Category Archives: Hiking

For love of the Grind

I love the Grouse Grind.

It drives me crazy sometimes. The days when it resembles nothing more than Grand Central Station, a conga line of people slowly ascending their way up the mountain. The folk who have no clue about trail etiquette, and refuse to move aside even when the speed climbers beneath them ask repeatedly and politely to be let past. The groups who shout and scream all the way up, shattering the quiet of the woods. The tragically unprepared, who sit in Gucci loafers just below the quarter mark asking passing hikers if they’re nearly at the top. The times I tackle it when I’m having a bad day and my leg muscles feel like wet, quivering noodles and my heart threatens to bust right out of my chest as I push on upwards.

But I still love it. It’s so brutal and unrelenting. There just isn’t anywhere else that compares when you want to push yourself to your absolute cardio limit. There are no flat stretches, and once you’ve done it a few times rest stops start to feel like something for the weak. The Grind – for us at least – is about setting foot on the trail, and then pushing as hard as you damn well can until you get to the top. And when you approach it like that, it’s the best workout in the world.

Yesterday my leg muscles were completely blown out after cycling 146km on Friday and then skiing what was best described as challenging snow at Whistler on Saturday. It felt as tough as the Grind’s ever felt. Our upward progress seemed agonizingly slow as J bounded ahead of me and I reminded myself repeatedly that however tired my legs were, they had plenty of fuel and shouldn’t be complaining in comparison to last summer. In the end it’s just one step, and one more, and then one more after that. Enough of those and you’ll end up at the top sooner or later.

We made it in 55 minutes, which is lagging behind our standard Grind time (around 50 minutes) but not bad under the circumstances. And in spite of how brutal it was, and the unfortunate collection of really slow and inconsiderate groups on the final quarter, I was so glad we did it. There’s never been a time that I’ve done the Grind that I haven’t felt better afterwards.

Grouse Grind


Mountains are my Prozac

It’s been the warmest October of my life. A handful of leaves blushed into fall colours after a windstorm last week, and there’s a chill in the mornings and a low mist hanging over the ocean that hints at fall, but the days are shirtsleeves warm.

For my birthday we both took the day off work, and made a very last-minute decision to trade up a spa visit for climbing a mountain. There won’t be many more days like this, and we want to make the most of them. We headed for Seymour under a sky so clear it could have been June, not October.

Seymour hike

I know the route up to Seymour peak pretty well. I’ve climbed straight up the wall on snowshoes (and then fallen down it afterwards.) I’ve skirted around the peak to the west on a skin track, and looped up to the top through the gulleys. But I’ve only ever done it in winter, when even the complex terrain beyond the backcountry gate is softened and hidden by a coating of snow.

It was amazingly different. The trail I know so well was completely unfamiliar: rough boulders, logs, little bridges that I had no idea existed beneath the white winter carpet. The wall we climbed and fell down was a forbidding barricade of near-vertical rock; there would be no way to emulate a similar route in the summer without climbing equipment. The face that B and I accidentally skied onto after a wrong turn during a backcountry excursion was equally intimidating, and J gasped when I pointed it out.

Nearing Seymour Peak

The final climb up to the peak was the strangest of all. I’m used to an area of domes and curved gullies; instead I found shattered boulders and steep rock, odd tiny lakes, and one small patch of frozen snow lurking in the shadows. We scrambled up the bare rock to the peak and hugged and laughed at where we found ourselves on a random Wednesday morning in October: under a burning sun, at the place where the sky began.

Seymour Peak views

We debated continuing on to the next peak, but by this point our water supplies were running low in the heat and we had a birthday dinner and champagne cocktails waiting at home. We headed back down, with a brief detour to visit the snow patch so that I could give a nod to Ullr. While my thoughts are very much on the winter to come, the hike cemented my goal to spend more time hiking in the alpine next summer. I love this crazy contrast between summer and winter mountain landscapes, the alternate universe created by the passing of the seasons.

Birthday snow

Alternate universe

All this time, and I’ve never been to the Whistler alpine in the summer. The closest I came was on our honeymoon, when we rode the gondola from a summer valley through fall colours and into a winter wonderland where the snow was already a foot deep in mid-September. I didn’t ski at Whistler that year because I was too busy dealing with finding work, applying for Canadian residency, and being broke. I suspect it was an epic season.

Snow reservoir, September 2004

This September we celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary, and decided there was no better way to spend the day than revisiting the scenes from our honeymoon. We arrived in Whistler village on a baking afternoon that felt more like mid-August, and rode a greenhouse-like gondola up to the Roundhouse. The tourists sharing our cabin were speculating about what it might look like in the winter, and I pointed out the best runs and landmarks on the way.

