Snowshoes, Micro Spikes, and Crampons. Oh my!

Get ready for an “exciting” blog about what I put on my feet for traction/flotation when I’m adventuring in the winter.   I usually use one of two things: snowshoes or micro spikes.  I have a section for each item, and I’ve also included a section for crampons, even though I don’t have or use them.  My husband has crampons, and he has used them for years.  I picked his brain, did a little reading, and have a few things to say about them.

So let’s begin.

Snowshoes

True confession: I rarely have to use snowshoes when hiking in the winter.  The room gives a collective “Gasp!”  Bear with me for a moment, and I’ll explain myself.  Snowshoes are meant primarily for flotation, and secondarily for traction.  Most of the time I’m wandering around in the snow, I’m not breaking a trail.  In case you’re a super newbie, “breaking a trail” is when you are the first person to walk on it (or the first person since the last snowfall, and there’s now two feet of powder on the trail … not bitter).  Not only is it rare for me to be the first person, the trails I use are often tramped down by hundreds of my predecessors.  The snow is usually packed hard enough that snowshoes serve little purpose, and can actually be detrimental.  Why, you ask?  Snowshoes, in the right conditions can act like a sled, or toboggan.  They have very little traction material on the bottom (some brands have none), so trekking on packed snow can get rather slippery.  Walking across a packed slope can often be much worse because snowshoes weren’t designed for that kind of thing.  For more details on this subject, I suggest you read How to Kill Yourself Snowshoeing.  Although the title sounds menacing, the article is accurate.  Snowshoes are meant for low slopes, and fresher snow.  Many people seem to be unaware, and we are now seeing more rescues for snowshoers who slip and fall, ending up in a tree well, or breaking/dislocating something.  It used to be more common for skiers or snowboarders to be rescued when going out-of-bounds.  Now we see people who are on a snowshoe trail getting injured.  The times, they are a changin’.

If you’re wearing snowshoes,  and walking uphill dig your toes in, so you’re placing your weight on the front half of your foot.  The greatest amount traction material on a snowshoe is usually at your toe, so use it.   If the hill is steep and/or icy, I personally wouldn’t use snowshoes.  It’s dangerous, and you’re increasing your risk of being injured.

When you’re going downhill, and this will seem counter-intuitive, the same rule applies.  You want to dig your toe in.  If you lean back, you increase your odds of sliding.  Your other option is to sit down on your behind, and slide downhill like a four-year old.   This is my favourite option.

We broke trail once this year, in powder, and we still sunk down about 2 feet.  This is preferable to post-holing without snowshoes.  “Post holing” is what they call it when your foot sinks in much further, like to your hips.   We didn’t float as well as we hoped we would, but we would have needed much larger snowshoes to get better flotation.

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It looked like fun when my husband was doing it.

For the record I own Women’s MSR Lightning Ascents, which I got for Christmas.  I tried the MSR Evo Ascent which were supposed to be unisex, but my foot slid off the heel lift.  Apparently my size 7.5 foot isn’t big enough for unisex sizes.  Good to know.   The Lightning Ascents are supposed to give you more traction, as they have metal ridges all the way around the bottom of the frame.  My first pair was MSR Denalis that I used for (probably) a decade until the rubber straps finally gave out, and snapped on one shoe.  I ordered new rubber straps from MSR on Amazon.com,  and was able to refurbish both shoes for about $40 Canadian.  I’ve kept them as spares for friends, or our kids.  All of our snowshoes are 22 inches.  If you want to extend your shoe to give you more flotation, you can buy a little piece that attach to the back of the shoe.  We’ve never invested in the extra piece since we don’t use them all that often.

Micro Spikes

About three years ago I bought a pair of Kahtoola Micro Spikes.   I was snowshoeing up Mt. Seymour with my husband when I first spied them.  The snow was hard packed on the trail, and I was wandering up with my snowshoes, whose extra weight, and lack of traction,  filled me with lustful envy when I first spied those mini crampons.   I knew I had to try them, so I gleefully opened my wallet and purchased a pair.  My husband was not moved by them.  He’d always used snowshoes, and they were good enough.  He doesn’t like change as much as I do.

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My old MSR Denali snowshoes, and my Kahtoola micro spikes

One year later he had a pair.  I’m not saying I was right, but we can connect the dots.

When wearing micro spikes uphill you should walk on the front of your foot, just like you do with snowshoes.  It’s not because you need the traction, but rather that it will relieve the stress on the top of your foot.  I made the tendons on the top of my feet very sore from walking flat-footed, as I hike quite frequently.  Some snowshoes come with a lift on the back, but in micro spikes you will have to remember to do it yourself.  My injury took about 6 months to heal.  You’ve been warned.

Micro spikes are easy to use, since they are framed with rubber which slips easily over the toe, and heel of your boot.  The spikes and chains on the bottom are made of stainless steel, so maintenance is straight forward.  We rinse ours off after we use them, hang them to dry, and store them in the bag that they came with.  They also work well in the mud, as an added bonus.

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The only two cons to micro spikes are: 1. soft, wet snow; and 2. a greater angle, icy slope.  Soft, wet snow tends to create a ball under your foot, which feels funky, and can increase your odds of slipping.  If that happens, try to bang it off your foot.  As for a steep, icy slope, micro spikes are good for hills, but they won’t cut it on a really serious hill.  That’s where we get in to crampon territory.

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Snow balling underfoot

Crampons

Do not use micro spikes if you are crossing a steep, very hard ice slope.  That’s where you want to use crampons, and an ice axe (not poles).   I don’t consider myself to be properly educated, or equipped to cross such a slope.  Always be mindful of where you go, and what your capabilities are. As I’ve said before, this is an area of hiking that I don’t have much experience in.

