NORTH VANCOUVER, B.C. — Maybe I should have wised up and retreated to the comforts of my hotel suite, with the waterfront view and 1,000-thread-count sheets.
The ominous signs certainly were there. There was the tourist who dry-heaved halfway up the trail. There was the couple with the Idaho plates who drove off with these parting words: "It's like the Bataan Death March.
But trek on I did, up the lung-burning Grouse Grind, aka "Mother's Nature StairMaster," in North Vancouver. The trail does not meander nor detour to scenic points. It does not mess around: 1.8 vertical miles up to Grouse Mountain resort, a 2,800-foot elevation gain.
Professional athletes train here. Hollywood celebrities hike it while filming in Vancouver. Actors Ryan Reynolds and Russell Crowe did the Grind. Matt Damon showed his "Bourne Identity" cred by completing it in 45 minutes. (Ninety minutes to two hours is about average; weekend warriors aim to summit in under an hour.)
"It's just been a phenomenon that we can't understand," said Grouse spokeswoman Sarah Lusk. "It's the ultimate bragging rights. People say, 'Have you done the Grind? Yeah? What's your time?' "
The summit record is 23 minutes and 48 seconds. It's as much fitness test as a hiking trail. But I didn't know all that then. I was as unprepared as could be — and hung over from the night before.
Chat in the park
While vacationing this summer, I struck up a conversation with a jogger on my morning run around Stanley Park. Having heard I was looking for an interesting run, the jogger looked me over and said, "You seem fit. Do the Grind."
Next thing you know, my ignominious morning on this infamous trail was spent cursing that jogger and just about every step in my path. There are 2,830 steps. There was a lot of cursing.
The Empire State Building, by contrast, has only 1,860 steps.
The trail is deceptive. From the trailhead, it looks like a gradual ascent. There was laughter all around me, folks talking about dinner plans and Beyoncé.
But after a quarter mile, it becomes a vertical climb, and all the chatter is replaced by panting.
The guys in front of me complained their thighs were burning. I muted that out and soldiered on, convinced the summit was near.
I heard grumblings and looked up. A sign said I had only reached the halfway mark. Another sign read: "We didn't say this was going to be easy."
A couple debated whether to turn around. One woman told her companion he would have to carry her backpack the rest of the way for "getting us into this mess."
Grouse Mountain is a ski area 25 minutes outside of downtown Vancouver. But among many it's known less for ski runs and more for this trail from hell.
In 1981, a couple of mountaineers carved out this path on the hill's southwest side for climbers to use as a practice run. The Grouse Grind was completed by winter of 1983 and earned a cult following, especially with personal trainers sending their celebrity clients on the hike. About 100,000 hikers and tourists "do the Grind" every year from May to mid-October.
The most devoted celebrity grinder, arguably, is Chip Wilson, CEO of Lululemon, the hip yoga apparel company. He treats the Grind the same way Seattleites look at Green Lake — as a relaxing stroll.
Wilson holds meetings with his executives on the hike and sometimes invites employees and reporters along to chat.
Some locals think it's cool that this millionaire has such a quirky open-door policy. Me, I think that's all red herring, because halfway up, his minions would be too cottonmouthed to make a case for a raise, reporters too gassed to dog him about third-quarter earnings.
No turning back
About 1.2 miles up, my legs were rubbery. But there was no turning back. I say that not out of bravado but because you're prohibited from hiking down. The moisture in the air makes the dirt and granite trail slippery, and with the momentum going down, you're prone to slip and fall. There are no hand rails much of the way.
The deal is you summit, then grab a beer at the bar, take in the view of Mount Baker to the southeast and Vancouver Island to the west. Then take the gondola down to the parking lot. But you don't hike down.
For beginners, the key is to pace yourself to ensure you have enough in reserve for the punishing stretch after the halfway mark. Take small steps. Go slow. Take breaks. Follow those tips and you could walk to the top in 90 minutes without needing to be in marathon-running shape, veteran grinders advised me.
Naturally, I did none of that. I sprinted and skipped steps here and there.
With under a quarter-mile to go, my legs wobbled until they finally buckled. I collapsed with cramps in my left calf. One hiker smirked. Another seemed annoyed he had to walk around me. I stretched out on the side for almost 10 minutes.
Mercifully, the last stretch flattens out a bit. I limped the last 50 yards or so to the top, heading straight to the teen selling bottles of ice water.
I'd summited in under 57 minutes. Soaked in sweat, I looked like I'd been caught in a downpour.
A woman passing, perhaps taking pity, said, "You conquered the Grind!" This same woman, I should note, was smart enough to ride up in the gondola.
Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @tanvinhseattle.