Mountain Trek is is a boutique luxury health and wellness retreat in British Columbia Canada designed to help guests’ kick start their metabolism, create meaningful habits that will help them live a longer, fuller life and reset their priorities and mind through time spent in nature and away from daily stresses and obligations. The weeklong program centers around Nordic fitness trekking (Mountain Trek’s full-body approach to hiking that employs 90% of the bodies muscles), organic, nutrient-packed gourmet meals, daily yoga and fitness classes, health lectures and detoxification through sauna, massage and separation from technology.
Our team has been working with Mountain Trek to grow their following of brand loyalists through digital and content marketing, and we’ve grown pretty passionate about both the team and their mission through our collaboration with them. So when Kirkland Shave, the Program Director and Head Guide invited me to Mountain Trek during one of our weekly calls to better understand the program and its goals, I jumped at the opportunity. Seven days of hiking and gourmet food? Yes, please. We picked a week, I bought some trail runners, and the Delucchi team shipped me off to British Columbia with hugs and high-fives.
Mountain Trek is nestled in the Kootenay mountain range, about 4 hours from Spokane International Airport and 1.5 hours from Castlegar. I opted to fly into Spokane where a shuttle greeted me and another guest. The drive to the lodge was largely uneventful, save for my awkward exchange with border control who, much like my friends and family, did not understand how spending the week at the place Travel + Leisure named 2016’s ‘World’s Best International Destination Spa” could be considered “business.” After rambling on about Facebook and Google for a bit, the officer seemed content that I was not there to poach Canadian jobs and let us through.
Nelson, B.C. is the main city located closest to the lodge, and it’s also the first time you notice Kootenay Lake – the 65 mile lake is a constant through the week and makes cameos in most of the Spring hikes. Driving alongside the lake with the mountains, many of them still snowcapped behind it, was my first glimpse at the spectacular views I’d take in all week – the Lucky Charms-style rainbow with a full beginning and end over the lake was the cherry on top. We were off to a good start.
Day one. Lets see what this thing is all about. There are no alarms at Mountain Trek, every day at 6am the guides gently knock on your door and say ‘Good Morning’ and you’re up and at it from there. We were greeted with a small smoothie before being promptly sent to 6:30am yoga, followed by breakfast (sans coffee because the program is caffeine-free). We also had our initial weigh-ins and body measurements, as well as blood pressure readings, and our first lecture of the week, focused around fitness. Then it was time for the hike. This is the shortest hike of the week, about 1 hour and 45 minutes on Cedar Creek Trail, accessible from the Mountain Trek lodge. Day one helps you access where your endurance level is and which of the four groups of varying paces is the best fit for you throughout the week.
This was my first introduction to the Nordic trekking poles, which I was definitely awkward at, but it was also my first introduction to springtime in British Columbia. Through May and June, the snow is melting off the mountaintops so the rivers are flowing to the brim and the forest is speckled with little flowers. Everything is LUSH and everything SMELLS SO GOOD. Fun fact- this particular hike took us past a historic little cemetery that was evidently used to film a scene in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ (heyyy Ethan Hawke). The cemetery is at the top of a viewpoint, our first break in the hike where we get to eat a snack. I would come to set my watch by feeding times in the coming days, because the food is DELICIOUS.
Sunday helped us get our bearings on the program and its schedule, so Monday had us off to the races with a full 3-4 hour day of hiking on the Galena Trail, which weaves through old mining ruins. I ambitiously joined Group One, the group that moves at the fastest pace up the mountain. My wonder at nature and the scenery was quickly overshadowed by my wonder at the pace we were moving at – we were HOOFING IT. I stopped looking at the trees and focused at looking at the shoes of the guest in front of me and trying not to trip over roots while uselessly dragging my left pole behind me. When we made it to our first clearing we all gulped water slowly and peeled off clothing layers we were sweating through, trying to buy time before the Group One guide Jenn (who is also the nutritionist) cheerily started to lead the hike again, which she told us in a sweet voice would be exclusively up hill for an hour. Excellent.
Throughout this hike, I had both a DSLR and a 360 camera in my backpack. I had dutifully learned and practiced how to use the 360 and had visions of returning to my content team with spectacular footage of mountain peaks and dense foliage. I was so delusional. By the time we got to the top of our long, steep climb the only thing I could focus on was GETTING THE DELICIOUS SOUP THEY PACKED FOR LUNCH INTO MY BODY IMMEDIATELY, and also, sitting. Just sitting.
Mountain Trek is a TREK- it is not a leisurely stroll in the woods for instagrammable moments. The Galena Trail was eye-opening because while Mountain Trek is certainly a luxury experience, the ultimate purpose is to reawaken your metabolism. The staff wants you to be using at least 65% of your maximum exertion during every hike and workout. Every guest comes with some kind of commitment towards a fitness or wellness goal but it is humbling when you truly recognize that this program is going to be a challenge and you are going to push yourself. Simon, one of the guides and the program sleep expert told us “It’s not called Prairie Trek.”