Oh, and always check for avalanche danger.  Know where you are going, tell someone where you will be, and when you plan to get back.  Be prepared, just like a Scout.  If you are in the “crampon-wearing zone” you probably know this already.  I plan to take an avalanche safety course next winter.   So far, I just stay away from anything that looks remotely dangerous.

My husband took a mountaineering course in the Rockies 19 or 20 years ago, and used crampons exclusively for traversing a glacier.  They are meant for icy surfaces where you don’t want to plummet to your doom: glaciers with crevasses, ice climbing, steep slopes.  When we hike Mt. Seymour together, I wear micro spikes, and go up the wand-marked route, while my husband walked up the face of the mountain in crampons.

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My husband walking up a steep slope to see a cornice … for fun.
Some crampons have an anti-balling feature, so you don’t get that same wet snow ball on the bottom of your foot like you do with micro spikes.  Crampons have longer, sharper spikes, and are rigid on the bottom.  They go deeper in to the ice, and have little or no play to them.  Like the name denotes, micro spikes have shorter spikes, and the chains that connect them allow some movement, decreasing stability.

These are the ones my husband bought from MEC.  He had to trim the straps, which also required melting the ends, so they wouldn’t fray.  I’d suggest talking to someone at an outdoor store, or doing some more reading if you think you need them.  This is my husband’s second pair, and he’s really enjoying them.

crampons

So to summarize, here’s how I view walking in a winter wonderland:

  1. Flat trail, fresh snow, minimal traction required: snowshoes.
  2. Hard packed snow, some ice, hills that aren’t crazy steep: micro spikes.
  3. High angle, dense ice, walking across glaciers: crampons.

I hope that helps, and happy walking!

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The Okanagan

The province of British Columbia is large, and diverse.  I leave near the coast, and we have typical pacific north-west weather: rain, downpour, and a few showers.  It makes the land lush.  There are no shortages of ferns, salal, or coniferous trees, however, if you go inland you will see a dramatic change in vegetation and climate.  Osoyoos is a small border town, located in the Southern Okanagan region of BC.  It’s a semi arid desert, and the land heading north of it, in the same valley, is also very dry.  It can be quite cold in the winter, and blazing hot in the summer.  What do we do with this land?  We grow grapes for wine, of course.  That’s right,  in an semi arid area, that doesn’t see a lot of precipitation, but does have a series of lakes, we grow grapes.  We used to grow fruit, but apparently apples are produced en masse somewhere else now.  Wineries are where it’s at, and we have plenty of them.  Most of these wineries are small, not like our American cousins’ wineries, but the valley is dotted with them from end to end.  The hot dry weather, beautiful lakes, and wineries make it a great, local place to vacation.

My mother lives in the Okanagan Valley, and I go up to visit every couple of months, sometimes with family members, and sometimes on my own.  When tourists flock to there every summer it drives my mother nuts.  Her typically sleepy town, and quiet roads become busy, and jammed with people on holiday.  In the winter, it’s much more quiet.  There are ski hills, but the number of vacationers goes down dramatically after the wine festivals have ended each fall.  Last winter I flew up to see her in January, rather than drive the mountain pass between us, but this year my hubby and I drove up together.

My mother is disabled, and tends to be a homebody, but my husband and I need to move more.  We hadn’t done much hiking up there in the past, so  I reached out to an online Okanagan hiking community, last year, looking for suggestions.  We’ve since invested in a couple of books, but there aren’t as many resources for hiking in the Okanagan as there are for the more populated areas.   They have plenty of mountains, but they aren’t as high as they are on the coast.  Most of the hikes we’ve tried tend to be short, steep ones.  Since it’s a drier climate you get a lot of wild grasses and pine trees.  There isn’t a huge amount of underbrush to climb over, which is nice, and lack of vegetation also makes for some dramatic views. They do have predators (e.g.  cougars, bears, and rattlesnakes), none of which I have encountered to date.   Of the hikes I’ve done so far only two had a toilet at the start:  Knox Mountain and Nickel Plate Nordic Centre.  It’s BYOTP, my friends.  I’ve mentioned the thin vegetation in the Okanagan, which means there is nowhere to hide.  Nowhere.  And watch for those rattlesnakes.

Okanagan Trails We’ve Tried

Giant’s Head
Summerland, BC
3.2 km (out and back), 350 m elevation gain

The first time I hiked up Giant’s Head by myself, it was in the snow, with nobody around.  I was exploring by car, and didn’t think I would end up hiking.  I was more prepared to go for a walk.  I thought I’d be able to drive to the parking lot near the top (they have pit toilets there!), and walk the short distance to the summit.  As a result, I was wearing jeans, a long, warm jacket, and hiking boots.  It was -10C out, but sunny.  The gate at the bottom of the road is closed in the winter, and I didn’t know that.   I parked near the gate, and walked up the serpentine ribbon of asphalt to the parking lot.  The pit toilets were closed for the season.  On my way, I could see a more direct route through the snow, but I was irrationally worried about where it might go, so I stuck to the bland road.  Then I became worried someone would jump out of the bush, shank me, and leave me to bleed out on the side of the road, unnoticed for weeks.  Then I started to worry about cougars (the animal, not other women of my age who like to date younger men).  My tuque was muffling all sound, so I would think I was hearing something, but it was just my pant legs rubbing together, or the swishing of my arms across the body of my coat.  Of course I was fine.  Why wouldn’t I be fine?  Who hides in the frigid weather, in a gated park, and waits for unsuspecting speed walkers?  It took me a good 40 minutes to get to the summit. The view was spectacular, tranquil, and windy.  I had to pee pretty bad by now, so I took the steep, direct snowshoe trail, which I could see more clearly now.  I had brought my micro spikes, so I made it to the car in a scant 20 minutes.  I saw several women walking up the road (in pairs) on my way down.  At least someone would have discovered my body!  Good to know.

