Do you dream of mountain living? When you are surrounded by the fresh mountain air, majestic peaks, and hipster vibe, is it hard to leave? Does your soul ache to live a full-time mountain lifestyle?
Don't get me wrong, Ray and I love our life here on the Canadian Prairies.
We've both lived here most of our lives and have built a wonderful community around us, including our beloved family and precious grandkiddies, Ella and Erich. It's hard to imagine living away from them while they are so little.
At least twice a year, we NEED to get out to the mountains. I am awestruck by mountains. Their presence, stature, raw beauty - and danger.
More than any physical building, the mountains are our church. Nothing feels more spiritual than being washed with joy after a difficult climb.
I learned this when I was in the process of ending my first marriage back in 2002. After a difficult physical climb up Mt. Akadake in Nagano, Japan, by myself (which in hindsight probably wasn't wise), I was able to look down on the valleys below with new perspective.
This landscape became analogous to my life. The world is vast. I am small. And this pain too, shall pass.
I also love the lifestyle in a mountain city or town. Hip outdoor wear. Hikes at my doorstep. Laid-back atmosphere and people. Craft breweries and outdoor patios (in winter!). Our favourite sports nearby.
So what's a Prairie girl to do when she lives on the flatlands, but dreams of mountain living?
In this post, I want to share five tips that have helped Ray and I scratch that mountain itch, while still living on the flats.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. In the event of a sale, I will receive a small commission (at no extra cost for you).
Tip 1: Live an active mountain lifestyle
There's something about living in the mountains that makes my body want to move.
During the last two years of my five years living in Japan, I lived in Suwa-shi, a city of about 50,000 people in Nagano prefecture, Japan.
Every morning, I gazed over the rice fields to the Yatsugatake mountain range, eight peaks spreading over Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures (eventually, I climbed some of them).
Several days a week, for most of the year, I'd jump on my mountain bike before work and head up into the hills, cycling up and down the trails, ever so often passing an ancient temple or cemetary. Enigma as my soundtrack.
After a few hours, I'd head to Denny's (yep, there was a Denny's) for coffee and french toast (french toast in Japan!) where I would spend a while reading, sipping, and journaling.
Every day felt like a vacation. Even though I was working as a full-time teacher.
I didn't have a car, so I walked or rode my bike everywhere, and thought nothing of cycling 1-2 hours to get to the next town or to a dinner party. This could add a little type 2 or 3 fun to the day if you happened to fall into an open section of one of the concrete drainage ditches that sandwich Japan's narrow streets. I came close a few times.
I bought groceries at the local supermarket (a short walk away) as I needed them. If I needed a vehicle for a longer trip, our company car was available for loan.
On the weekends, co-workers and I would cycle up to an adorable little mountain village for a cappuccino at our favourite art gallery cafe. This might sound pretty relaxing, but the ride was actually a pretty gruelling 90 minute climb. My legs have never been so ripped.
In the (very mild) winter, we were a 30 minute drive from the ski hills. During the week, I might head up to a nearby resort for a pre-work ski lesson (my Japanese instructor lived half the year in New Zealand, and was a fluent English speaker).
For a weekend trip, we'd travel to one of Nagano's over eighty ski resorts, our ski day wrapping up with a relaxing soak at the onsen.
I lost 25 pounds living there.
Active mountain living: on the Prairies
When I returned to the Prairies, I felt a big shift, and became decidedly less active. Because of the winter weather and distance from work, I became pretty reliant on my car. Our city, though improving, isn't particularly cyclist friendly. And the scenery, though lovely in its own way, doesn't ignite the same passion for me as mountain peaks.
I biked a little, jogged a little, and went to the gym. I tried XC skiing, which was fun, but nothing really lit my fire.
And then I met Ray.
Tip 2: Try a new mountain living activity
Our shared spark for mountain living was reignited after a trip to Japan for Ray's 50th.
After that trip, we started ice climbing in the winter (we were 50 and 46), adding rock climbing by the summer. A few years later, we added some hiking - locally at first on more challenging terrain - eventually leading to our first mountaineering trip.
While finding a frozen waterfall or farmed ice might be more challenging in your area (though it's also possible to build your own!), rock climbing is one of the world's fastest-growing and accessible sports, especially if you start in the climbing gym. It's also relatively inexpensive to get started. All you need is a harness, climbing shoes, and a helmet if climbing outdoors.
We got started at a climbing gym, where we learned about equipment, safe belaying, and movement on the wall. These days, you can find climbing gyms in most major cities and they often provide rental equipment for you to try.
Your local climbing gym is also a great information source about outdoor climbing areas near you. Even in the flatlands, we have outdoor crags nearby, and have spent weekends with fabulous people climbing in these areas.
Nervous about being the newbie?
Or maybe your beliefs about your abilities are holding you back?
Feeling nervous is normal. Maybe you're even a little intimidated, especially if you are older. We were and did it anyway.
It can help to go with a partner or friend (it's great if your partner is your friend too). Or go alone and make an appointment to spend some time with an instructor.
And remember, everyone was once a beginner. You won't always be the newbie. And you'll find a badass group of new climber friends to hang out with!