Whistler peak (summer)

Being in the Whistler alpine on a glorious sunny day in the early fall was a strange, strange thing. I felt like I was in an alternate universe: this world I know so incredibly well now – I can track the changing contours on a run from one season to the next – and yet everything about it was different. Shale Slope, which is pretty mellow for a black run, looked near-vertical. There wasn’t a waterfall at the Waterfall, which confused me. I could just make out the lines of Air Jordan, but without their winter coat it was hard to imagine them skiable.

Whistler in the summer

All the angles were different, and everything was sharper and darker. I love mountain landscapes more than any other kind, regardless of the season. And yet they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum: the clean, monochromatic winter, where everything is so simple and pure. The jumbled chaos of summer: grasses, alpine flowers and trees, the fading reds and blacks of basalt and shale, uneven surfaces and the sudden blue of lakes that would be just another frozen surface at another time of year.

High Note inukshuk

We rode up to the peak, and hiked around for a while on the High Note trail. Here and there we found trace patches of snow leading into the bowls, and with the desperation of a long summer I hurled myself onto them. One day soon the new season’s snow will start flying.

Summer snow at Whistler

It was a very strange experience: being somewhere that I know better than almost any place on earth, and yet having every single thing about it from the colours to the way the ground felt underfoot being so profoundly different.

More than anything else, J was looking forward to her first Peak 2 Peak ride. Her dearest wish was that we have a cabin to ourselves. I told her I thought this was very unlikely – the lineup when we reached the Roundhouse was 50 deep – and yet perfectly on cue, it happened. A glass-floored gondola swung in right after the cabin we were in line for, and everyone else abandoned ship and rushed for it. We hopped into the first cabin, and rode the distance between the two mountains completely alone. It was all my favourite things rolled into one: Whistler, mountains, and J. It was beautiful. It was a very fine way to celebrate an anniversary.

Whistler anniversary

A walk in the woods

Now that I’m venturing outdoors again, on Saturday we loaded the car up with friends and drove out to Hope to walk a small section of the Kettle Valley Trail.

Kettle Valley Trail, Hope

The section we hiked took us through leafy green woods to a series of former railroad tunnels hewn out of the rocky face of the Coquihalla Canyon. In between the tunnels wooden bridges and rock ledges overlooked amazing views: clear water tumbling through the canyon walls, forming deep green pools where foam swirled and the dark bodies of salmon lurked.

We found a gorgeous picnic spot by the river before making our way slowly back through the tunnels to the car. It was a lovely hike, gentle and flat enough for my current low energy state with the tunnels adding an unusual element to the scenery. Above all, it just felt good to be out and about again.

Coquihalla Canyon

Most of the way up the mountain

A couple of weeks ago we set out to climb Mount Baker. I’d just been through a serious relapse of the illness that laid me low earlier this summer, and J wasn’t sure how the night out on the Hogsback Ridge before summit day would go, but we were both determined to enjoy ourselves and get as far as we could.

Heliotrope Ridge trail

The Heliotrope Ridge trail was beautiful. We made our way steadily uphill through dense forests and past tumbling waterfalls, stopping here and there so our guide could point out a feature from our ski descent of the Coleman Glacier last winter. The forest was unrecognizable in summer green, the gully where we’d skied a perfect natural halfpipe now a chattering creek with narrow logs for us to cross cautiously under the weight of our packs.

Heliotrope Ridge climber's trail

After a while the trail emerged onto a steep, narrow ridgeline with glimpses of snow ahead and meadows of wildflowers sweeping down the mountainside to our left and right. The peak of Baker loomed like a towering stormcloud over the eastern horizon, and we crested a small rise to find a view to end all views ahead of us: the duelling seracs of the Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers, with the blue blocks of the icefall behind them.

Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers and Baker Peak

Hogsback Ridge, our campsite for the night, wasn’t much further up the trail. Warm winds shook the wildflowers as we climbed a small snow patch and over loose shards of crumbling volcanic rock. The ridge itself was a strange spot, desolate and barren for the most part but dotted here and there with splashes of colour where the grass and lupins had ventured a little further up. We pitched our tents and headed up to the Coleman Glacier for some practice with ice axes and crampons.

Crampon practice on the Coleman Glacier

Just to the left of our practice area was the route I skied down back in the winter, now with exposed rock at the top of the face and a couple of enormous crevasses bridging it lower down. I hadn’t realised just how high we’d been that day, or how steep some of the lines were; the view was different with skis on my feet.

