By Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER – “This is the place you really want to run through,” advises my soft-spoken hiking partner, stepping up our already brisk pace on a rare stretch of nearly flat ground. “You save about 20 seconds, which can be a lot.”
These aren’t the words I’m expecting to hear from the 73-year-old retiree who’s graciously welcomed me on one of his early-morning treks up Vancouver’s notorious Grouse Grind.
Terry Byrne is no ordinary septuagenarian. He holds the second-place record for most ascents of the well-known trail â€” not to mention a commanding first place in his age category â€” having made nearly 1,700 trips up the infamously gruelling 2.9-kilometre mountainside trek.
The Grind, as it’s known locally, is a popular but demanding trail located right on the city’s back doorstep.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and Byrne’s showing me the ropes on tackling the more than 2,800 strenuous steps to the summit.
Freshly cut yellow cedar stairs and railings â€” the most recent addition to the trail â€” infuse the crisp morning air with a sharp, delicious aroma, while the guttural thrumming of the hike’s namesake bird pulses out on occasion from the undergrowth.
Peering at the verdant canopy held up by towering old-growth trees, I’m momentarily distracted and slip on a loose stone, which, along with jutting roots and the occasional set of wooden stairs, makes up most of the route.
“Cadence,” Byrne offers, red-capped head bobbing with each stride. “You’ve got to keep one, two, one, two. And know if you do this steady you’ll be there in an hour.”
By “there” he means the Grouse Mountain chalet. It’s the end point for Grinders â€” a colloquial term for the hike’s tight-knit community of regulars. Many of them â€” Byrne included â€” enjoy flashing cards at timer stations at the trail’s beginning and end to record their speed and total number of treks. Today is hike number 1,695 for the energetic old-timer, who genially refers to his punishing pastime, launched about a decade ago, as nothing more than “a walk in the park.”
But the Grind, sometimes called Mother Nature’s Stairmaster, is a formidable exercise that can spell serious trouble for the unprepared. Metro Vancouver estimates up to half-a-million people tackle the trail annually through its May-to-October season, with 25 to 30 evacuations taking place during that time. Reasons for emergency responses range from sprained ankles to fatalities, such as a mid-hike heart attack that claimed the life of a 55-year-old man earlier this month.
Still, the Grind has never been more popular, drawing thousands of locals and visitors alike with its easy access to B.C.’s stunning outdoors.
“(It’s) just the majesty of being amongst these trees,” Byrne muses as he hauls himself up what has quickly become a nearly 45-degree incline.
“There are trees over here that are 500 years old â€” big monsters, as wide as this trail,” he says, extending his sinewy arms to their full reach.
I wheeze at him in what I hope comes across as thoughtful agreement.
The tops of railings and the occasional section of otherwise grizzled bark on trail-side trees are polished smooth through years of caresses by sweat-sodden hands.
Suddenly we break through the foliage and squint into the glaring sunshine at the trail’s end. Byrne pulls ahead in his bright blue sneakers and prances up the steps at the chalet’s base, where he flashes his card at the timer station.
An expansive view of the Lower Mainland greets us, with Vancouver’s glut of gleaming downtown highrises bordering the enclave of green that is Stanley Park, appearing small at our 1,127-metre vantage. The ocean is a sparkling sheet of electric tinsel reaching across to Vancouver Island, which is visible through nebulous wisps of cloud.
As we make our way to the gondola that will take us back down to the base of the Grind, Byrne is already talking about hiking up again.
“I plan to do the grind about twice today,” he says, boyish eagerness painted on his face. “It might be three. It just depends how (I) feel.
“I could go all day, actually,” he adds, grinning.
Of that, I have absolutely no doubt. After all, he has a record to defend.
If You Go…
Consult Grouse Mountain’s website for information on the Grouse Grind: https://www.grousemountain.com/grousegrind
Follow @gwomand on Twitter.