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Revered founder of gay ski week dies suddenly

Benaschak’s death puts Altitude 12 event in jeopardy The founder and organizer of North America’s biggest gay and lesbian ski week, held annually in Whistler, has died suddenly. Brent Benaschak passed away Dec 30 at the age of 41.

Benaschak’s death puts Altitude 12 event in jeopardy

The founder and organizer of North America’s biggest gay and lesbian ski week, held annually in Whistler, has died suddenly.

Brent Benaschak passed away Dec 30 at the age of 41. The family has requested that details of his death not be released.

His death has called into question whether this year’s Altitude 12 event will go ahead.

"We are still trying to figure that out too," said long time friend Rodney Plante.

"For now it is business as usual until we are directed otherwise."

The final decision rests with Benaschak’s family, which is based in Regina, Saskatchewan.

Family members are meeting with lawyers this week to try and figure out the future of Benaschak’s Out On The Slopes Productions company and the event.

Gareth Kirkby, managing editor of Vancouver gay and lesbian newspaper Xtra West, featured Benaschak as a community hero a couple of years ago.

"(Altitude) is an institution now in the gay community," said Kirkby.

"And I think it would be really tragic if it didn’t continue and I would imagine that both his parents and friends and people who have worked in the business will do everything they can to continue it.

"There is a very strong sense in the community that it must continue."

Kirkby said Benaschak’s work put Vancouver and Whistler on the map as a destination for the gay traveller. He was also part of the movement behind getting bars to stay open until 4 a.m. as part of the push to attract gay travel business, a multi billion-dollar industry in North America.

"He took opportunities to educate wherever he saw them," said Kirkby.

"He will be missed. Whenever he saw something that needed doing he always went out and did it."

It is estimated that the Altitude event, traditionally held Ja. 31 to Feb. 9, brings in over $1 million to the resort.

Lynda Gilroy, Director of Meetings and Incentive Experience for Tourism Whistler said it’s her understanding that Altitude 12 will be going ahead.

"We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Brent Benaschak," she said.

"Brent worked tirelessly to develop Whistler’s Gay Ski Week into one of the largest and most successful annual festivals in Whistler’s calendar year.

"We hope that (Benaschak’s) legacy will continue for many years to come."

Every year Benaschak made sure that part of the profits from the event went back into the Whistler community. For years a silent auction has been held in support of Whistler Community Services Society.

"He was very community minded and he really appreciated Whistler and the reception those guys were getting here and he really wanted to make sure he gave back to the community," said Janet McDonald, executive director of the society.

"It would sure be a big loss (if Altitude did not continue). It was a very well organized event and really popular and it brought a lot to this community and I would hate to see it go."

Local friends and supporters from around North America are planning to attend a celebration of Benaschak’s life on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. in the Hotel Vancouver’s Pacific Ballroom.

Billy Carroll got to know Benaschak when Altitude week was just a dream in 1990. They met in a summer community near New York, where Carroll still resides. Benaschak moved there to open a bed and breakfast.

"I just keep thinking about that first year when we talked about the idea and I said, ‘Come on Brent, you’ve got to be kidding me. Who is going to go up there?" said Carroll earlier this week.

"But he loved Whistler from the bottom of his heart."

The first year the event was held it drew only a few hundred people. Last year there were over 3,500 people from all over the world.

Friends say Benaschak’s vision of what a gay ski week could be in Whistler, and his drive to make it the most creative, imaginative and fun event on the gay travellers’ calendar, ultimately made it a success.

"It was his vision and he was the pied piper of the resort and the event," said Carroll, who DJ’d Altitude events for 10 years.

"I really do think it would be a horrible shame if the event didn’t go ahead."

Carroll said Benaschak felt a special connection to Whistler, which he viewed as a spiritual and unique Shangri-La. In 1992 Benaschak opened a B & B in Whistler. He divided his time between Fire Island in New York and Whistler in those early days.

Benaschak, a perfectionist who loved to keep pace with the latest trends, was always looking for the next great idea said friend Sandy Walker.

Just days ago Benaschak phoned Walker, who was in Rio de Janeiro for New Years.

"He called me and said, ‘Sandy you know those thongs that they wear down there, the cheap rubber ones you used to get in the ’60s? They are in Wallpaper magazine and they are really hot so you should buy a pair,’" said Walker.

"So I chased all round Rio trying to find a pair. That was so him, always looking for the next great thing."

Walker too would be disappointed if Altitude 12 didn’t go ahead.

"Whenever I travel people know about it," she said.

"It has become so big and that was his baby and he did such a marvellous job doing it.

"He is going to be missed. He was a lovely, lovely man and I love him dearly."

For Benaschak Altitude wasn’t about the money or the glory of pulling off a large international event.

"Brent was a contributor and integrity and dignity were things that were important to him," said Plante.

"He saw an opportunity to bring people together and he made it into a world class event and he did so with a lot of humility.

"He wasn’t doing this for the glory or for any type of recognition or attention. He was doing this because it was what he enjoyed. It was his passion.

"He loved to unite people. Although the Whistler event was billed as a gay and lesbian ski event he loved the fact that it united both the gay and the non-gay world together and it gave him great satisfaction to do that."

Benaschak was born in Moose Jaw but grew up mostly in Regina. He was very close to his family said Plante and is survived by his parents, a sister and nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers donations can be made in Benaschak’s memory to the Western Canada Pediatric Aids Society or the Whistler Community Services Society.