark for the #grousegrind record. Past the midway mark of # 7. Just 6.5 to go. Feeling good!
2:22 p.m. #grousegrind # 7 in 52:45. Phew.
5:34 p.m. Was recharging my phone. Did #grougrind # 8 in 56 minutes and # 9 in 58. Heading down for #10. Cramping better. Knees suffering. On sched.
7 p.m. Finished #grousegrind # 10 in 57 minutes. At base about to head up for # 11. Feeling great (considering)! Thanks for all your support!
8:10 p.m. Going down gondola for #grousegrind # 12. Finished # 11 in about 57.5 minutes. On time for 13!
9:37 p.m. Finished #grousegrind #12. Not sure of exact time but about 1:10. Heading down for # 13. One more!
9:49 p.m. At bottom of #grousegrind getting ready to head up for #13. Wish me luck! Thanks again for all of your support.
10:12 p.m. Reached the 1/4 mark on # 13 of the #grousegrind. Good time considering @ 20 minutes.
10:26 p.m. At 1/2 way mark of #grousegrind # 13.
10:44 p.m. Now at the 3/4 mark of my record #13 #grousegrind. Time to bring it home.
11:01 p.m. Finished #grousegrind # 13 in 1:06. Woo hoo!