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Nature’s StairMaster

How hiking the Grouse Grind nearly killed me

“You’re only a quarter of the way up this mountain, and it only gets harder from here.” After two hours of agony on the aptly named Grouse Grind, this is not the encouragement I need from the park rangers. But these rangers have zero patience left for overzealous vacationers; the kind who think climbing what’s known as “Mother Nature’s StairMaster” will fit easily into their itinerary somewhere between jet lag and greasy vacation food. In college, I braved an actual StairMaster only one time, motivated by my roommate’s promise of Taco Bell afterward. So, I hear the rangers loud and clear: “You ain’t gonna make it, kid.” Behind me, my cousin Curly studies my face while I decide what to do. Some quick math tells me I’m in for six more hours of this hell. The answer is clear. “I’m done,” I say emphatically. “I’m going back.” The sparkle returns to Curly’s eyes: “I’ll go too!” Neither of us wanted to wimp out first, so we find comfort in a joint surrender.   

This misguided trek came at the tail end of a family vacation in Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my uncles lived in BC, and we wanted to visit. So, twelve of us booked flights, rented a house, and spent one week in the glorious Pacific Northwest. Our newly renovated house had a large pool, and the back deck faced the mountains. As we unpacked, three curious black bear cubs strolled onto the deck to peek at their new visitors. It was a thrilling way to start the trip, and we buckled in for a week of nature and adventure.    

My sister Brooke joined us in Vancouver, and her fearless spirit guided most of our endeavors. We started strong, renting bikes in Stanley Park to ride on a trail that wrapped around the coast of the Pacific Ocean. As we pedaled out of the harbor, we turned a corner, and a gust of new air announced the ocean before we even saw water. Deep blue waves crested on the sand, the air was fresh, and people meandered through the park’s trails. The trees were so big that five of us fit inside one hollowed-out trunk. We saw many of the First Nations totem poles that dotted the park. It was a picture-perfect outing, topped off with a visit to a pizza shop.   

The second day, we visited the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge. One of the longest suspension bridges in the world, Capilano is 450 feet long and dangles 230 feet over a fast-moving river. It can take ten minutes to cross, and the bridge sways the entire time. Though a stunning display of engineering, it was a nightmare for me and my aversion to heights. I stood at the entrance gripped with fear. My group happily stopped to look over the edge and snap pictures. I did no such thing, scuttling across the bridge in a terrified walk-run. If I plunged to my death that day, at least I finally saw the Pacific Ocean! My fear abated as soon as I made it across; gardens in the forest were lit up, with treehouses and quaint bridges built into the landscape. I wondered if the treehouses were big enough to sleep in, lest I lose my nerve to cross back over the bridge. I’d had a good life on the other side, but if it was my time to become a forest dweller, then so be it.   

Then came the day of the dreaded Grouse Grind. People come from all over to try the 1.2-mile hike. It’s categorized as “challenging,” but Brooke is an avid hiker, and this was on her bucket list. I’m occasionally willing to hike—to, like, a bakery—but Brooke’s enthusiasm tricked me into thinking I could handle this. (Brooke also threw a roller-skating party for her fortyfifth birthday, so I really should have seen this coming.) The first two hours were brutal: a man on the trail had a heart attack, and knowing he was done climbing filled me with jealousy. After the rangers convinced me to abandon this death race and return to sea level, I found climbing down was twice as hard on my legs. It took a full hour to get back. Curly and I then hopped a cable car to the top of the mountain, where we found the rest of our group finished with the climb, all triumphant and annoying. My father, then of retirement age, sailed by me early in the hike. He breezed to the top and stepped off the trail with aplomb. “I’m ready for a beer,” he announced. Sir, I barely made it halfway, and the only thing I’m ready for are paramedics.  

At the beginning of the hike is a sign that says, “Legs! You got this.” What a load of crap. The only thing my legs had was lactic acid buildup. It spilled out of my muscles and infected my personality. We spent the last day of our trip zip-lining, and I stomped through it like some kind of Lactic Acid Demon. When our guide accidentally grazed my arm, the pain was immediate. “DON’T TOUCH ME!” I hissed. When he told us the zip lines passed over a stream, I wondered out loud if the water was deep enough to drown myself in. Not my finest hour, but I was determined to finish the excursion. The last zip line was strung from peak to peak. The guide pushed me out, and I was surrounded by the greenest trees on the mountaintop. Below me, the blue ocean sparkled to the horizon. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. For a brief moment, I forgot my muscles were on fire.  

Of all the places I’ve visited, British Columbia was by far my favorite. Not just for the sights and sounds, but because it’s where I learned I have no business climbing mountains; it’s better for everyone involved if I just stick to writing about them.

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