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June 2004 GPS Units

I Climbed Los Angeles

One small step for our stair-obsessed man, one giant leap for fitness freaks everywhere.

I couldn’t stop thinking about stairs. I was so preoccupied that I began to rework my normal exercise routine, which had consisted mostly of mountain biking and hiking in the hills north of the city. Sometimes, at night, I’d have dinner at a coffee shop, where I’d pore over maps with five or six highlighting pens. (I even developed a taste for a particular brand of highlighter–the kind with the retractable tip, which was ideal for quick markups while on the move.) At some point, I started downloading and annotating satellite photographs, too–the more detail, the better.

My definition, after the fact, of “obsession” is something that takes over your life without you knowing it. But there was a fringe benefit to my unwitting transformation; though my mostly male mountain-biking buddies didn’t quite get my stair climbing, my women friends nearly universally understood and offered to join me. Apparently, there is nothing better for crafting a shapely butt than walking thousands of steps. “I just never knew anyone crazy enough to find them all,” said my friend Deborah Stern, who began to join me several times a week (she even knew of a few flights I hadn’t discovered).

My female climbing companions were more oriented toward practicalities:Would we be gone an hour? Did they need running shoes or hiking boots? Could they bring a dog? By contrast, I was getting downright analytical–I was thinking about data. My charts, though they listed stair locations, were missing quantifiable information. That was about to change.

Deborah and I were standing at the top of the stairs I’d named “Landa II” (they were the second interruption of a street by the same name). Below, I could see the sparkling Silver Lake Reservoir; in the distance, the tall buildings of downtown Los Angeles thrust out into a blue, cloudless sky. I had an altimeter watch, but it wasn’t able to track cumulative elevation changes. I’d tried to use online maps to estimate distance, but they’re not really oriented toward people traveling on foot. (I couldn’t even keep count of the stairs I was climbing–I’d always have to start over. I ended up convincing a bookkeeper friend to come along with me to take an official census.)

Staring at the skyline, I realized I needed a better tool.

“What if I got a GPS unit?” I asked Deborah. “Then we could map every staircase. We’d have statistics!”

Deborah nodded blankly. But I was excited; I had figured out how to make the quest bigger and better.

The odd thing is that, as a bike rider, I’ve never been interested in measuring anything. I rarely carry a computer or a heart rate monitor. I don’t log my rides. But for the stairs, I got elaborate pretty fast: I wanted to mark waypoints at the beginning and end of every staircase. I’d record upper and lower elevations. At home, I’d download the hikes onto topographic maps and satellite images. I came up with a spreadsheet that listed every single staircase I traveled, complete with geographic coordinates.

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