Vancouver’s sentinel peak Grouse Mountain is usually scaled via the ‘Grouse Grind,’ a steep hike through thick forest to a mountaintop chalet with expansive views as far south as the US. For most people, the energy-sapping climb (853 metres in just 2.9 kilometres) is challenge enough; but for a few stoics, Grouse has a longer, more difficult ascent.   

Which is why I ended up outside the End of the Line Store in North Vancouver with a blueberry muffin with a scalding hot latte on a cloud-free day in August. Sufficiently carb- and caffeine-loaded, I made some last-minute checks on my daypack—bear spray, water purification tablets, energy bars—and dispatched a final call to my wife: “If you haven’t heard from me in 10 hours, phone North Shore Rescue!”

photoBrendan Sainsbury

The 16-kilometre Hanes Valley Trail summits Grouse via a circuitous back route that leads innocuously out of Metro Vancouver before plunging into a rugged backcountry of creek crossings, boulder fields and scree slopes. While trickier and more technical than the well-trafficked ‘Grind,’ it’s infinitely more exhilarating—and beautiful.

Despite being a devoted trail-runner, I’d been putting off Hanes Valley for years. The Covid-19 pandemic gave me the push I needed. As a resident of BC’s Lower Mainland, Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains is my Garden of Eden: a roadless, bear-patrolled wilderness where serpentine paths bristle with a whiff of danger.

The key? Do your homework and come prepared! With 90 per cent of the effort in the second half of the hike, Hanes Valley can lull you into a false sense of security. Ill-equipped hikers sometimes come unstuck.

“People who have gotten a late start don't realize how difficult a climb it is,” explained Allan McMordie, a search manager with North Shore Rescue. “They don't appreciate how much time it will take and how difficult the last bit of the hike will be.”

photoBrendan Sainsbury

Setting out early, I jogged the first stretch alongside the wooded banks of Lynn Creek utilizing a wide, busy path replete with families and dog-walkers.

After admiring graceful Norvan Falls at the seven-kilometre mark and crossing a narrow suspension bridge, the company abruptly disappeared. I was on my own—except for the bears.

The first challenge was crossing Upper Lynn Creek (mercifully low-flowing in August) by clambering over rocks and tree-logs. The trail beyond meandered steadily uphill through second-growth forest, slowing my progress to a jog-walk. At the 10.5-kilometre mark, the trees parted to reveal the sobering sight of a wooden helicopter landing pad dwarfed by a ring of majestic mountains rising behind. On a clear day, the Hanes can rival anything in the Rockies, an enclosed steep-sided valley, as silent as a lost world, speckled with lush green vegetation and massive boulders.

“I think the main challenge of Hanes is the boulder field with its loose rocks and difficult footing,” said McMordie. “Hikers need to concentrate on every step they take. There is no cell phone coverage back there.”

Taking heed, I proceeded carefully, jumping from rock to rock, stopping every now and then to check for orange marker tape. As the trail steepened, the boulders were replaced by small loose stones and my walk became an unrhythmic stagger broken by occasional glances over my shoulder to absorb the increasingly dizzying view. 

photoBrendan Sainsbury

Quads screaming, I made the saddle of Crown Pass between Goat and Crown mountains. There was one more obstacle before the trail relented, a precipitous ‘Hilary Step’ of shadowy crags and slippery mud on the west shoulder of Goat with fixed chains to aid scrambling. By the time I got to the Goat Mountain turn-off, I saw several other hikers navigating the compact trail network that emanates from the top of Grouse.

Suitably knackered but reinvigorated by the thought of the finish line not far away, I stumbled through the high alpine terrain sidestepping roots, rocks and bear scat. It wasn’t long before I could see the Grouse Mountain activity area below, teeming with shaky-legged ‘grinders’ and visitors who had ridden up on the cable car. I staggered past the cabins and chairlifts and disintegrated into a heap by the main chalet ripping the wrapper off a power bar I should’ve eaten three hours earlier. It was immensely satisfying. I’d scaled Grouse on the ‘grind’ scores of times in the past, but nothing could match the Olympian effort of completing the Hanes route.