I enjoyed the hike there so much that I took my husband back up with me in the summer.  He really enjoyed it too.

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Looking south, towards Penticton.
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Summerland, behind me to the North.


Eagle Bluffs
Vassaux Lake, BC
3.89 km (out and back), 239 m elevation gain

I cannot remember where my husband found out about this hike, but he dug pretty deep to get the information.   Searching the internet gave me this one hit for Eagle Bluffs, but their distance is greater than ours for the same hike.  I assuming they walked from Vassaux Lake, and not from the trail head (located just past a farm).  I like this hike, but my husband loves it.  We saw California Big Horn Sheep, and lots of deer up there.  The views are pretty incredible, too.   It’s not well-traveled, so you kind of have to pick your way through a field, across a creek in a small ravine, and then you have to play “find the cairn”.  The trail is a little more primitive than what I’m used to, and maybe that’s why my husband loves it so much.  If you do decide to try it, just be considerate of the farmers right beside the trail, lest they kick us all out once and for all.

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Pincushion Mountain
Peachland, BC
3.6 km (out and back), 245 m elevation gain

I love this little hike.  Not all hikes feel like a traditional hike, especially in the Okanagan, but Pincushion Mountain does.  It’s relatively quite, and the summit has a picnic table, and Canadian flag.  I loved it so much, I brought my youngest kiddo back.  She’s great to take hiking because she takes very Instagram-friendly pictures.  My husband takes (maybe) two photos, cares not about how you look, and hands the phone back.

There is one slightly tricky thing about this trail: you will cross a service road maybe 1/4 in to the trail.  When you hit that road, go right, and the trail picks up again just a little further down on the left.

The town of Peachland is quaint, with plenty of nice little places to eat afterwards.  I’m all about the food-for-work thing.


Knox Mountain, and Paul’s Tomb
Kelowna, BC
7.8 km (out and back), 170 m elevation gain

This one sounds like it’s quite an adventure, but it’s more of a windy trail, in a park, up a hill to a view point.  I think when I asked for hikes they thought, “She’s 49.  How much can she really do?”  We liked the view from Knox Mountain, but it was more of an urban trail.  It was essentially a compact dirt sidewalk, with fence-style railings almost all the way up.  We added in Paul’s Tomb, just so we didn’t feel like slackers.  Afterwards, we went to a great brew pub, and who doesn’t love food?  The park is close to the older part of town, which is filled with character (and characters), and plenty of great places to eat.


Nickel Plate Nordic Centre
Prospector Point Trail
Penticton, BC
6 km (out and back), 137 m of elevation gain

The local ski hill near Penticton is called Apex Alpine.  I was looking for a snowshoe trail like we have on our local mountains.  A quick search of “Apex Alpine” plus “snowshoe” led me to the Nickel Plate Nordic Centre.   We chose their most advanced trail, which turned out to be a hunt for markers in the snow.   If I remember correctly, they used green markers.  Green on trees makes for a fun adventure, right?   It didn’t have a viewpoint, but the trail itself wasn’t too bad.  Would I go again?  Probably not, unless I needed to go for a walk in the snow.  It’s probably better for cross country skiing.

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My husband is such an ass 🙂
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Doing that selfie thing where you ignore the camera.  So cool.

BONUS ROUND! I’m going to add one on, since we just got back and we tried something new ….

Oliver Mountain
Oliver, BC
6 km (out and back), 360 m elevation gain

It was supposed to be a day where we went for a walk because we’d gone up Giant’s Head the day before, and planned to go up Eagle Bluffs the next day.  It started out pretty casual.  We went to Medici’s for lunch (which I highly recommend it if you are in the area, even just for a cup of coffee), then down to the visitor centre to see what kind of walking options they have in the tiny, southern Okanagan town of Oliver.  It turns out that *the* most helpful person works at the visitor centre, and her name is Rhonda.  She gave us a tonne of information about walking, biking, and hiking trails.  She even gave us some information for our August trip to the Rockies.  Like I said, very helpful.  We left, and I thought we’d go for an hour walk along the river.  I asked my husband what he’d like to do, and he said, “hike”.  Of course he wants to go hiking.  I’m in my jeans, and a plaid blouse.   That’s the best attire for sweating.  Every.  Time.

We opted for Oliver Mountain, because it was very close to where we were.  In fact, it took just a few minutes to get from the visitor centre to the trailhead.  You can’t park right at it, but there’s ample parking along the side of the road, maybe a half a block away, along Spartan Street.  Spartan bends to go around the high school, but if you were to simply keep driving straight, you’d run right in to the Sandy Hill trail.  It’s aptly named because it was like walking up a vertical, sandy hill.   Once you get over the grunt work, there’s a network of trails up there with fantastic views.  My husband loves to explore, so we wandered all over until I got tired of it, and made passive-aggressive comments.   That usually sucks the joy out of a hike.

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Stand still while I take an Instagram photo

 

Next time we hope to do a few new-to-us hikes, and will keep exploring.  If you have any you’d recommend I’d love to hear about them.

A Grind by Any Other Name

I haven’t posted in a while, so here’s my official list of excuses: I went on vacation, Christmas arrived, I worked, and my computer died (holding all my photos hostage).  Whew!  I feel better, don’t you?  Now on with the show, composed on my snazzy, new laptop.

