SPECIAL REPORT

Hiding behind the undefended border

JOHN NICOL October 19 1998
SPECIAL REPORT

Hiding behind the undefended border

JOHN NICOL October 19 1998

Reaching for the top

JENNIFER HUNTER

Canada

FOCUS B.C.

In the middle of the afternoon on a rain-bedraggled Sunday, Marilyn Sing decided to climb Grouse Mountain. She pulled on a T-shirt and bicycle shorts, laced up her hiking boots, replenished her water bottle and drove the 10 km from her condominium in midtown Vancouver to the mountain at the crest of North Vancouver. Once there, Sing headed purposefully towards a hidden trail called the Grouse Grind, a hike ascending 853 gasping metres to the peak at a 28-degree angle, about one-and-a-half times the height of the CN Tower in Toronto. Sing, 34, began at a brisk pace—she usually makes it to the top in 55 minutes, well under the hour and a half it takes the average climber. But within minutes, a man in flamboyant limegreen shorts ran past her, perhaps aiming to beat the record time up the mountain: 27 minutes and 19 seconds. His speed did not seem to be slowed by the dozens of other Grinders on the path that day.

Over the past three years, the Grouse Grind has become a Vancouver phenomenon. Last year, more than 100,000 people puffed and panted their way up. European tourists, Vancouver Canuck hockey players and movie stars such as Alicia Silverstone and Tom Arnold all joined local climbers in their efforts to scale the mountain, clamber-

ing over the logs and the granite rocks used to construct the path to the top. “This is so unique,” says Stuart McLaughlin, president of Grouse Mountain Resorts, which owns land on top of the mountain and operates restaurants, a bar and tram ride at the peak. “There is nothing like it other than climbing the Matterhorn in the Alps.”

Sing, a manager at the Certified General Accountants’ Association, says she first attempted the Grind after she sprained her ankle and wanted to find an exercise regime to strengthen it. “I had no idea what to expect,” she recalls. “I wasn’t in very good shape and about onequarter of the way up I was breathing so hard I sounded like Darth Vader.” The first trip took her one hour and 45 minutes. “I was exhausted,” she says. “I had never sweated so much in my entire life. But going back in the tram I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment.” Soon, Sing was going up the mountain twice a week and getting there faster each time. In fact, during the summer, midweek evenings have become a bit of a singles scene on top of Grouse, with hundreds of climbers in their 20s and 30s heading there straight after work. “It’s become a big social thing,” the unmarried Sing explains, adding she often meets her friends at the base of the mountain at 5 p.m. “The first one to the top saves a table at the bar.” Intrepid Vancouverites have been climbing Grouse Mountain since

Last year, the Grouse Grind attracted 100,000 people

the first recorded hike was made in 1894, after a hunting party shot a blue grouse and named the peak in honor of the bird. In the 1920s and 1930s, hikers would climb up Grouse for skiing. A wooden chairlift was built in 1949, and the tram arrived in the 1960s, but many hikers still insisted on climbing to the top. In 1981, psychiatrist Philip Severy and his friend Don McPherson, a City of Vancouver engineer, created their own path, cutting away deadfall and clearing rocks to the summit of Grouse, the path that eventually became the Grind. Both men are serious mountaineers and wanted a route to practise their climbing skills. “Sometimes, we’d go up as many as two or three times a day,” Severy recalls. Soon, other Vancouverites discovered the Severy-McPherson trail and in the mid 1990s the two men, with the support of Grouse Mountain Resorts, began to improve their route so it would better resist erosion and ensure hikers’ footholds. Now, the 1.2-m-wide path—which has so many steps it seems like an outdoor StairMaster—is maintained by the Grouse Grind Patrol, three Grouse Mountain Resort employees who are responsible for keeping it safe and assisting injured or lost hikers. Severy, now 58, still trudges up the trail once a week, in addition to his other climbs, and says he is “delighted” to see so many people using it.

