February 02, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

Beyond all politics and just for fun 

Altitude 2001 pushing Whistler into another international spotlight

Somewhere over the Rainbow, you’ll find… well, more than 3,000 gay men and lesbians congregating in Whistler with the sole aim of having the time of their lives.

This Sunday, Feb. 4, is the start of Whistler’s ninth annual Gay Ski Week and organizers say it will be the biggest and best yet. A record 3,000-plus people have signed up with the promoters of Altitude 2001 and tickets are already sold out to many events. Not bad for an event that boasted only 200 gay and lesbian skiers back in 1993 when it first kicked off.

Vancouver-based founder of Altitude 2001 and Out-On-the-Slopes producer, Brent Benaschak, says the idea grew from his initial efforts to attract clients of his bed and breakfast on New York’s Fire Island to his other B&B in Whistler. The event has since snowballed and now sits second in the gay ski week rankings behind Aspen’s gay ski week – an event which has been some 20-plus years in the making. Benaschak admits Altitude has grown well beyond his expectations.

"Altitude attracts people from all around the globe, largely by word of mouth," he says. "It’s a crazy, hectic festival chock full of social events and over-the-top parties and people just have a great time – gay and straight."

While Benaschak has undoubtedly made Whistler’s Gay Ski Week the success story it is today, an earlier operator did plant the seed in Whistler’s subconscious.

In the early 1980s, Bill Swigart of Seattle started bringing groups of thrill-seeking gays from his city and herding them to Whistler for a weekend of skiing and hoopla. These trips comprised up to a couple of hundred skiers and led to the creation of Ski Buddies and Team Heidi, a scheme whereby team members would scream out the word "Heidi" while skiing to identify like-minded sheep.

Benaschak has no doubt benefited from the zany path trail-blazed by his predecessors.

"I had never heard of Team Heidi but Whistler has always welcomed Altitude with open arms and I love working with the people up there," he says. "Plus the mountains are just so beautiful with amazing skiing and boarding."

Altitude 2001 kicks off with a dance party in Vancouver tomorrow (Feb. 3), before arriving in a flurry of feather boas and fashionable ski attire in Whistler on Sunday. What will unfold over the next seven days is a non-stop itinerary of parties, lunches and apres get-togethers, all squeezed around the on-slope action. As usual, the proceeds from several events will benefit local charities. This year’s recipients include Whistler Community Services Society and the Vancouver-based gay hockey team.

And in line with previous Altitudes, an over-riding theme will prevail for the week. This year’s theme centres around the philosophy of the seven chakras – major energy centres within the human body. Each day of Altitude corresponds with one of the chakras using its respective colour, element, lesson and characteristics. For example, the Solar Plexus Chakra for Monday, Feb. 5 is located above the naval and below the chest, with the colour yellow, the element of fire, the functions of power & emotions and the qualities of will, personal power, humour and immortality. That evening’s event will be a fire-side martini reception backed by a sultry vocalist and fire dancing. Benaschak says the seven centres come together on the eighth day for the final blow out party, Snow Ball 2001, using visuals, music, lighting and performances relating to each one.

Among the top attractions for the week – and sadly, now sold out – are the barbecue, the picnic and the infamous beach party at Meadow Park. To get an idea of the beach party just picture this: a hired drag queen belting out spicy songs while buff men frolic in the pools amid colourful beach balls and rubber duckies. Definitely not your usual pool-side crowd.

All Altitude passes are also sold out, including all-access, mid-week, extended weekend and apres ski. At the time of going to print, tickets were still available for the grand finale, Snow Ball, and the scavenger hunt, whose instructions include "one member smart enough to decipher the clues and one pretty enough to be photographed with the solution." Meee-ow!

Benaschak denies that Altitude has become too much of a good thing and has been busy re-assuring patrons there are still plenty of events up for grabs. He says Altitude has become a huge gathering but this mostly adds, rather than detracts, from its appeal.