I’m going to write about the Abbotsford Grind, or Abby Grind, as it’s affectionately known.  There are a few things you should know about this short, steep-ish hike:

  1.  The trail is actually a portion of a larger trail, called  Taggart Peak Trail, or Glen Ryder Trail;
  2.  The Abby Grind is just a view point along the trail, where most people stop, take a selfie, and leave; and
  3.  It’s not at all like the Grouse Grind, even though the name makes you think it could be similar.  The Abby Grind is about 4 km (out and back), and 330 m of elevation.  Compare this to the Grouse Grind’s 2.5 km (one way), and 800 m of elevation gain.  The Abby Grind is moderate, and the Grouse Grind is difficult, but everyone loves to compare their local leg burner to the Grouse Grind.  I’ll stop grousing now.  See what I did there?

Another thing to note is that there is no toilet of any kind at the trail head.  I repeat, no pit toilet, johnny-on-the-spot, flush toilet, or anything else that remotely resembles a place to deposit your urine at the trail head. For a women of my “advanced years” this means finding some place where you can’t be seen to “gracefully” squat, and relieve oneself.  The trail head is located next to a Rod and Gun Club.  There’s surveillance cameras in that direction, so not only can you be seen, but you can also be recorded for future playback.  The trail is within visual range of the freeway, a river-side walking trail, and a few homes, so my advice is to head for the lower trees, or blackberry bushes.  Or … you could go before you leave home, but that never works for me.  I almost always need to take an “excitement pee” before I start.  You’ve been warned … about me, and the lack of the facilities.

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Trail head, in the slushy snow
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Looking back towards the trail head on a warmer trip

I did the Abby Grind four times in the year between my birthdays.  I love that we can get to it in an hour, and it’s in the opposite direction of heavy traffic.  I wish the trail itself was a little longer, but the only way to really extend it is to go all the way to Taggart Peak.   We’ve discussed doing just that, but the description of the rest of the trail does not compel me to complete it.  We also talked about doing the Abby Grind two times in a row, like we were so fit that we could totally do it twice.  We’ve never done that either.  Frankly, once I see the car it’s time for a snack, and probably another bathroom break.

Aside from the lack of bathrooms, and the fact that it’s kind of short, it’s a great, moderate hike.  The viewpoint is mostly open, so that’s a bonus.  It is well-traveled, so you’re often not the only one there.  They do have bears in the area, so we bring bear spray with us three out of the four season in the year.   If there’s been a bear sighting we noticed that someone will usually leave a note at the beginning of the trail.  If it’s wet out the trail can be quite muddy and slippery, as it’s mostly exposed dirt.

Some kind soul has marked each quarter along the way to the view point. This eliminates the “are we there yet” feeling.  Is it marked by elevation, as the Grouse Grind is, or by distance?  I have no idea, but at the 3/4 mark the trail splits.  You can go left or right.  I think the right branch is a little steeper, but the two trails connect further along.  When you get to that connection point, you are very close to the view point.  We usually take the branch to the right on the way up, and the other one on the way down.

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The view at the top is really quite lovely.  There’s plenty of room too, which is always a bonus on a busy trail.

 

When the trail is snowy, icy, or muddy we wear micro spikes.  I have a huge fear of slipping, and falling on by butt.   I mean, how could I sit at Starbucks after my hike with a muddy behind?  Oh the horror!

I’m a user of hiking poles, but I don’t find I need them on this trail unless there’s a lot of snow.  Even then, I usually bring one “just in case” pole.   The trail isn’t long enough to cause strain on my knees or back.

 

It’s a great local hike.  If you’ve done the easier trails, and are looking to sink your teeth in to something a little more difficult, but not too crazy, then this is a great hike to try.  Walk up the hill, enjoy the view, and trek back down.

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The Grind’s Wintry Little Brother

Let me just say this, blogging takes commitment, and sometimes I lack commitment.  My intention is to produce one blog per week, but I visited my mom, and then procrastinated, so here we are two weeks later.  Oops!  I’m heading out of town soon, so I’ll be blogging about current hikes while I’m away.  It’s easier to do that than to bring all my thousands of pictures from last year with my on my iPad or phone.   They’ll be no room left for new pictures.  Oh, the horror!

On with the blog…

During the winter, when there’s sufficient snow and lack of avalanche danger, the Snowshoe Grind opens at Grouse Mountain.  I had never read the stats, and therefore had developed an unnatural fear of this trail since the Grouse Grind is quite a workout.  Turns out I had nothing to feel apprehensive about.  The Snowshoe Grind is a pussy cat compared to the Grouse Grind.  It’s just 4.3 km and 240 metres elevation gain, so I can go out and back in an hour, easy.  The best part is that I can snowshoe to the top, and slide back down many of the sections on my snowpants-wearing posterior.

The first time I went I brought my husband, and we both wore snowshoes.  That was also the day his old MSRs gave up the ghost, the rubber straps snapping on one shoe.  He ended up walking up in his hiking boots.  I wore my snowshoes, but they weren’t necessary.  The trail is very well packed down, so microspikes turned out to be my best friend for the 14 subsequent trips up and down.  I did pack my snowshoes with me because I was worried I might need them, but I never did.

That first time was very early in the season, and they hadn’t put up all the signs yet, just some flagging.  We reached a high point, and there was an orange flag, but there was also another trail leading away without any indication which trail it was, other than the colour of the flag (it was black).  We sort of found ourselves muttering, “Is this is?”  Luckily someone came by that knew, so we could take our pictures, and get on with our day.

The last section (to the top) is a steep, short hike.  Over the season the route to the top changed a little depending on the snow, and how dangerous they felt the old trail was getting.  Every time, however, it ended at the same little sign.  The size of the top varied, too.  The first time it was a decent size, but one time it was rather small and more pointed.  There were maybe 6 people there, and it felt kind of crowded.