However, Monday was also very rewarding. We saw a grouse (a little chicken-like forest bird) and her babies, and I got to know Jenn and the other guests in my group better during lunch and the way down the mountain. In one day, I had already exercised more than I probably had the last two weeks – for many guests at all group levels, Monday is more than they’ve exercised in years. Despite the intensity, beginners should not be intimidated – I started to recognize the exceptional efforts the guides take to make sure each guest is at the best pace for them. They will challenge you, but they will help tailor the experience to your fitness and experience level to ensure that your hike is fulfilling.
At the end of our hike it was satisfying to join the larger group back to the trailhead, look up and see what I achieved and be able to share that with the group of people who were hustling alongside me.
The massage at the end of Monday didn’t hurt either.
Tuesday I opted to join Group Two on our hike along a trail named Fry Creek. Group two consisted of myself, our guide (Jenn, again) and an bubbly and driven entrepreneur who was at Mountain Trek for the fourth time – lets call her Marie. Group two was a decidedly better pace for me – still very brisk by my standards, but slowed enough from group one that I had more of an opportunity to focus on my form and **finally** find my rhythm with the trekking poles.
This was my favorite hike of the week. The weather was a perfect 80 degrees, the hike took us past viewpoints where flowing rivers were dumping into the Lake and I really hit it off with Marie and Jenn. We even had the chance to snap one or two photos for the fridge back home. We saw another grouse on our hike, some wild turkeys and once safely back in the car, even some baby bear cubs climbing a tree. Let me repeat that – I GOT TO SEE BABY BEARS OUT IN THE WILD FOR “WORK.” Is this real life?
They told us at some point that we would be prone to manic happy moments and random bursts of crying, that these rollercoasters of emotion were not unheard of when our entire lifestyle was turned upside down for a week, and guests’ really had time to marinate with their thoughts, away from life’s standard distractions. Safe to say I was in the manic stage of that rollercoaster, because I was AMPED.
By Tuesday, I had really started to develop an affection for both the Mountain Trek staff and the Mountain Trek guests. Humor me while I openly gush.
The guides are a well-oiled machine that seamlessly navigate the huge operation that is catering to up to 16 guests’ comfort and health. Four groups hike at four different paces on multiple trails and somehow everyone stays on their meal schedule and gets back at the lodge at the same time. The hikes are only one element of the operation though – three times a day the kitchen staff provides gourmet meals that account for any guest allergies or preferences and the guest services team carefully attend to everyone’s flight schedules and, for guests staying two weeks, Saturday excursions.
As much as I can rave for days on end about the food, I’d like to shout out the laundry and housekeeping team. Laundry is done twice a day, every day. Back home, I do not have an in-unit washer and dryer and need to wrangle a billion quarters every time I need to do a few loads, so twice daily laundry was a TREAT. It’s just an added level of comfort to be able to drop off your sweaty hiking clothes and have them ready after dinner the same day.
Aside from the sheer magnitude of the operations efforts, the commitment of each staff member leaves an impression. Jenn told us during the hike that the number one thing Kirk looks for when hiring staff is compassion. The staff is not judgmental, nor are they un-relatable. They will share personal anecdotes of their own journeys and struggles. They recognize and appreciate each guest’s challenges and are unabashedly dedicated to helping you leave Mountain Trek happier and healthier than when you arrived. You have no choice but to blindly trust the staff for seven days, and they never let me down. I made some of the staff hug me at the end of my trip, which probably ended just in time because I was growing somewhat obsessed with them.
By Tuesday, we were a wolfpack. We were a single unit being Sherpa-d by the Mountain Trek staff from activity to activity. We were a group of 12 that hiked, ate, worked out, sweat and sauna-ed together. We had seen each other in various stages of vulnerability as we reached our individual limits. We also did not have any TV and very limited Internet, so in our limited downtime between lectures and workouts, we had each other for company.
The guests were there for various personal choices, ranging from a reset after the death of a parent, to getting a headstart on age 60, to losing weight and rediscovering the inner-athlete. Everyone was interesting and impressive; I learned something from everyone there and really grew to love the time I spent with these people. One of the guests commented that it’s amazing how close we all got so quick, which shouldn’t have been surprising considering the amount of time we spent together (in the car, in the hot tub, in the gym, in front of the fire, sweating on a trail….), but it still caught our cold, jaded little East Coast hearts off-guard. In a good way.
Wednesday I was feeling a little low-energy, so I dropped down to Group Four, the most “beginner” of the groups, in theory to give my tired little legs a break. On Wednesday I learned that a hill is a hill is a hill. It does not matter what pace you’re going at – the elevation is the same and the challenge is still very evident. Each group and each experience level is hustling for their win.
I also had the opportunity to sit down with Kirk for two in-person meetings; the morning meeting I was the client and it was our mid-week guest-check in. The second meeting, he was the client and we finally got to have our weekly touchbase in-person and walk through some of my initial takeaways about the program.