"Some people like the intimacy of small groups skiing together and feel they get lost in the crowd," he admitted. "But the amazing energy created by so many people with a common interest and bond is quite exciting."

So who are these people who chose to jump on a plane or drive thousands of miles to visit Whistler on this week, rather than grab some powder action closer to home? Not surprisingly our U.S neighbours as well as Vancouverites make up a large slice of the Altitude pie, but regulars also fly in from South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia. Blair Hirtle, an advertising executive from Vancouver, says three types of people attend Altitude.

"There are those who come to ski or board with apres, those who come to party and those that do both – I’m the latter." After pausing however, he concludes he is in another category altogether, given gay men’s penchant towards intensive grooming.

"Lots of the gay guys run to the condos at 2 p.m. to shower and change, so when I go to apres ski at 4 I’m the only one still walking around in my boots and boarding gear," he laughs. "I’m not soft core."

Hirtle says contrary to its image, Altitude attracts more than just the gay community.

"Altitude has entered the mainstream over the past three years and there is something for everybody," he explained. "My 35-year-old straight brother is even thinking of going this year because the week is so fantastic with its lineup of parties, dinners and comedy acts etc."

He says the image of Altitude has also changed in Vancouver from being an "elusive hang-out for rich old fags to an, oh-my-god I must go ‘big fag out’ event for everyone from the jet set to the younger generation who work in Starbucks."

Vancouver-based antiques trader Mark Keister is coming back to Whistler for his third Altitude event. He says some events can be risqué but it’s mostly about being with like-minded people at the official parties or at the many impromptu private gatherings.

"It’s lots of fun, lots of good energy and good vibes, plus you get to meet people travelling from all over the world – plus the beach party is great with all the scantily-clad guys!"

While Gay Ski Week is officially for both sexes, anyone attending the parties could easily think the events were all for men. And not just because the person most likely to catch your eye is the six-foot-four muscle-man with the long blonde hair and tight powder-blue ski suit. Rather it’s because most of the Altitude crowd are male.

However, a significant number of estrogen-fuelled participants are increasingly making their presence felt.

The first "women only" dance was held at the Crab Shack during Altitude 98 and has since evolved into something far meatier. If the name of the dance – Thunderthrob 2001 – doesn’t grab your attention, then the lineup of activities for the evening surely will. The Wet Tank/T-shirt competition and Dare to Bare competition should get things going for a start, with the strict rule that "there is absolutely no need to behave yourself."

That said, there are no holds barred for what organizers refer to as "the ultimate sex machine." Apparently this saddle-like device which goes by the catchphrase, "Get Off in 45 seconds or Get Off," was supposed to be part of the inaugural Thunderthrob 2000 but sponsors backed out at the 11th hour. With a nightly rental price tag of $500, it wasn’t a treat that organizers had budgeted for and the idea was canned, much to the disappointment of a number of "older ladies" from Seattle.

However, co-organizer Patricia Jones says this year Thunderthrobbers are in luck, with key sponsor the Love Nest more than happy to provide the ultimate pleasure toy.

"This mechanical device debuted at a Harley convention where it was a big hit," she laughs. "We are also hoping to have it mounted on a Harley bike, and if that doesn’t happen, plenty of local guys have offered their dirt bikes for the occasion." How appropriately Whistler is that?

The mystery machine apparently comes with attachments but these extras won’t be showcased during Thunderthrob 2001 at The Savage Beagle.

Savage Beagle owner/operator Neil Aisenstat says no local businesses would allow activity on their premises that was illegal or offensive and from the feedback he’s had on Gay Ski Week, that sort of behaviour is unlikely.

"From what I’ve seen and heard over the past three years, those who attend Altitude are very affluent, a nice group of people who spend their money generously and treat others with respect."

He says Altitude does bring a party atmosphere to Whistler, more than any other single visitor group, but what he’s seen so far is just harmless portrayals of sexuality.