The trail is checked daily for avalanche danger, so it’s well monitored.

If you don’t have any equipment you can rent it there,  and to access this trail you will either be hiking up the BCMC trail (as the Grind will undoubtedly be closed), or you will have paid $45 to ride the gondola/sky ride/tram thingy to get to the chalet.  I bought an annual pass for $130 plus tax, and a parking pass for $40 (cheapest annual parking pass in all of Vancouver).  If you ride up, snowshoe, decide you love it, and want to go again and again, you can apply the cost of your ticket towards the annual pass.  Pretty good deal, when you think about it.

The views, when it’s not snowing, are amazing.  The trail, although well traveled, was never crazy busy like the Grouse Grind.  It’s a great, short, breathy work-out close to home, so it was one of my favourites. I went up the first time November 29, and (because the snow season went on for so long) did my last one on May 19.  There are a couple other options, too.  You can hike down the back side of the hill, go around, and back up to connect to the Snowshoe Grind.  That trail is called the Dam Mountain Loop.  The other option is to take a trail off the Dam Mountain Loop, and walk out and back on Thunderbird Ridge.  I did different variations throughout the season, and enjoyed every one of them.

I’ll just shower you with pictures, and let you decide for yourself.

 

 

 

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The endpoint, but you can go on to the Dam Mountain Loop trail

 

 

 

 

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Views for days!

Grinding out a Hike

The Grouse Grind (near Vancouver, BC) is an extremely efficient trail that goes up the side of Grouse Mountain, starting at the parking lot, and ending at the ski chalet.  The trail is open (typically) from the beginning of May to the end of October.  Once there’s sufficient snow on the mountain they close the trail.  They have a chain link fence at the bottom with a gate to keep out the ne’er do wells in the cooler months.  If you were to ski or snowboard there in the winter you would take the air tram/gondola to the chalet. The Grouse Grind is heavily trafficked, and even though it closes in the winter, desperate hikers will often circumnavigate the fence to hike to the top.  There are other trails that ascend the mountain, but none has the same reputation .

The trail is 2.9 KM, which isn’t that long in the hiking world, but it’s the elevation gain that will get you.  In that short distance you will rise 853 metres (or 2,800 feet) before you’re done.  The trail is well-marked, and has large markers every quarter.  Each quarter marker ticks off the elevation gain, not distance.  The first quarter marker takes a little longer to get to because it’s not as steep.  After that things get much more interesting.

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Near the start of the trail

Over the years the trail has become extremely popular with locals and tourists alike.  It used to be a rough, but typical, wilderness trail.  Now it’s 2,800 ft of stairs (think wood-framed, rock-filled, and flat-topped rock stairs).  There are plenty of railings to hold on to, all worn smooth from the 1,000’s of hands that have grabbed on while trudging uphill.  Although the trail is visually appealing, and very photo-friendly, it lacks views of the city below because you walk under a canopy of large, coniferous trees.  The stairs are well made, and many of the railings are simply thin trees, the bark having been removed for our convenience.  Nobody wants splinters.  When I hike there, I often think about the labour involved in making such a thing.  If I’m working hard, it must be exponentially more effort to make such a trail, and maintain it.

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Somewhere between the half and 3/4 markers.

It may look lovely, but don’t kid yourself.  It is a serious undertaking.  People have fallen off edges, had heart attacks, and even been swept away by an avalanche on this trail.  Bears and cougars have been spotted here, despite the large volume of hikers.  Although it sees regular use, it is still a strenuous hike, and should be treated as such.

I have a love/hate relationship with this trail.  It was the first trail my husband took me on, years ago, to re-introduce me to hiking.   I was probably 17 years younger that I am now, 30 lbs heavier, and very out of shape.   Just a tip, if you want to get someone interested in hiking, don’t start with this kind of trail.  I speak from personal experience.  I don’t know what my husband was thinking, but taking me on a simpler trail would have been a better way to foster a love of the forest.  When you’re head down, sweat dripping off your forehead, and constantly winded, you don’t tend to notice anything other than where your next footstep will be.  Fortunately, over time, I was able to come back years later, and have a better time of it.

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They closed the trail the next day for winter.

To say that that first hike was difficult for me would be a gross understatement.  I made it to the first quarter mark, and fully doubted my ability to get much further, let alone to the top.  My husband encouraged me to keep trying, so I rested, and pushed on.  The second quarter is shorter than the first one, even though it’s steeper, so I was quite surprised to see the half mark as “soon” as we did.  Since I was half way up the trail I decided I wasn’t about to walk back down when going up was about the same amount of effort.  I remember seeing this older man who, more than once, flopped down on the ground, and clutched at his chest while trying to catch his breath.  He was faster than me.  What a humbling moment that was.  I was worried about him, and offered to call someone (on my flip phone, no less) to get help if he needed it, but he waved me away.  At the chalet I mentioned this fellow to an employee.  They knew who he was, assured me that he was a regular, and not to worry.  What the hell?  What kind of place is this?

 

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The first, and only time, I’ve seen a deer on the trail.

People time themselves, theoretically for personal goals, but will often ask you what your time is, which feels rather competitive.  One of those “I may be slow, but you’re slower” kinds of things.   The average time to complete the trail is 1.5 to 2 hours.  Some people take more than that, and some run all the way up.  They have several races on the trail throughout the hiking season.  One is for the quickest time (the record is 25 minutes, 24 seconds).  Another is for the most ascents achieved in one day (16 times in 19 hours).  Then there are the fundraising races, of which there are several.  If you buy a timer card, or use the timer app, you can track your times and number of ascents.  Some people hike it several times a day, every day, throughout the season, accruing several hundred hikes before the trail closes.  I am not that type of person.  I go up once, get a ride back down, and get a coffee.

