Finding a new you: British Columbia’s Mountain Trek wellness retreat

By Christine Davis

Kick start: it’s the phrase that keeps repeating in my head as I hike – and I mean hard core hike – British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. I’m at Mountain Trek, a wellness retreat perched on the edge of Kootenay Lake for a week defined as an “optimal life experience” to retreat from my regular life responsibilities and duties and kick start my body to meet some personal health goals.

Before flying across the country for the week I, naively, know only that I’ll be exercising and hiking for hours each day while detoxing from, in no particular order, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, starch and processed foods. Little do I know that I’ll also be on a strict, calorie reduced diet of 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day – though I was assured the food was fantastic, and it is.

It’s enough to make myself and another guest admit to each other we think this is crazy. But that’s in the first day or so, before the entire program is revealed and we learn how supported we are by program facilitators and guides as well as the science behind the continually evolving program.

It’s program director and general manager Kirkland Shave that describes our week at Mountain Trek as an “optimal life experience”. With a name like Kirkland you’d expect him to be a mountain man and you won’t be disappointed. From his knowledge, about everything seemingly, to the tips he provides for using the hiking poles, which initially feel like a strange extra appendage, not to mention his passion for the program and a healthy lifestyle, his presence at the retreat is invaluable.

Shave built the program almost 20 years ago when in 2000 the then-owner asked him, a kinesiologist and dietician to change it from the recreation/wellness facility it had been since 1991. Shortly after, the former park ranger hired head guide and fitness director, Cathy Grierson, who was a fellow park ranger he’d known for many years.

That program is built on five tenants: Nutrition, fitness, detoxification, sleep and stress management with a goal of changing your metabolism from a catabolic or destructive state to anabolic or constructive metabolic state. Each tenant is addressed each day in everything you do and discussed in great length during daily lectures lead by program facilitators.

The Mountain Trek lodge can accommodate up to 16 guests each week, most of whom I found were travelling solo, though we were joined by one married couple and a father-daughter duo. Everyone is there for different reasons, I find out, not all of them fitness related.

It’s easy to form bonds with other guests as you’re all immersed in the experience.

We all get up at 6 a.m. each day, meet in the dining room for ginger tea and a small smoothie to break our fast before hitting the lake-view yoga studio for a much-needed morning stretch that’s followed by breakfast, served at the dining room’s large harvest table. We choose different seats at each meal to mix it up – even forcing the pairs to separate once we’re a little more comfortable with each other.

While the idea is to retreat from our regular lives, we’re retreating into a program that has us spending six to seven hours a day moving our bodies, often quite intensely, and looking at our lives in a substantially different manor.

The most intense movement comes from the daily hikes into the Selkirk Mountains. Trails are determined by season and conditions, but run anywhere from one-and-a-half hours on the first day of hiking to some four hours by the end of the week. Hiking shoes are a must, except for Shave, or Kirk as he’s affectionately called by staff and guests alike, who I’ve been told can be found hiking barefoot.

You’ll also want proper hiking socks, like the SmartWool performance socks I wear, which wick away sweat. We also carry packs, provided by Mountain Trek and fitted on our first day, which hold a three-litre water bladder, a change of clothes, our snacks and lunches, as well as an additional water bottle and a rain jacket just in case. And of course there are those poles that, once you get the hang of, become like an additional set of legs helping power you up the inclines and keeping you safe on the way down.

The trails are a mix of those with steep inclines and descents and undulating ones depending on the day and location. When you’re heading up, don’t expect to talk. Guides are having you work at 60 to 80 per cent capacity to flush fat and you won’t have enough breath left for anything but the climb. You are, however, encouraged to take in your surroundings. Listen to the sounds, feel the breeze and “hear water, see water, drink water,” Grierson repeats like a mantra.

For each hike guests are divided into three groups – you choose the one best suited to your current physical state and your goals. But the guides will also step in to help decide based on the needs of the groups as a whole, too.

Lunch, which is carried in a thermos in your pack, is enjoyed on the trail. Groups stop at approximately the same time, sometimes meeting up, to have the soup of the day, change out of wet clothes, have a bio (bathroom) break and re-tie shoes before hitting the trails for the rest of the hike.

They take foot care very seriously at Mountain Trek. Each morning before heading out guests wrap their heels to prevent blisters. Guides are happy to help and will address any other issues in the morning or on the trail should they arise. Following hikes you’re also encouraged to soak your feet in a warm water and Epsom salt bath. During lectures that discuss the five tenants, and more, is the perfect time to do this. Or you can soak in the outdoor hot tub facing the mountains – a necessary part of the detox process as you sweat out the toxins and reinvigorate your body in the neighbouring cold-water plunge pool. You’ll also be encouraged to detox in the infrared sauna and steam shower.

Dinner is followed by an evening exercise, again to flush the fat and have you burning calories through the night.

You’ll also enjoy three massages – or more should you wish to upgrade – through the week just before bed where you’ll hopefully sleep more soundly than you have in a long time.

In addition to the increased exercise, you’ll be discouraged from using technology. Phones aren’t permitted for anything other than taking photos on the trails or in any communal spaces in the lodge. And to further reduce your stress, all your other needs will be met too. From daily housekeeping, twice-daily laundry services and all food prepared by head chef Simon Vine.

Vine, who’s been cooking professionally since he was 17, has spent a lot of time creating the menu, calculating the calories and even offers a cooking demo during which we learn to make (and get to sample, which is a real treat!) chimichurri sauce.

Between all that exercise and those six small but delicious meals each day the results can be significant. I lost more than five pounds of fat and multiple inches from my chest, waist and hips during the week and others had even more success. Optimal life experience it may be, but it’s also a lot of hard, but rewarding, work. Grierson says: “It’s when we want to give up that our body starts to change.”

As yoga instructor Graham Smythe says at the end of one practice: “Take a moment to reflect on who you are right now. You’ll never be this person again.”

But I’m going to try – for a little while anyway.