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Blind hikers tame the Grouse Grind

Matt Robinson

Participants in the Blind Grind Challenge in action on the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, September 10, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/Postmedia Network)

Participants in the Blind Grind Challenge in action on the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver, September 10, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/Postmedia Network)

So you see North Vancouver's Grouse Grind hiking trail as a challenge.

Try doing it blind.

That’s what nine young people set out to do early Sunday morning, led by Shawn Marsolais, the founder of the Blind Beginnings Society, who has less than two per cent of her vision. Each were assisted by sighted guides.

Marsolais has hiked the Grind before. She did it 16 years ago, and recounted that experience Sunday before again taking on the 2.9-kilometre trail that Grouse Mountain calls "Mother Nature's Stairmaster."

"It was one of the hardest things I've done. I found it really mentally challenging as well as physical," she said.

"Every step is different. You don't know what to expect. You go to take a step and it's not big enough, or it's uneven. If you're not physically fit, then the mental stuff can kind of get to you as you're going."

After completing the Grind 16 years ago, Marsolais knew she wanted to try it again. But this time she decided to do it with a team of young blind or partially sighted people with Blind Beginnings, a charitable organization that Marsolais sparked in 2008.

The whole idea behind the Do the Grind Blind Challenge, and the driving force behind Blind Beginnings, is to get young people who are blind or partially sighted to try something they may never have thought possible, Marsolais said.

Among those who signed up for the challenge was Harjinder Saran, 17, who took on the Grind with help from sighted guide Adam Wilton.

Like the other hikers, Saran had trained for four months to prepare for the Grind, doing increasingly difficult hikes each month.

The challengers started their training at Burnaby Lake, on a 10-kilometre flat walk to work on endurance. Then they did the Coquitlam Crunch to get a feel for stairs. Quarry Rock came next, with its uneven terrain and varying surface materials. And last month, the competitors took on the BCMC trail, a technical and physically challenging hike that runs alongside The Grind.

Each trail was a first for Saran.

"I don't think this is something I ever thought I could do," Saran said. She and the other hikers took on the challenge to prove to themselves that they were capable of hiking and doing other physical outdoor activities, she said.

Marsolais guessed that the swiftest among those taking the challenge would complete the Grind in an impressive 75 minutes, and from the first confident steps the challengers took, that time appeared attainable.

"I feel like they've had a lot of preparation for this. Me not as much," said Marsolais, who had only recently recovered from a broken foot. She had injured it stepping onto uneven ground.

Marsolais hiked with help from her husband. She held his elbow with one hand and a hiking pole with the other. She used the pole like she would a white cane, to feel the steps in front of her, and to lean on for help with tall steps.

One after another, 2,830 unseen steps and 853 vertical metres later, each of the challengers made it to the top.

Every member of the team made it without injury, driving home something Marsolais said before she started her hike: "blind people can do anything."

The challenge has raised more than $7,000 through donations thus far. Donors can still sponsor individual hikers or contribute to the organization online.

Blind Beginnings provides skills training and practical experience for young people to prepare them for the transition to work and adult life. It also helps children boost their physical activity, and in turn, shows parents their children's undiscovered talents.

mrobinson@postmedia.com