When I’m hiking by myself, I often gravitate to the Grouse Grind trail.  Why?  It’s busy, and I’m afraid of hiking in certain places by myself.  I’m not scared of people.  I’m more concerned about a bear or cougar encounter, or hurting myself and having no one to help me.  I could launch in to a diatribe about my reasoning, but I’d rather just leave it as “this is how I feel, so just understand it and move on.”  I have a lot of admiration for women who do solo hikes, but it’s not in my personality to do it unless I’m comfortable with where I’m hiking.

One year I hiked this trail about 20 times, but this year it was only 3.  It turns out that the more I hiked, the more my husband hiked.  He became more fit, so my options were open as to where we could go.  We were also able to hike longer trails, in more remote locations.  Two hikers equals twice the bear spray, and extra first aid supplies.  Plus I’m the faster runner…

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People flip those numbers to show their time.  This is me, being an ass.  Aside from me, the view at the top is fantastic.  There is no view on the trail, other than the trail.

 

Side story: One day the air tram operator got super particular, and more than a little bent out of shape, that we called the tram a “gondola”.  He’s lucky I didn’t call it a “thingamabob”.  When your brain starts to fart out with age, words that used to be right in front of you sit behind a translucent piece of fabric.  I can grapple at them, but they remain hidden.  Usually I can see the first letter, but the balance is a mystery.  Naturally, the word will come to me at the wrong time, either when I’m talking about something else, or in the middle of the night.  It comes across like a post-middle-age turrets.

I “wanted” to hike the Grind today, and ride the sky ride/gondola/air tram (just covering my bases), back down in the dark today to see the city lights as I descend.  For $25 you can ride in a basket on top of the thingy, and I had pledged to myself that I’d do it this year.  Today is Friday, and it’s the last day of my 40’s.  I kind of wanted to give that decade a proper send-off, but the weather is inclement, and there aren’t many good views if the weather is crappy.  Know what I mean? Additionally, the thought of hiking that trail fills my stomach with butterflies, so instead I think we will simply go out for dinner.  There’s always next week if I want to ride the stupid thing.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I will hike my 63rd hike.  Technically, it should be hike 1 for next year, but I’m counting it in my tally …  because I’m 50, and I just don’t care if I break my own rules.

When is a Hike a Hike?

I’m going to preface this blog with some background information about myself.  When I was in my early 20’s, and pregnant with my first of three children, I went bowling with some friends.  I’m a terrible bowler, but, oddly enough, I had the highest score in our group.  The next day I woke up with an excruciating pain in my lower back.  It radiated down my leg, making it rather difficult to walk.  I took a few days off work, and made an appointment to go see my doctor, who informed me that my problem was my sciatica.  He recommended that I should take only regular strength Tylenol (which did nothing to alleviate the pain), and referred me to a physiotherapist.

The physiotherapist told me to sleep with a pillow between my knees, use the Tylenol if needed, and wait it out.  Sure enough it went away within six weeks.  Whew!  What a relief that was.  I was glad that was over, only it wasn’t really over.  The same pain continued to visit me with increasing frequency over the years, eventually entitling me to a prescription of anti-inflammatory pills, and a CT scan.  The scan revealed that I had two bulging discs in my low back (L4/L5 and L5/S1).  At least that explained the origin of the pain, but there are only so many things you can do for it.  I was advised to keep on exercising (something I did regularly anyway), as it brings oxygen to the site, and that is supposed to help.  I did try physiotherapy again.  I visited to two different clinics, one of which required booking four months in advance because the physiotherapist was so well renowned.  The first clinic advised me to do my core work.  I was a gym rat, and did plenty of back and abdominal work.  I wasn’t sure what more I was supposed to do.  I know now that that is a typical response when someone has back pain.  They administered a few muscle relaxing techniques, but nothing worked.  If anything it made me feel worse.  The second clinic (the one with the four month waiting period) said my core was fine, strong in fact, and that I should do more advanced exercises.  I had booked four appointments since it takes so long to get in, and then had to wait another four months to do any subsequent visits.  Needless to say, it was yet another fruitless attempt.  I sometimes wonder if either clinic feels I was “cured” because I never came back.

About six years ago my semi-regular bout of soreness was so horribly painful, so intense, and so relentless that virtually anything I did brought me to tears.  I couldn’t sit, stand, walk, or lay without pain.  I had experienced short-term pain like this before, usually subsiding within a few days, but there was no relief from this.  I went to a walk-in clinic, and was written a prescription for a week’s worth of anti-inflammatory pills.  They started to “do their thing”, but by the end of the week the pain had returned with a vengeance.  It was a depressing kind of pain, the likes of which I’m grateful to never have experienced again.  My husband took me to see my doctor.  At this point I had some small relief when I was laying down, so I reclined my seat in the car as far as it would go (every bump brought sharp, shooting pains to my back and leg), and even resorted to laying in the waiting room.  My doctor did his usual set of checks, but was most concerned at the lack of a reflex reaction in my right knee.  I was told that, had this been 15 years ago, I would have been checked in to a hospital immediately, and prepped for surgery.  But it’s not 15 years ago, so I was given a lot of Naproxen, counselled to take them once a day for two weeks, and wait it out.  The surgery, had it been necessary, would have meant shaving the edge of the discs down until they didn’t impinge on the nerve that was causing this intense pain.  Thankfully, the pain subsided, but a smaller, quieter version lingered for many months.

I have learned how to manage my pain, and what works best to alleviate it.  I’ve done a lot of reading, and concluded that a balance of cardio-based exercise, stretching, and weight lifting works well for me.   I no longer try to see how much weight I can lift, how fast I can run, or how deeply I can stretch.  I try to maintain my level of fitness, and not overdo it.  When my back is sore I stretch standing up, or sit to do weights.  I had to adapt because I want mobility for the rest of my life, and I never want to be in that kind of pain again.

