How a week in British Columbia killed me… then revived me

View from my room at Mountain Trek

I knew something was amiss when my Kit Kat—my favourite of all the chocolate bars (okay, second favourite, after peanut butter cups)—tasted… wrong. Too sweet. Too fake. Too I don’t know what, but not good. Could it be true? Did I really change my tastebuds and cure my daily 3pm addiction to sugar in one week? Looks like it. And I blame Mountain Trek Resort.

Picture this: You’re in the remote region of the Kootenays in British Columbia, Canada. Getting here wasn’t easy—unless you live in Vancouver or Calgary, you have to take multiple flights to reach Castlegar, whose tiny airport is the only one for miles. From Castlegar, you drive another hour and a half, past the hippy town of Nelson, and onward toward the hamlet of Ainsworth Hot Springs. It’s stunning beyond belief and you spend the entire shuttle ride with your face pressed against the window, trying to take in as much of the scenery as your eyeballs will absorb. You fumble for your camera, trying to capture the sight beyond your window, but each shot is just a tiny piece, failing to capture the immensity of what you see.

You arrive at the resort, a small lodge tucked at the top of a bumpy dirt road. The Selkirk Mountains tower up behind you, and the glacier-fed 500-foot deep Kootenay Lake lies in front of you, its blueness striking in the crispness of the afternoon. Across the water lies the Purcell Mountain Range, and you’re told that these lead into The Rockies—the oldest mountains in Canada.

mountain and lake view, Kootenays

It doesn’t get much more spectacular than fall in the Kootenays

You settle into your room—a small, simple dorm-style room that just offers the basic amenities, but with a cozy ambience and stellar view. You unpack your sweats and hiking clothes and return to the main lounge to receive your introduction and to meet the other guests. And then, as the staff brief you on the week ahead, you decide that amid all the beauty and serenity, you’ve actually landed in hell.

Mountain Trek is not an easy retreat. And if I had done my homework, I would have known that. You see, a few weeks ago, I was invited by the kind folks at Mountain Trek to spend some time at their minimalist health and fitness resort. And as I boarded my flight, bound for Calgary, and then Castlegar, I envisioned leisurely nature walks, afternoons spent soaking in a jacuzzi and heaps of farm-fresh, healthy cuisine. I was half right.

Mountain Trek is about all these things, but above all, it is about fitness. It’s about weight loss. It’s about nutrition. It’s about changing your habits and challenging your body in ways you never thought possible. It’s not easy.

As I learned that first night and the following morning, a week at Mountain Trek consists of 6am wake-up calls, morning yoga, daily four-hour hikes, workshops on health and nutrition, evening exercise classes, and a 1,200-calorie diet (1,400 for men)—and not a single one of those calories will come from added salt, sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, alcohol or caffeine. It’s clean eating and, as I learned the hard way, it can be a shock to the system.

I’m not an unhealthy person; I run and practice yoga, and generally don’t eat a lot of what I would call junk. But still, going cold turkey like that hit me hard. By Day 2, I had a headache and severe nausea that had me convinced Mountain Trek just might kill me. I was detoxing, several people said, not just from my daily dose of coffee, but from the amount of added salt and sugar I’m used to in my diet. I didn’t care what the reason was; I just knew that my surviving the week would likely require stealing the lodge truck and high-tailing it to a cafe in Nelson for a latte and cupcake.

Tammy hiking on Day 2

Pausing on our hike on the Galena Trail (you can’t see it, but I’m fighting the urge to throw up as I “detox”)

And then, I don’t know what happened, but within another day, something shifted. My headache disappeared, as did the nausea. I suddenly realized I wasn’t hungry. And that my skin was clearing up and my body felt better than it has in years. And that I actually enjoyed the excruciating challenge of hiking up the side of a mountain (and “hiking” at Mountain Trek does not mean a casual stroll—you’re pushing yourself as fast as your legs will carry you in order to keep up with the seemingly superhuman guides). I realized that I enjoyed the pure exhaustion at the end of the day, when I would collapse into bed at 9pm, spent from a day in the fresh air and the exertion of climbing 1,000 vertical feet.

One evening, after a soak in the jacuzzi, an intense deep-tissue massage, and 20 minutes in the sauna (okay, so I confess it’s not all hard work at Mountain Trek), I floated into the common area and collapsed on a couch in front of the roaring fire. My entire body felt more relaxed than I have ever felt in my life. I was like a buzzing mound of jello. It was bliss.

Each day I pushed harder, not because the guides at Mountain Trek wanted me to, but because I wanted to. On my final hike, I asked to be moved up from Level 3 to Level 2 on the trails (Level 1 goes at a speed that could rival most Olympic athletes), and kept pace with my fellow hikers as we ascended up and over a 1,200-foot ridge at a pace that brought us back to the ground 15 minutes sooner than expected. And that night, as we said goodbye to the guides who had become like close friends over the week, I felt tears welling up over the thought of leaving.

