Imagine my surprise when I learned that, this summer, I've been navigating one of the most dangerous climbs in the world.
I speak, of course, of the Grouse Grind, which was recently ranked No. 5 on a list compiled by Outdoor Magazine of the Top 10 most dangerous hikes in the world. The Grind's inclusion in this group was met with instant ridicule by regular users of the trail, which is often referred to as nature's StairMaster for its unrelentingly steep ascent.
To mention the Grind in an inventory of deadly routes that includes the infamous cliff-side path in Huashan, China, is indeed absurd. That hike involves walking along narrow wooden platforms bolted to the side of a mountain. An estimated 100 people die each year attempting the climb. Sounds more like a death march.
In fact, the Grind did not deserve to be rated against any of the other contenders. They include The Maze in Utah, made famous by the movie 127 Hours, the tale of climber Aron Ralston who, after getting stuck in a cave, was forced to cut off one of his arms with a dull knife to free himself. That fate certainly does not await anyone using the Grind.
That said, dismissing the iconic mountainside trek as nothing more than a vertical version of the Vancouver seawall is equally preposterous. The route still has some parts where hikers could tumble a long way. If a young child happened to take a fall, it would almost certainly be ugly, and potentially deadly.
Three people have reportedly died using the Grind in the past couple of decades. It has undoubtedly been made a safer hike in recent years thanks to mesh fences installed along certain sections that border steep falloffs. But that does not mean the Grind is trouble-free, especially given the increasing volume of people using it.
It has been estimated that about 3,000 people do the hike weekdays. That number doubles on the weekends. While it is wonderful to see the trail used this way, the downside is the Grind is now attracting people who have no idea what they're in for.
The number of families I have encountered in jeans and sandals and battling dehydration continues to amaze me. At the one-quarter mark, many of the young children accompanying their parents appear exhausted and unable to trudge another metre. Many of these families are tourists who don't speak English and consequently are unable to comprehend the massive sign at the beginning of the trail that outlines its difficult and strenuous nature. (And absolves Metro Vancouver of any responsibility should something horrible happen to them on the way up or down).
That is not to say that kids as young as five are not breezing to the top. As one of those who have been passed by these three-foot-tall speed demons, let me say it's a humbling experience. And because some young children can handle whatever the Grind has to throw at them, any discussion about putting an age restriction on climbers is usually stopped in its tracks.
I love the idea of young children getting the kind of workout that the Grind offers. It is also great to see them imbued so early in their lives with a love of the outdoors. That said, I have many times wondered what would happen if a much larger adult lost his balance, fell backward and knocked someone – perhaps a child following – off the side of the path.
It has almost happened to me a couple of times when I didn't get the toe-hold on some rocks that I should have. Each time, I was able to restore my balance before something calamitous happened, although once it was close. On that occasion, the tiny woman right behind me would have gone for a terrible tumble had I fallen back on top of her. It could have set off a chain-reaction of falls, especially given that the Grind was packed that day.
Most of the time you have no idea who is trailing you, and these days it could just as easily be a young child. That makes me nervous.
The Grind has become so popular it is often a zoo, with people jostling you as they try to reach the top in personal-best time. While it may not be among the most dangerous hikes in the world – danger still lurks. And its users, particularly parents intent on exposing their young children to the Grind's rigours, need to be mindful of that.