I still get minor bouts of pain, lasting anywhere from a few days to a few months.  I have been given a prescription of Celebrex, an anti-inflammatory, and told to take them as needed.  I had to have my liver functions checked, as anti-inflammatory pills can be very hard on it.  So far, so good.  I’m able to self-medicate, and I haven’t had an episode like the one six years ago.

The reason I’m explaining all of this is because my husband thought I should set limits of what would be considered a “hike” while attempting to attain the 49 hikes.  In his mind, since I was fairly fit, some hikes count, and some don’t.  I believe that what a hike is depends on the hiker.  Some people will call a fairly flat walk in the woods a hike, while others only consider a longer, more intense adventure a hike.  As far as I’m concerned it’s all walking, and therefore all hiking.  If my back is sore, and walking is difficult, then a  more beginner hike should be counted.  If I’m feeling great, then I should exert myself more.  Make sense?

Where I live there are plenty of “urban forests”, and I’ll often go for a walk in one of them if I’m feeling particularly sore.  I decided not to count any walking in them as a hike.  I did, however, count two beginner hikes: Quarry Rock, and Jug Island.  The first time I did Quarry Rock, I counted it as one.  The second time I hiked it I also did Jug Island on the same day because I was feeling better.

Quarry Rock is in Deep Cover, North Vancouver.  It’s part of the Baden Powell trail, a 48 km, historical trail that runs from Deep Cover to Horseshoe Bay.  Very few people hike the BP as a thru hike, but most people do sections of it, and Quarry Rock is an extremely busy section.  Parking is limited, and it’s a popular spot, so it’s best to get there early, or go during the week.  Starting the trail feels a little weird because you walk on someone’s driveway, then go up a set of stairs between two pieces of property.  You never really gain much elevation, although there is definitely uphill (and downhill) walking.  In total it’s about 100 metres elevation gain from Deep Cover to the lookout, and under 4 km return in distance.  It took us about a half an hour to get to the overlook, and the views are really lovely.  It is a great starter hike, if you want something that feels less flat, and more hike-y, with a stunning viewpoint.

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My son and youngest daughter hiking with their mom.  Sob!

Jug Island is rated as intermediate, whereas Quarry Rock is considered easy.  I’m not sure why they rated it this way.  It’s 5.5 km return, and you gain the same 100 metres, so I can’t see why they’d rate it any more difficult.  The biggest difference here is that you go from sea level, up and over, and back down to sea level.  The end of the trail is a beach, where you can see Jug Island .  The trail is located in Belcarra Regional Park.  There are other trails in the area, but this one is my favourite.  It can get busy on sunny, weekend days, but you often have the place to yourself.  The last time I went I packed a blanket, flip flops, and a picnic lunch.  My youngest daughter, and I lingered at the beach and enjoyed hanging for awhile before hiking back.  When you reach the beach, if you look across the water, and to your left, you can actually see Quarry Rock.

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A perfect hike on a cooler, sunny day.
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Jug Island at high tide.

I’ve done both hikes many times, and love taking people there who are just getting in to hiking.  I also recommend these hikes to people with younger kids.  Although I counted my many visits as only two out of my 49, they really are all hikes, aren’t they?

 

 

One Down, 48 to go

One hike done.  Tick.  Check.  Finito.  There was still plenty of time to do the other hikes, right?  I knew I needed to average one hike per week, with a few wiggle-room weeks left aside in case of terrible weather, possible ailments, maladies, or injuries.  We still had nearly a week left of our vacation, and we were in warm weather.  It was definitely time to start knocking some hikes out.  Well, and to enjoy a vacation, too.

We went from Lake Havasu City to Scottsdale, a very scenic drive along the Colorado River, and then through the desert.  We had stayed in northern Phoenix earlier in the year.  My husband was competing there which left me time to roam around and do my own thing during the day, so I’d done some hiking there and loved it.  How can you not love Phoenix?  Desert hiking has two big pluses: warmth, and a lack of trees, so views are abundant.  No pesky tree line to hike above to get a view.  Plus it’s warm.  Did I mention the sunshine?

 

 

Naturally, Chris got sick right away.  I thought he had a cold.  It had been coming on for a day or two, but then it blossomed in to the flu.  It was no doubt something he picked up in Vegas, and I was sympathetic, but didn’t want to get too close to him lest I contract the flu, too.  Perish the thought!  We drove to Tombstone the next day instead of hiking, so Chris could rest, and because Tombstone looked pretty cool.  Traveler’s tip: if you don’t leave your hotel room you run out of things like Kleenex, or toilet paper.  Very important stuff.

After a day of rest Chris was feeling a bit better, so we decided to head to Sedona because: 1. it’s drop dead gorgeous; and 2. there are some easier hikes there.  When I was there earlier in the year I’d hiked to Cathedral Rock.  I was by myself, and wanted to go where there would be a lot of people.  I was nervous to hike on my own in a place I’d never been before, so I chose a trail that someone commented on (on Trip Adviser) as being “overly crowded.”  Be careful what you wish for.  The parking lot was tiny, and although I was there very early (the Ranger Station wasn’t open yet), I didn’t get a parking spot.  I had to park down the road in a wash with a bunch of other people.  I needed to use the facilities, but there was no pit toilet at the trail head.  I’d drank an entire large latte during my drive in, banking on being able to take a potty break.  My first clue should have been the woman who squatted in a ditch to relieve herself.  Sometimes I’m not too bright.  I decided that I could hold it, and I did right until I was near the parking lot on my way down.  I’m sure my back teeth were floating.  I didn’t think it would look normal to squat walk all the way to the car, so I found some semi-dense shrubbery to hide myself from the highway of hikers, and felt the relief that only emptying a full bladder can give you.