Self arrest on the Coleman Glacier

Practice over, we returned to the campsite for a revolting dinner of rehydrated food before most of the crew turned in for the night. J and I stayed up to watch the sun sink into the valleys to the west, painting the skyline with fire as it dipped below the horizon.

Baker sunset

We left our tent flap open during the night, which led to many of the small mice that live on the ridge tap-dancing on me as I slept but also to a view of the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen. The stars were so bright they bathed the glacier above us and the peak of Mount Baker in silver; the Milky Way was a bright splash of ribbon twisting from one side of the sky to the other.  I wish I’d had a camera that could have captured it.

Baker at dawn

A strong wind whipped down off the glacier during the night, turning the tent into a giant drum. Between that and the mice, neither of us slept much. Joseph woke us at 4am, shortly before a blue dawn began to seep over the eastern horizon. Watching the sun rise over Baker peak was another experience I’ll never forget.

Sunrise over Baker

J was experiencing some migraine symptoms after the sleepless night, so we decided we’d be better off heading down rather than pressing on for the summit with dizziness a risk. Once it was fully light we struck the tent, loaded up our packs, and headed back down the trail. Descending the steep ridgeline so heavily loaded and in plastic mountaineering boots was an interesting challenge that gave my quads the best workout they’ve had in a long time.

Even though we didn’t make the summit, it was one of the most memorable hiking experiences of my life. The beautiful hike through the forest, the deep blue views from the ridge fading into sunset, and sleeping under the stars below the peak of Baker itself. Next time, we’ll make it to the top.


After doing my very best to psych myself up for the start of summer, the reality is that since the slopes at Whistler closed I’ve been very slack. Part of it, I’m sure, was sadness at the end of winter. There’s never been a season when I had more driving me than this one, and I hadn’t had nearly enough of the backcountry adventures, the powder snow, the improvements in ability and technique that I was finally seeing in the last couple of months. Mostly, though, it’s that work is currently taking priority, and consequently there’s been much less time than I’m used to for chasing adventures.

I’ve made it out for a few easy spins on the road bike, but nothing more demanding than a quick two-hour circuit to Iona and back. We’ve been doing the Grind once a week, consistently clocking in around the 50-minute mark, but an hour doesn’t really feel like enough. We’ve been to the pool a few times, but the miserable June weather hasn’t been much of an inspiration for outdoor swimming.

I’m starting to feel antsy, pent-up, ready for something more. I need to start chiseling time out of the parts of the week that I’m not using for other things, ignoring the weather, and getting back out there.

Today we shrugged our shoulders at the hammering rain and hit the mountain for a drenching round trip on the Grind. The climb was a joy; in spite of the trail having turned into a waterfall, the rain was refreshing and my legs were feeling springy and ready for anything after five days without exercise on an out-of-town work trip. At the top, I wanted nothing more than to do the whole thing again.

Soggy Grouse Grind

With energy to spare, we made the mistake of deciding to hike down. Ignoring the fact that I’ve been told by my physiotherapist that this isn’t a very good idea, conditions were deteriorating by the minute with the rain pounding down and the trail growing increasingly wet and slippery. The light jackets we’d brought with us couldn’t cope with the downpour, and as we picked our way down through ankle-deep puddles and flowing water we weren’t able to move fast enough to keep ourselves warm. Just before the quarter mark I slipped on a root, twisted my left knee hard as I fell and it buckled underneath me, and came to an abrupt halt as I broke my fall by slamming my right shoulder into a tree trunk.

I only took a few minutes to recover from the pain, but the brief lack of movement took a toll and we both became very chilled. The final quarter was a shivery, wet mess, and when the trail finally ended we hotfooted it across the lake of a parking lot to the washrooms where we discovered that both our so-called waterproof backpacks had failed to live up to their reputation, and our dry clothes were soaked. (I had more than an inch of water pooled in the bottom of my bag.)

Drowned rat

Giving up on the idea of dry clothes, we ran (achy knees and all) back to the car, where we used our emergency foil blankets to protect the seats from our drenched garments. The windows quickly fogged to opacity, and I had to switch the heaters from blowing much-needed warm air at us to demisting at regular intervals as we drove toward the bridge. Each time I turned the vents away from us, I began shivering uncontrollably; my core temperature was clearly bottoming out. I sent a small prayer of thanks to my friend A (whose car I still have) for the heated seats, which I’m fairly sure saved us from incipient hypothermia.

In spite of the fact that this was a really stupid adventure, at least we got out there and did something and I feel a lot better for it. Now I just have to figure out how to find the time to get back out and do more over the next couple of months. It’s not going to be easy. For the time being, the best I can hope for is to be a dedicated weekend warrior.