Another Thunderthrob organizer is Sandra Paley. She says the momentum behind the "girls who like girls" events came from within Whistler, rather than being Vancouver-driven like the rest of Altitude. She says tickets to Thunderthrob 2001 at the Savage Beagle are expected to sell out and "all interested lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and curious girls" should come along. Doors open at 8 p.m.

"We created the first Thunderthrob at Maxx Fish last year with three week’s notice after finding out the women’s dance hadn’t been organized," she said. "Word is out in Vancouver that the event is on and it should be loads of fun."

Jones was initially reluctant to help run Thunderthrob 2001 because of some surprise repercussions from last year’s event. However, she changed her mind after Altitude specifically asked Whistler women to host the event, ahead of other interested women’s groups in Seattle.

"Whistler isn’t super-backward on issues such as sexuality but the level of curiosity in my own involvement (in Thunderthrob) surprised me," she explained. "Guys kept asking if they could fix me up with their girlfriend and some people were more conservative than I had expected."

Jones believes events such as Thunderthrob and Altitude help remove social barriers and show that everyone, gay or straight, can have a fun time together. She says local girls also enjoy checking out all the buff gorgeous men in town for the week.

"The air in Whistler changes around Gay Ski Week and becomes very giggly, almost like Christmas," she says. "Same-sex couples feel free to hold hands in public, which in Whistler they normally would never feel comfortable doing."

If the often quoted "10 per cent rule" is correct, Whistler should have a population of more than 900 gay residents within its ranks. If that’s the case, as a social minority they seem to keep to themselves. For instance, don’t hold your breath looking for any gay events in the weekly entertainment listings. Jones says there are many long-established lesbian couples in town but it doesn’t appear as easy for gay men in Whistler.

"There is a strong bisexual community in Whistler among local women and everyone is pretty accepting of that. You don’t see the same level of acceptance of gay guys and maybe that is a reflection of the predominant straight male youth culture here."

So how does Whistler measure up to its rival, Aspen, when it comes to gay ski week? According to Benaschak, it’s comparing apples with oranges.

"The difference between the two ski weeks is the same as the difference between Aspen and Whistler – Aspen is definitely more about Hollywood."

However, he doesn’t quite agree with the common phrase, "People go to Aspen to be seen, they go to Whistler to hide."

"Altitude guys definitely don’t come here to hide," he laughs. "They’re a little too extroverted for that."

Given that Altitude has taken on a life of its own, driven largely by word of mouth, one could expect Benaschak and his team to take time out to sit on their respective laurels. Not a chance.

Benaschak says there are still issues to iron out, including Whistler’s often lamented rules on 2 a.m. bar and club closures. He says he is trying to get an extended opening especially for the Snow Ball to meet client expectations.

"Our guests come from all over the world and are used to having the freedom to stay out late instead of being told when to go to bed."

Hirtle agrees. He says the successful hosting of big groups such as Altitude indicates Whistler can handle even bigger events such as the Olympics. But he also says the draconian rules relating to bar and club hours need to change.

"The bureaucrats in Tourism Whistler and the municipality are apparently all old ladies who don’t represent the demographic they’re making the decisions about," he says. "Sure shut the booze down, but let the clubs stay open another two hours because you are dealing with international visitors who are not used to being told to go to bed at 2 a.m."

Staggering bar departure times would also reduce taxi cab waiting times and lower the level of drunk driving, he added.

Hirtle believes if local laws can be relaxed, especially for the Snow Ball finale, Whistler will have a gay event that ranks among the world’s best. As for what he will be wearing to this year’s ball, Hirtle doesn’t waste time being coy.

"Oh, a big fur coat, glo-stick bunny ears and cargo pants and probably some neon glasses." Gorgeous.

Benaschak says his ultimate vision is a party not unlike New Orleans’ Mardi Gras – an expression of humanity’s colour, vibrancy and the joy of living.

"Whistler could not achieve the crowds of Mardi Gras until maybe after the Olympics but I see Altitude becoming an even bigger fusion of different elements throughout the week and a huge attraction for everyone – beyond all politics and just for fun."

Don’t forget your feather boa!

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