Fry Creek Canyon

My sadness over leaving was also because I didn’t want to say goodbye to this view

I’m the first to admit I hadn’t expected to come home with any lessons learned from Mountain Trek. Right up until that last day, I fantasized about hitting up the first Starbucks I found and devouring a caffeine-loaded coffee and sugary cookie or muffin—or both. But then, just like that Day 2 to 3 transformation, something happened when I left the property. My airport shuttle stopped at a cafe, where a display of scones and muffins and brownies suddenly didn’t seem so appealing. I vetoed the coffee in favour of herbal tea. And again, as I waited at my gate at the airport, right beside a Starbucks kiosk, I realized I didn’t want it, and snacked instead on a banana and almonds. Since I’ve been home, my fridge has been loaded with organic produce and fresh fish, and I’ve been cooking meals, rather than relying on my tendency to grab food on the run.

I won’t say that my habits have entirely changed. I confess that I did order a glass of wine on my flight back to Toronto. And I went out partying and drinking and made a late-night run for a burger and fries the other night. But when I woke up the next morning, I craved fruit and vegetables and grains and water. I wanted to move and exercise. I wanted to chase the high that I felt in BC; I wanted to chase the high of health, rather than indulgence.

Who knew a trip to hell could be so good?

For more information on Mountain Trek, visit mountaintrek.com.

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18 thoughts on “How a week in British Columbia killed me… then revived me

  1. What a wonderful place!! Welcome to the bright side of clean eating! It isn’t as hard as most people think – it’s the detox phase that can make or break you. You will find any exercise you do that much better – more energy for sure.

    I want to go there now. It sounds glorious, especially in the fall! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Oh, the detox phase is definitely a “make or break” period! And even though I only felt awful that one day, I still had mad cravings the whole time – it took a good week to get those cravings out of my system. That’s one of the best parts of going clean at a retreat like this – you’re removed from the temptations, so it’s easier to just wipe the slate clean. You basically have no choice! And even though I know I won’t stay 100% clean, that’s not the goal of their program – they just want their guests to leave more mindful of nutrition and with a few actions in place to keep the healthy lifestyle going.

  2. Sounds like a great retreat, Tammy. And I’m glad that it got you off the cheap chocolate. If you’re going to eat chocolate, eat the pure stuff that has little or no sugar. I’m pretty sure the owners of Mountain Trek would concur, as pure chocolate is one of nature’s super foods!

    • Doreen, I actually bought a bar of organic dark chocolate at the airport on the way home! I’ve always liked “real” dark chocolate, but I guess I just never realized HOW MUCH better it tastes than the cheap stuff. Clean your tastebuds, and you have a whole new appreciation for good food!

  3. I was at Mountain Trek in September. I’m exercise regularly but have a full addiction to green tea so the first day without it was through a foggy headache. The rest of the week was great – loved the beautiful food and massages, exploring the mountains and came home feeling amazing. Real, pure dark chocolate is the best!

    • Glad to hear you had such a great experience, Christine. I had my doubts that I would feel as good as I did at the end, but it totally did have a profound effect on how I view my health, diet and posture (I can still hear Cathy’s voice as we hiked: “Shoulder blades in your back pocket!”).

    • Nah, you wouldn’t die, Raymond. Although you might think that you’re dying. 🙂 Trust me, if I could survive going off caffeine and sugar cold turkey, anyone can!

    • Oh, I confess it was hard the first few days as I adapted to eating less! But they space the meals and snacks out perfectly so that just as you’re getting hungry, it’s time to eat. But even the resort staff tell you that the 1,200-calorie diet isn’t sustainable for longer than a week or so, especially when exercising so much. They give you suggestions for taking the plan home and adjusting your intake accordingly. The diet’s meant to kick-start you.

  4. Sounds like quite an experience. Seems like it’s just down the way from my brother’s place in Nelson. Maybe I’ll give it a try sometime. Did you get to try the borscht at the Castlegar Airport? My S-i-L says its the best borscht this side of Odessa. Very yummy!

    • No, I didn’t try the borscht. I didn’t even look at any food at Castlegar because I was so in my health food zone. (They packed all guests a to-go lunch on the last day so we wouldn’t be tempted by airport fast food.) But now I’m wishing I had explored a bit! Hmm. Perhaps a reason to return to Nelson (I was trying to come up with one, anyway.) 🙂

  5. Pingback: Photos: Gobsmacked in the Kootenays « AnywhereAndHere

  6. Hi Tammy, we’re so happy you came to visit us and work on your health goals. Just a head’s up that we cater our programs to all kinds of fitness levels so while we knew you could withstand a more rigorous regime, we also take it easy others who need more time in the spa. Hope to see you again!

    Kirkland Shave, General Manager, Mountain Trek

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