The hills are alive…

5 08 2013

… with the sound of thunder!
At least the hills in Manning Park BC were yesterday.

We left White Rock a little later than I’d hoped (two women in attendance – I’ll leave the sexist comments unsaid), but despite it being the long weekend (BC Day today, Monday), the roads were quiet, and we made good headway along Hwy1 and then Hwy 3 towards Manning Park.

After driving for 20 years in the UK with a clean license, I’d picked up 3 points in Manning Park when we first moved here a decade ago, so despite the clear roads I was careful to stick to BC’s sluggish speed limits. Well – mostly anyway.

What was to be a brief stop at Timmie’s in Hope took longer than expected, as we discovered where all the traffic had gone. It was all parked in Timmie’s car park! The weather was a bit undecided as we’d left White Rock, but brightened steadily as we headed East towards the Cascades. I wasn’t totally sure where the trail-head was for our intended hike up “Three Brothers” in Manning Park, as I’d never been myself. However, I felt well prepared with my GPS all programmed up with the route and a shiny new topographical map keeping my compass company in my rucksack.

As we approached the Manning Park lodge, the turning on the left up Blackwall Rd. was well signed, and I knew that we really couldn’t go wrong now. This road – despite its long wiggly ascent – went nowhere except to the start of the hike. Well – not quite.  There is a lookout giving beautiful views to the South and back over the lodge. Having briefly stopped to verify this was not in fact the trail-head, we continued upwards on what was now only a loose gravel road. It was well maintained, but seemed to have been travelled over by a tracked vehicle and our teeth were chattering as the car’s suspension was pounded by the high frequency ruts in the road.

To the left was a cliff – cut away to make the road and, it seems, continuing to throw sizeable chunks of itself onto the road in a bellicose attempt at revenge. The largest rock in the road was a good 18″ cubed. To the right of the road was a shear, unprotected drop. A steep one. There would be a Hollywood ending to any car slipping off that edge! Eventually we turned the corner and found ourselves at the car-park. I was surprised just how many cars were there, but a time check told me it was already almost 11:30am, and the day was much further on than I’d have liked for beginning such a long hike. The Heather Trail begins at the lower car-park, but there are trails linking to it from the upper car park too.

As we arrived and got ready – checking we had wet weather and cold weather gear “just in case” – a Parks Ranger was just packing up what looked like it had been an interesting display of local flora, and suggesting the nearby “Paintbrush Nature Trail” to the less comprehensively prepared. This is a 45 minute stroll named after the Indian Paintbrush flower common to the area.

For us though was the distant peak of First Brother – nearest of the Three Brothers. It’s a 10km hike there, which not surprisingly entails the same distance to get back! The peak is at 2272m… some 7500ft. Not particularly high in these parts, but for an ex-Brit that is high! It’s almost the same as Ben Nevis stacked on Snowden (or even SnowdOn – thanks Lance) – the highest peaks in Scotland and Wales. Luckily the trail head was already high, so the total ascent was only ~700m total (there and back) which is less than doing the Grouse Grind.

The path leads through a wilderness campsite at Buckhorn Camp with a little bridge over the creek of the same name, then climbs steadily up into the high alpine meadows where the views are drop dead gorgeous. You can see for miles – all the way to your innermost thoughts.

The actual ascent of the First Brother requires a turn off the main Heather Trail, and you follow the sandy and rocky ridge up to the peak.

We were very lucky with the weather and despite ominous thunder and spectacular distant rain storms, we made the peak and safely off the ridge before we were treated to hail showers. That careful preparation of “just in case” clothing was appreciated, and we descended the meadow and back to the car in near silence over the next 2-3 hours.

20km in all, over 6 hours (including photo and meal stops). We had gone to experience the views and see the alpine meadows in full bloom and had not been disappointed. The soil is really fragile at these altitudes and signs reminded hikers that a single boot off the path can cause plant and soil damage that may take 20 years to undo. Despite those, we saw several people hacking off the path for “the perfect camera shot”. I will say though that I was greatly impressed to see not one scrap of litter or cigarette butt up there.

We were steadily grazed upon by a variety of flies including some mosquito-like flies with stripes that I’d not seen before. The worst though were giant flies like regular house flies but bigger. When these bit, you were left a little lighter and with blood oozing from a place where you used to have skin. They were hungry! In addition we saw a few ptarmigan up in the rocky areas and on the drive back down Blackwall Rd. we were lucky enough to see a young fawn with its mother. Actually, I think they were lucky I saw them… they were in the road, and with the loose gravel, a sudden stop would have only been an intention with no guarantee of success!





Depends how you look at it…

20 06 2013

It’s Thursday today.

I’ve tried to do the Grouse Grind regularly on Thursdays, after work. Today was my fifth time this season. Tenth since I paid for the timer chip and started officially recording my ascents last August. The first time I ever got officially timed (last year) I did it in an hour and 20 minutes. Not especially quick but I was quite pleased with it. You may recall that last April I did the Sun Run for the first time, and so by August I was arguably reasonably limber. Well – compared to my former self. The other timings of the year didn’t bear that out though, and on average I was a round 1:30.