CAUTION: Rock and ice climbing can be dangerous. If you are new to climbing, get expert advice on how to climb and belay safely. Always climb with climbers who are competent in managing hazards specific to the climbing environment.
Cross-country skiing originated from the mountains of Scandinavia. Before going to Canmore last month, though, this is a sport I'd never really thought of as a mountain sport, because it's so accessible anywhere (as long as you have snow).
Bar none, XC skiing is one of the best full-body cardio exercises. I usually wear a Fitbit to track my progress, and my cardiovascular fitness improves quickly when I'm out skiing at least twice a week. Lots of our friends got into XC during the pandemic. Here where we live, it was nearly impossible to get skis once the season arrived. For us mountain-lovers, it was great training for our other winter pursuits.
In Canmore, Alberta, Ray and I tried out a few trails at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Just...wow! Full of hipsters and fitsters! Professionally groomed trails with stunning mountain views. I hardly noticed the long uphill and fast downhill sections (OK, the skiing downhill on a set track freaked me out a bit).
If you live in a snowy place, check out some of the ski clubs in your area and maybe even take a lesson. This was super helpful for me in learning how to balance and move on XC skis. Many clubs rent gear, so you can try before investing in your own gear.
Even on the flat-as-a-pancake Prairies, we still have a few hilly areas for ski resorts. Are they epic hills? No, but they are a great training ground for the mountains. The runs are short, with long bunny hills for practicing, and you can even take a lesson. Ray and I took the grandkids for their first downhill experience when they were 2 and 4. It was definitely an adventure!
As someone who manages anxiety and depression, I can tell you first-hand the benefits of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing.
Shinrin-Yoku is the Japanese practice of immersing oneself in the forest, mindfully using all the senses. It emerged in the 1980's as a critical component of preventative care and healing.
Extensively researched, forest bathing has demonstrated benefits to our immune system function (specifically an increase in natural killer cells), cardiovascular health, respiratory health, mood disorders and stress, and increased feelings of gratitude and selflessness.
My Japanese friends and students were much more connected to nature than I was when I arrived in Japan. Nature hikes, foraging for seasonal vegetables, walking and cycling, were part of the culture - something everyone seemed to do.
I learned so much from these nature lovers. I can tell you personally that my rides and hikes through the forest and mountains in Nagano 20 years ago saved me mentally, spiritually, and physically during an excruciatingly difficult time.
But you don't need a mountain forest to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing.
Green spaces are so very good for us. Head to the park! One of my favourite hikes where we live, the Bois des Esprit, is a five km hike, right in the city. I feel as though I'm "bathed" in calm when I walk there.
Even the Canadian healthcare system is listening. In Canada, any licensed health-care provider, from nurses to physicians to physiotherapists, can prescribe nature to their patients through the PaRx program.
Want to get started hiking? The options are endless! Here's a wonderful article from REI on how to get started hiking, including finding a hiking buddy, buying the right gear, and selecting a route.
Maintaining fitness for midlife mountain living
Especially now that we're in our fifties, Ray and I are very conscious that the decisions we make now will impact our lifestyle in 10, 15, 20 years from now. And we want that to be an active (and long) life, full of mountain living.
Particularly over the last year or two (I'm 53 now), I've noticed a change in my body. As I type this, I'm recovering from a rotator cuff injury from overuse and skiing wipeouts.
I also deal with osteoarthritis in both knees, both of which become very irritated after significant activity (like many of the activities we do). During our last mountain trip, pain pretty much shut me down for our final week.
I was really disappointed in myself. I had trained for many months to avoid such an outcome. But 4-5 weeks before we left, I slacked off my training, and I'm certain this contributed to my injuries. Probably also the extra 15 pounds that has crept up over the last year.
Every extra pound you carry on your body is an extra 3-4 extra pounds of pressure on your knees.
Add a 35 lb pack...and that extra 15 pounds really slows me down.
In midlife, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, eating nutritious food, and practicing mobility and strength training aren't optional for me anymore, especially if I want to continue to do strenuous mountain activities like ice and rock climbing, skiing, and mountaineering.
And the big three: cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, all of which have touched my family, are never far from my mind.
If you need more evidence that quitting smoking, leading an active lifestyle, watching alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a nutritious diet - will improve your quality of life as you age, check out this study out of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Researchers reviewed 34 years of data collected from over 110,000 health professionals (34 years of data from 73,196 women and 28 years of data from 38,366 men). The results pointed to the five lifestyle factors listed above to significantly extend the years a person lives free of major diseases.
Of course, there are no guarantees. But if there's a chance?
My fitness journey to a living a mountain lifestyle
Making healthy, nutritious food, and working hard to keep my weight in check isn't so much about how I look anymore. It's about fuelling myself properly for activities and reducing the weight I'm carrying up mountains. And OK, it's a little bit about how I look (don't judge me).
Honestly, sometimes all the cooking, planning, training, stretching and appointments can be frustrating. And I don't get it perfect. Recovery can take a bit more time than when I was younger.
But, even if imperfect. I'll keep going. I feel better. I'm more joyful.