And it is used—all year round, by all sorts of Vancouverites. Even through the cold rain and snow there are hikers like Gordon Forbes, 35, who straps a headlamp across his forehead and makes his way up the Grind in the winter dark. Two years ago, a 90-year-old woman made the climb in less than three hours, and then asked what the fuss was about. She had already done it once before—70 years ago. But the climb can be dangerous for people who are not physically fit—in 1996, a 43-year-old man had a fatal coronary halfway up. Last year, the Grouse Grind Patrol had to help out another 39 who had either hurt themselves or been caught by nightfall. Most people take a common-sense approach to the thigh-punishing journey; they are simply satisfied to reach the top, at whatever pace, and take the tram ride back down. But sometimes the challenge of the Grind seems to encourage the masochistic. “There was a group who recently tried to do the Grind 11 times in a row,” says McLaughlin. “That’s like climbing Mount Everest.”

Newcomers to Vancouver are also seduced by the lure of

Grouse, and the endorphin high they achieve from conquering its summit. Alnoor Kassam, 42, moved to North Vancouver from his home in Nairobi five years ago. In Kenya, it was not safe to exercise outdoors. “There is no security on the street,” Kassam says. So when he arrived in British Columbia and breathed in the freedom, he began to ski and take walks along the seawall. Last year, he hired 66-year-old contractor Steve Dietlein to do some renovations on his home. Dietlein said he would take the job since Kassam lived near Grouse Mountain. “I had never heard of the Grouse Grind before and I was too embarrassed to ask since I lived so close to the mountain,” Kassam remembers. “But I finally did ask and Steve said he’d been doing it for over 20 years.” Kassam persuaded Dietlein to initiate him into the mysteries of the Grind. “I realized after the first five minutes that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him,” Kassam acknowledges. “He kept stopping and waiting for me and about halfway up he said he would meet me at the top. I got there in an hour and a half. It took him only 47 minutes.” Kassam is now a Grind regular, hiking up once a week. He and his 11-year-old son, Kalim, even participated with 1,200 others in the yearly race up the mountain, finishing the punishing course in 55 minutes. “After a few days, if I haven’t done the Grind I can feel my body wanting to do it,” he says.

Some longtime Grinders, however, say the magic of the climb has been spoiled by the increasing traffic jams of hikers on the route. “When I started hiking the mountain,” says 39-year-old Michelle Gibson, who has been ascending Grouse since she was 16, “it was me and my dog and a couple of guys in lederhosen.” Following an old clear-cut route under the chairlift, Gibson went up Grouse regularly. “It became a cleansing, spiritual experience for me. The sweat and the breathing and the concentration required to complete the hike transported me. It was like a communion with the mountain.” She would hear the owls at dusk and pick blueberries in the summer. She also used Grouse to test the mettle of prospective boyfriends. “If I was going to get serious about a guy he’d have to be able to hike up Grouse. Other women looked for fast cars and thick wallets. I looked for good legs.” After Severy and McPherson rebuilt their path, Gibson began using it, too, later strapping her baby daughter to her back and occasionally hiking in snow with golf shoes to get a better grip. But today, she disparages the erosion and the disrespect shown by those who choose to climb down the route, rather than take the recommended tram to the bottom. “It’s become so busy that it’s dangerous,” Gibson rues. “But this isn’t equipment at Fitness World. This is something that is alive.”

Severy and McPherson designed their trail only for ascending, and McLaughlin acknowledges that those descending do erode the path and create dangers for those climbing up. “Going down the trail is the most irresponsible thing people can do,” McLaughlin says. The resort has posted signs encouraging hikers to take the tram or an alternative path down built by a B.C. mountaineering club. “But,” McLaughlin concludes with a shrug “you’re always going to find people who insist on running down.”

Riding the tram to the bottom of Grouse used to be free, but the fee is now $5. McLaughlin says that money is used to maintain the Grouse Grind. Still, he concedes, the Grind brings in lots of other revenue for his company: before hikers descend on the tram they usually make a stop at Bar 98. That is where Marilyn Sing headed after her Sunday afternoon climb—for a cool beer to celebrate her pinnacle success. □