If you have the timer chip, your time is displayed on a wide screen monitor at the top of Grouse in the chalet. It’s quite scary to see. There are plenty of people with times in the 30-40 minute range. There are also plenty of names that appear multiple times – meaning the person has ascended the Grouse multiple times that day alone. Last week a name was there TEN times. The slowest time was still less than an hour! It’s only about 3km, but it’s 1,231m high… and there’s a lot of steps. Some natural, some man-made to minimise the erosion.

I began this season reasonably well with an hour and 26. The next couple of times I was within a few seconds at around 1:24. Things were looking up. I might even be getting fitter, and might get back to last year’s all-time best! (I’m also trying to lose some weight and generally try and not die any time soon).

Then came last week. I was 30 minutes slower at 1:56. Weird! A whole half hour slower?! It was really humid though, and the top of the mountain was actually shrouded in cloud. I’m not making excuses you understand… I just couldn’t figure out how I could suddenly be so much slower. I was actually overtaken by the “sweepers” – a couple of super-fit Search and Rescue lads whose role is to amble up the Grind after the gate is locked and nominally nobody else is ascending that day. (In practice people circumvent the fencing, so plenty of people popped out at the top even after I made it up there). I did question the benefit of having sweepers at all if they actually left stragglers (me) behind, but I guess that given the fact that there was no practical way (due to fence hoppers) of telling who the last person actually was, it made no difference.

Anyway tonight it rained. A lot. I ummed and ahhed about whether to go at all. Nominally my son was going to take the SkyRide and wait at the top taking photos until I burst magnificently into the late sunshine out of the woods at the top of the Grind. He bottled out due to the bad weather. Or maybe because his girlfriend made him a better offer. Not sure. It may be a pertinent fact that as I write this at 11:45pm he has yet to come home.

Anyway – I got decidedly wet on the Grind. It’s a tough call for appropriate clothing. You want to travel light, typically in running gear with rugged trainers, contrary to the usual scout “be prepared” preference I’d have – carrying a 75l rucksack with stuff that would allow me to live comfortably on the mountain for a week no matter what happened. I tend to actually carry a small day sack – primarily to hold a 1l water bottle and leave my hands free. I also carry a lightweight fleece jumper in case I meet a nasty accident and have to wait for an extended period waiting for the embarrassing rescue that hopefully would arrive eventually.

(When hiking or going into the back-country ALWAYS tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back in contact. Nobody plans to have an accident…).

Today though – I half expected it’d still be raining, so I also took my super lightweight running shell. It’s not really that waterproof, but it cuts the wind and helps keep you warm if you need it.

And a cap. I’m not big on caps, but I wear glasses. Glasses are really good at correcting faulty vision… unless they steam up or get rained on (I wore contacts for many years purely to avoid steamed up glasses when I transitioned from wet dales hikes in Yorkshire to the “prize” of a pub at the end). A cheap peaked cap does wonders to keep the bulk of the “liquid sunshine” – as we call it Vancouver – off your glasses. I set off in reasonable time (i.e. I wasn’t caught up by the sweepers this week), but by the half-way mark, I was already at an hour, and it was obvious that I’d be logging another poor time. And this started me thinking of an earlier conversation I’d had about the psychology of challenges.

Many years ago, I was a Venture Scout Leader in the UK. I took a group of teenagers on a challenge hike – 40 miles overnight around the moors around Sheffield. The route passed various TV aerial masts, and was called The Masters Hike. It snowed. A couple of the teens wanted to drop out and despite my cajoling them through one more checkpoint, they finally quit. I exited the event at the same checkpoint. As we waited the 10 minutes or so for the “body wagon” – a long wheelbase Landy – to pick us up with the other folk exiting at that checkpoint, I got my second breath. Too late – I was already marked as “out”.

It was a huge lesson to me. I was about 25 at the time, and I vowed I would never quit such an event again purely on “mental grounds”. After that I went on to do many other challenge hikes including “Endurance 80” – an 80km (50mi), 24hr hike through the night. Glad to see that one’s still going strong.

So every time I start up the Grind, I have these little arguments in my head.

“Are you mad?

Eh?

Are you mad? You’re nearly 50!

So?

You’re pre-diabetic and have a heart problem.

Again – so?

Well this is just asking for trouble. You’ve barely started and you’re panting.

It’s good for you. It’s called “cardio”. The doctor said I should do more of it…”

And so it goes on – often all the way up to the halfway mark, at which juncture I point out to myself that even if I were to give in, it’s as far to the start as it is to the end, so I might as well continue. But behind it all is the memory of that terrible feeling I had as a young pup when I gave in for no other reason than a weak mental moment.

And so I keep going.

One. More. Step.

That’s one closer to the end. Well – do it again then!

And so on. Despite often sounding like Thomas the Tank Engine when I finally emerge at the top, I am rarely achy or physically exhausted. It’s way more a mental challenge than a physical one.

