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.

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