Living a life of epic adventures is a value Ray and I both share. Our adventure friends (many of whom are younger than us) are a big motivator.
Tip 3: Design your space for mountain living
In 2019, Ray and I sold our lakefront bungalow and bought a three-story townhouse. In doing this, we lost about 1600 sf (our basement), but we gained a whole lot more freedom (no grass! no shovelling! more disposable income! more travel!).
I loved our old house for the entertaining space, particularly during the holidays. But since we alternate hosting duties in our family, and with all the nephews and nieces now with homes of their own, did we really want to hang on to a more expensive home to host every four or five years?
Nope. So one sunny day, probably around this time, we put a deposit down on a new home.
Over the past three years, it's been our goal to design our home with a chic mountain cabin vibe. We started with a painting by local artist (and good friend), Andrew Hiebert, commissioned for Ray's 55th birthday. This painting was based on an award-winning photograph that Ray took at the 2018 General Mountaineering Camp.
The painting was an investment - but one that brings us joy every time we look at it. And we can share it with future generations of mountain lovers.
Amazon and Etsy are a treasure chest of mountain decor ideas. How about welcoming friends to your own family mountain lodge, with this customizable wall sign?
Never lose your keys again (and display them like a mountain-living pro) at the foot of this mountain range!
Looking for a ski lodge vibe? Check out these adorable ski sheets Or, for the bathroom, this smoky mountain shower curtain. Ray and I chose this theme for our bedroom, with a mountain duvet and sham set. We even found a matching watercolour painting on our recent trip to Canmore.
Or maybe you'd like to snuggle in for the night in your lodge bedroom, wrapped in this quilted reversible comforter and shams So cute and cozy!
Mountain living vibes for everyone in the family!
Tip 4: Bring mountain living inside with your own climbing wall
Why not up your cool factor with your friends, family, kids and grandkids by building your very own climbing wall?
Ray and I built a climbing wall in our former house (check out the process and final product below). It was a built-in gym and training facility for our climbing trips. Our granddaughter did her very first climb on that wall at 2 years old.
Many of our friends have gone down this path, a few during the pandemic, as climbing gyms closed their doors.
Here is some inspiration for you...
Here's Brianna, demonstrating her mad climbing skills on her home wall.
Trisha and Charles couldn't bear the idea of not climbing during the pandemic, so they tore out their old 70's style wet bar and transformed the space into their very own Quarantine Cave!
Before & After
And how about this cool idea? Josée and Bill combined their love of climbing and flying by building a climbing wall right in the hangar beside Bill's WWI Sopwith Camel (we're making a film about Bill - check out the trailer!).
Nestor (right) built a killer outdoor wall for his family to enjoy on the flatlands!
Want to give building your own climbing wall a try? Check out this how-to guide from REI Co-op.
Don't forget the climbing holds and bolts. Don't forget climbing holds for the kiddies too!
We don't have the home climbing wall anymore, but Ray built us a multi-pitch rock climbing route up our staircase to practice anchor building and multi-pitch techniques.
Have lots of outdoor space? You could even build an awesome, at-home ice wall, like our friends, Samantha and Brad!
Samantha and Brad's Ice Wall. Even little Cedar (now 6) is stoked!
Trisha and Charles (Quarantine Cave builders) created their very own ice pillar in their front yard.
With gatherings shut down during the pandemic, they couldn't face the season without an ice climbing option. Their unique lockdown solution made it onto the local news!
Tip 5: Test out part-time mountain living
This idea had been brewing since last August 2021. We aren't in a position to live full-time in the mountains, but we wondered - could there be a middle ground, where we spend part of the year there?
So, in February, we moved to one of our favorite places on earth, Canmore, Alberta, for a month. Thanks to the ease of remote work (one positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic), we were able to combine two weeks of work with two weeks of vacation.
With our son and his family checking our house while we were away, we loaded the car up with our winter gear (and some favourite things from home, like our Vitamix), and arrived in Canmore on Saturday, February 5.
Through VRBO, we rented a beautiful one-bedroom condo, with a fully equipped kitchen, and within easy walking distance to town. As we could prepare most of our meals at home, our only additional costs (outside of our regular budget) were the condo (about $2800 for four weeks), and gas (return) from Winnipeg to Canmore (about $500, since gas prices had just started to rise, and we have a large-ish vehicle). Eating out was extra of course (there are some amazing restaurants in Canmore). And my many cafe visits.
Many of the activities we did were free (ice climbing, strolling through Banff/Canmore, hiking, XC skiing, hanging out with friends, filming our ABOUT US page video).
Other activities were a bit pricier, like our downhill ski days at about $400 per day for the two of us (lift tickets, rentals). During our last week, I wasn't able to do much due to my knee and shoulder injuries, so we headed up the Banff gondola to have a look around. Super fun way to spend a rest day.
So, dear reader, if you dream of living in a mountain town, maybe it doesn't need to be all or nothing.
Take it from this prairie girl, it IS possible to live a mountain lifestyle, even if you aren't able to actually live there.
We do it every day!
Do you dream of mountain living, but it's not possible for you to live in the mountains? Tell us in the comments - what do you do to rock your mountain lifestyle?