The hike itself was very short.  It took me all of 20 minutes to scramble to the viewpoint, marked with an “end of trail” sign.  I was actually very shocked to see that sign so quickly, but had it been a longer trail I’m sure I would have peed my Lululemons.

Naturally my husband wanted to hike this same trail.  I warned him it was short, but interesting.  There were lots of rocks, and scrambling bits, but only 20 minutes up.  Plus no bathroom, which didn’t seem to faze him.   Must be nice.

Since the hike was short, I thought we could squeeze in a second one.  I’d been on Instagram too much, so I wanted to visit Devil’s Bridge.  It is a naturally-formed, stone bridge, and it looked really cool.  We had to decide which one we’d do first since Sedona trails can be extremely busy.  We opted to do Cathedral Rock first.  In the 8 months since I’d been there they’d added a pit toilet (joy!), and a second parking lot.  Apparently all those parking fees were not being used for Ranger partying.

As I had predicted, we were at the top in 20 minutes or so.  I told my husband of another trail that started at the top that I had heard about, so we went off looking for it.  In the end we did some weird loop thing near the top that added some interest, and about 20 more minutes on to our trip.  The views up there are fantastic, and I highly recommend this trail for that reason alone, plus the scrambly bits are fun.

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Feeling elated from our short, but fun hike, we went off to see Devil’s Bridge.  To try and avoid the crowded trail head, we started on a different trail, which added some distance to the hike as well.  We started out on the Chuck Wagon trail, which sort of wended around the floor of the canyon, and dumped us out on to a road that led to the start of the Devil’s Bridge trail.  Chuck Wagon was a lovely, peaceful walk, with little elevation gain/loss.  If you are a beginner, then this is the trail for you!

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The Devil’s Bridge trail was VERY crowded.  I expected it to be busy, and it was still relatively early in the day, but it was nuts.  Prior to being there, I had seen picture after picture (on the internet) of a virtually empty Devil’s Bridge, with one lovely, young person looking thoughtfully in to the distance, wrapped in one of those Mexican-style blankets, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat.  I have no idea how they found any time for quiet contemplation because the flow of people never stopped.  There was a highway of fellow hikers on the trail, and then I had to wait in line to get a picture on the stone arch.  Normally I’d take a look at the queue, and bugger off, but I had come all this way, so I waited.  To make things worse, the sun was behind a hill, so all our pictures were in the shade/dark.  I could have been anyone.  See for yourself.

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Although I look alone, I’m never truly alone.  Never.

We got a nicer picture on the return trip, and sat here for a while.

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Back to the hotel we went.  We rose early the next morning to hike a couple of local trails: Piestewa Peak (or Squaw) and Brown’s Ranch.  Piestewa is in a preserve, in the middle of town, on one of the many rocky mountains that crop up in the surrounding desert like islands on the ocean.  Look at me with the metaphors!  It’s very warm in Phoenix, even in November, so we wanted to get there early so as to not boil ourselves in our shorts.  Also, parking can be a real bear, and that’s putting it mildly.  When you hike, go early.  That’s the best advice I can give you.

Chris was not feeling in his prime, but I we hiked up Piestewa just the same.  Sorry honey, there’s no time to feel sorry for yourself.  I’ve done three hikes, and I still have many more to go.  Because I’m not completely soulless, I brought extra Kleenex.  Truth be told, he loved that hike.  This was the first hike he’d done in the desert, with the no-tree thing, and loads of views.  These urban mountains afford the most amazing vistas.  I kid you not.

The trail is predominantly rocky stairs, straight up, in full sun.  There’s no avoiding a good, hard sweat.  We saw one young man, slick with perspiration, on his second ascent, carrying only a gallon of water … in a gallon jug … like the kind you get at the grocery store.  Apparently balancing weight is not a problem when you’re young.  No need for a water bladder in a backpack.  Cough.  Cough.

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This is a steep, medium-length hike.  The heat certainly adds to the difficulty.  If you want to try it, go early, and bring lots of water. Also, and most importantly, this trail is better suited for someone who is fit, used to walking on uneven terrain, and has hiked before.  You will enjoy hiking much more if you start gradually, and work your way up.

After that cardio blast we headed over to Brown’s Ranch, in north Scottsdale.  I had hiked there before, when another trail I’d hoped to do was closed for maintenance.  This park is pretty much all sandy dessert, with loads of cacti, and tumbleweeds.  In the middle of this mostly flat plain is a small mountain with a flat top.  The views from the top are killer.  My husband was very blah about it, since it followed the much more difficult, and therefore cooler, Piestewa.  If you are a beginner, or just want a great walk with a bit of uphill, this is a great hike for you.  Just remember that it is very hot out.  Bring lots of water, and be prepared for being in the sun.  You can also ride mountain bikes, and horses there.

We did plan to hike again, but guess what?  I got the flu.  I knew I shouldn’t touch my husband, and said as much, but we are married and were on vacation.  It’s inevitable.  On my sick day we went for a drive up to Sedona (stopping at Montezuma’s Castle first), through to Cotton, Jerome, Prescott, and back to Scottsdale.  I’d love to go back and explore Jerome again.  It’s an old mining town attached to the side of a hill, waaaaaaayyyyyy up.  It looked adorable, with one way streets and little shops.  Sadly, when you’re feeling that ill you just want to stay in bed, which is what I would have done, but we needed more Kleenex and toilet paper, so we reluctantly vacated the hotel room.