And the point of all this diatribe, you might ask?  Having taken 1:50 tonight, I initially thought “You’re getting old. Slowing down. Everyone passed you. You’re last”.

But then I thought:

“Yes. But I finished. That’s 10 Grouse Grinds since I started logging them. Probably about 15 altogether. All these people were faster than me today. But what about all those who are at home watching TV? Or who caught the SkyRide up to the top? How many of them have even done it once?”

And I smiled. And I ordered my usual cup of tea and fruit scone in the café. And I felt smug as I rode the SkyRide back down… 20 years the senior of everyone else who was muddy and in shorts.

I hope to keep winning the arguments with myself.





What have you got to Grouse about?

3 08 2012

So regulars will know I live near Vancouver, BC. We have pretty much every option for outdoor entertainment and adventure within easyish reach. The North Shore Mountains (Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour) are very popular ski destinations in season. You can pop there after work and get in a few hours of floodlit skiing or boarding pretty regularly. Much more convenient, if admittedly less spectacular than Whistler/Blackcomb.

I’m no ski/boarding fan. To this day I remember a primary school teacher calling me Barbapapa because I couldn’t walk the length of an upturned gym bench without falling off. Funny what sticks in your mind from when you’re about 8, eh? I don’t have what you’d call a highly developed sense of balance. Of course, I have also been explicitly called unbalanced, but that’s something different for another posting. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes – North Shore Mountains. So anyway, Grouse has done a particularly fine job of making its non-ski persona nearly as profitable as its ski self. There’s a bear sanctuary, wolves, a modern windmill (“Eye of the wind”) with a viewing deck, a year round lodge to allow you to buy over-priced tea and coffee. Coconut milk. The usual. The mountain itself is liberally adorned with trails allowing the resolute or foolish to walk to the top. The main route has become very well established as a common local cardio exercise, and The Grouse Grind has gradually turned from an annual race into a daily challenge for many city workers. There’s electronic timing stations top and bottom, and for $100 or so you can get an annual pass that will allow you to time your ascent each trip, and give you free passage down on the Swiss-made Skyride gondola.

Wikipedia: Grouse Mountain Skyride

Not long after we moved to Canada we did the Grind as a family, replete with granddad – then already well into his 60s – and last born who at the time was about 4 years old. Like the Grand Old Duke of York, we marched right up to the top of the hill, had a cup of tea and an ice cream, and marched right down again. At the 1/4 mark (3/4 of the way down), we pulled to one side to let the after office hours crowd have their turn. I was amused, as we stood there all cool and collected at the stage whispers and loud tuts of “fancy bringing a kid up HERE”. One particularly sweaty gentleman grinned at first born and said encouragingly “keep it up son – you’re already 1/4 of the way there!” I hadn’t the heart to tell him we’d already been up and most of the way down.

But that was over ten years ago. In the interim, probably many thousands of boots and trainers have pummeled the poor hillside. The path of the Grind has now apparently been “improved” – a euphemism for covered in hardcore and steps. I haven’t seen it myself. As a proponent of Leave No Trace, I am willing to sacrifice a small percentage of the natural beauty underneath such “improvements” if it avoids the steady broadening of the path, and destruction of the woodland as more and more feet try to find purchase in mud and other less favourable walking conditions (it rains a lot in BC). The Grind is now extremely popular with the Lululemon and “look at my abs of steel” crowd, and even early risers, I am told (I would never have personal experience, after all!), can find the path crowded.

So these days, it’s one-way. Up only! The fact it’s $10 to come down on the Skyride, and Grouse has a living to make is neither hear nor there. So back to the hiking…

Regulars will recall my tales of The Stawamus Chief up in Squamish. Well, after the 10 year absence, I decided a few weeks ago to try Grouse again. But I just couldn’t face the madding crowd (and the quite distracting Lululemoned bottoms, it has to be said.) Instead I took the path less travelled – The Flint and Feather trail. Named after a collection of poems by Mohawk/English Canadian Emily Pauline Johnson, it starts and ends at the same place (read “bottom” and “top”) as the Grind, but runs off a little to the East. Not for the faint of heart, it includes a little scrambling and rock climbing. Much more peaceful though. The way nature should be experienced. Without being intrusive. Next time up – a couple of weeks a go – I took the BCMC trail. Positively genteel by comparison. But longer. Roughly a two hour ascent.

Last night, I went with a few guys from work, and Mrs E asked to tag along too (I don’t think she believes I actually go up!). Again we did the Flint and Feather… but not the one I did the first time! Started the same. Ended the same. The bit in the middle? Not so much…

At the end of the day though, if you keep heading up and stay on a path, you can’t go much wrong. Unless a bear gets you. Or you fall. Or get lost. Or it goes dark…

I took a couple of snaps with my BlackBerry from the rock outcrop. Wonderful views all around. You get a sense of the steepness of the hill from the pictures, I think.

So, if you’re in the area either with or without Lululemon, why not find something to Grouse about?

A view of Vancouver from Grouse Mountain

Mrs E and a work colleague about 2/3 of the way up Flint and Feather trail, Grouse








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