Back in DC, our office and clients for the most part are pretty business-casual, but I still try to wear heels and pull myself together for client meetings. No matter how low-maintenance a client is, I would never say, show up to a client meeting with a pony-braid and sports bra. Which is exactly how I rolled up to my Wednesday meetings with Kirk, who was respectively rocking his own flip-flops and work-out gear. More surreal than our attire was our first meeting when he was checking in with me as a guest and we talked about everything from how much sleep I was getting to how often I was going to the bathroom. Our cadence had shifted from our typical agenda of PPC strategy, but I was into it.
Kirk also hosted our stress management class that afternoon. This lecture was arguably the most impactful out of our impressive roster of lectures. Kirk is a compelling speaker and it was exciting to see him in his element, outside of the routine of our weekly calls. His passion and enthusiasm was gripping and it was clear that the other guests identified with his message. For a lot of guests, the takeaways that came from this lecture are the primary reason they came to Mountain Trek to start with.
Thursday we hiked a mountain bike trail, Morning Mountain. It rained pretty consistently most of the hike and while the canopy of trees really helped protect us, as a group we were all pretty low-energy. I hiked Group Three, the largest of the groups, and after lunch on the way back down the trail, we had sort of merged with groups two and four. We all perked up coming back downhill, the rain slowed, we caught our breath and talked more and we enjoyed a viewpoint that overlooked a town. The thing about British Columbia is that even when it’s raining, it’s still British Columbia. Its still spectacularly beautiful and it’s just a different kind of dramatic landscape. Plus the rain makes everything somehow SMELL EVEN BETTER. I got the opportunity on the downhill part of the trek to spend some time with head guide Kathy, a total rockstar in her own right. She regaled me and another guest with stories from her time as a park ranger, including a close encounter with a grizzly, and my affection (read: obsession) with the Mountain Trek staff continued to grow.
When we got back to the trailhead for our group stretch, the guides had thermoses of hot tea ready for us. It was the perfect pick-me-up to the end of our hike. I’ve always loved tea, but I’ve never drank as much tea as I have as Mountain Trek, even if it was caffeine-free. It’s hard to say whether it was the zen environment at the lodge that makes you feel like you should be cradling a mug with something soothing or if it’s the comfort that comes with the placebo affect of drinking a hot beverage to help you miss coffee less. Whatever it is, the sweet, sweet tea at the end of the hike hit the spot.
Friday. The final countdown. At the beginning of the trip there was a part of me that wondered if one week was too long for a retreat where hiking was such an instrumental component. But now it was hard to believe it was coming to an end. The week flew by. I had grown to love the intensive schedule – it was refreshing to not have to think and to have my day lined out for me. The exercise and thoughtfully composed meals had cleared a clean slate for me to start new habits when I got home. We ended our week by taking a scenic ferry over the lake to Pilot Bay. We hiked alongside the lake and rivers feeding into it before steadily climbing farther up the mountain. It rained off and on all day – I hiked Group Two and we paused for photos at one of the viewpoints in between showers.
Back at the lodge, I savored my final massage and detox routine and bid farewell to the guests who I wouldn’t see in the morning. Another Lucky-Charms rainbow appeared over the lake outside the lodge – the bookends to my incredibly stunning trip.
Saturday morning I woke myself up (no guide tenderly knocking at the door) and had my final weigh-in and body measurement session before hugging it out with everyone and getting ready to shuttle back to Spokane. The kitchen packed us snacks for the ride and a to-go lunch (bless their hearts) so that we wouldn’t need to immediately make difficult nutrition choices in the airport.
Mountain Trek is about reasonable and attainable habit-formation and post my brand-immersion I am subtly incorporating actionable items into my daily life to help keep me on track and feeling as good as I did in British Columbia. Even though I originally went to Mountain Trek to learn more about the program for our marketing efforts (which was a win in itself), selfishly I also left with real knowledge and resources for maintaining my wellness and metabolism. It’s not realistic to hike 3 hours on a Wednesday, but it is realistic to make time for breakfast and pack a lunch to work. I started powering down my electronics around one hour before bedtime to decompress from email, social media and the late-night rabbit-hole that comes from both those things, and I’ve cut out my usual hazelnut coffee with three creamers Monday-Friday and am reserving caffeine as a weekend indulgence. These are small, but meaningful daily actions which ladder up to my larger goals and commitment to myself – a commitment that Mountain Trek was the primary catalyst for.
I feel super lucky and grateful because my brand immersion at Mountain Trek not only armed me with powerful insights to take back to the team to advance our marketing efforts, but also empowered me to make healthier choices in my own life. I’m still basically obsessing about the experience (clearly) and am actively brainstorming with an anonymous colleague (cough cough Ali Kehoe) on how we can convince/ manipulate our agency into sending us back. For the good of the agency, of course.