February 04, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

Growing Up Is Hard 

Whistler has long had a reputation of being a place full of Peter Pans, but as the resort grows up are we growing up too?

click to flip through (8) ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN
  • Illustration by Claire Ryan

I always believed life followed a certain path. You go to elementary school, you graduate from high school and then it's straight to university or trade school — no breaks, just head down until it's time to head off to join the workforce. Once part of the daily grind — that's when you'd become an official adult.

You work hard for a few years and rise up the ranks until you're financially stable. Buy a home, start thinking about getting married and having kids by 30.


Of course, I know this isn't everyone's reality, but it seemed like mine — it seemed to be the most common, the one expected of me. It's a schedule I was on track to follow. No matter how daunting, constricting or plain unimaginable the idea of "official adulthood" seemed to my fourth-year-university-student self (the idea of having to pay my own phone bill was a pretty terrifying prospect), the idea of straying off the path or getting stuck in a weird, unstable pre-adult limbo and defying those expectations seemed even worse.

That is, until I moved to Whistler in 2016.

It was shocking to suddenly be surrounded by people who based life decisions on hobbies and interests, not career — people who've taken a path that twists and turns rather than one that's straight and narrow... and still made it work.

I moved to Whistler for my career, not the mountain lifestyle — rare, I know. But the more time I spent around people who consciously made a decision to work to live, rather than live to work, the more sense it made to me.

Eventually, I became familiar with the legend of the old-school locals who still manage to log more days on the mountain than most 20-year-old Aussies on work visas, and can probably out-party them, too.

But does this mean people who pursue a particular lifestyle over a particular career path, or prioritize their hobbies over financial stability are refusing to grow up? Despite the "Peter Pan" stereotypes surrounding some life-long ski bums, that classification doesn't always seem to fit, either. So what constitutes adulthood in Whistler these days?


Back in its earlier days, Whistler was a place for hardcore skiers searching for the best slopes to throw themselves down — in other words, not a place where responsibility topped the list of priorities. At least, that's how Jorge Alvarez remembers it.

When Alvarez, now 56, arrived in November 1984, there were two groups calling the resort home.

"There were the skiing hippies and the ski preppies. It was really simple," he explains. Regardless of which group you fell into, skiing was the obvious priority. "That's why you came here", adds Alvarez. "A job was secondary and experience just came with the territory."

Alvarez started his printing shop, Toad Hall Studios, somewhere between 1986 and 1987. "It's blurry," he says with a laugh. In the days before Starbucks, Shoppers Drug Mart and Mongolie Grill replaced what was once a parking lot, Whistler was very different.

"Back in the day, there was nothing you could do wrong," says Alvarez. "The money was way better. There was way less competition."

Alvarez and his co-workers still run the successful local business, led by the same hippies and ski bums that started Toad Hall Studios three decades ago — though it is a smaller affair these days. "We just wanted a way to make money because we were all unemployable," he says of the early days. "You can't do that anymore in Whistler, it's very hard now. Now everything is very competitive, the rents are through the roof. The people that you're dealing with (have changed), too — in the old days you'd be cutting deals on the chairlift, you know, on top of Spanky's you'd be taking an order from another business person up there with you."

However, as many changes as Whistler's gone through, that spirit still lingers in many of the long-term locals who've lived through them. "I see people who have gone from skiing hippie to realtor, and I've seen people who have gone from ski hippie to staying a ski hippie," Alvarez explains. "The jobs they do are like construction, or outside. They ski in the winter, they're happy, their house is paid for and they're living the dream."


It could be argued that the majority of people in Whistler at any given time are on holiday — if you include the considerable percentage of the workforce of Whistler which comes each year to experience "living the dream" — some of whom never leave.

Celia Ferguson is a case in point.

"The hardest thing I have to figure out is how to balance work and play and having a social life and sleeping — sleep is not something I do much of these days," she says.

Ferguson moved to Whistler from Colorado last June, after finishing a master's degree, to focus on racing mountain bikes — "a much-needed little hiatus from just putting your head down and grinding towards something," explains the 23-year-old, who also holds undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry.

Today, you can find her bussing tables at two restaurants.

Before relocating to the resort, she was working full-time in pharmaceutical marketing, while studying to earn her MBA. "I was still racing bikes and still trying to ski, but I think I might not even have skied 20 days last year," she says. "I grew up ski racing — I'd ski over 100 days every year, so going from that to... last year, (well) to be honest... I was very eager to get back to the mountains and do what I wanted to be doing. Once I figured out that no one can take my degrees away, they'll be there when I decide I'm done with trying to do what I want in the mountains... I decided to come up here to live the Whistler life for a while."

And what does the Whistler life entail?

"It's constantly a party," says Ferguson. "There's so many events in town. Even when you live here — I've been here seven months now — it always feels like you're on vacation because so many people in town are on vacation. It's almost a reminder that they're here to have a good time, so why shouldn't I be having just as good a time... It's awesome, I think that's the dream life."

The downside?

Living in the resort makes it easy to neglect responsibility, says Ferguson. "It's easy to ignore the stuff you have to do because there's always awesome stuff you could be doing."


Seeing a community linked by a common passion and idea of what constitutes "awesome stuff" — whether that's biking, hiking, skiing, running or just spending time outdoors — is another perk, Ferguson adds. "It's super nice to be in a community where there's a lot more like-minded people... Here it's like almost everyone gets it."

But aside from a mutual affinity for the outdoors, Whistler-based psychologist Stephen Milstein doesn't believe certain personalities, or people displaying particular characteristics, are more drawn to Whistler than others.

"I think a lot of people end up here circumstantially," he opines. "Some look for the lifestyle. For some it's a job they come (for). They like it, they stay. Some know somebody, they come visit, they stay, or they come and yes, they want to snowboard or they want to ski, they like it, they get a job and the next thing they know five or six years passed and they go, 'Oh, I have a life here.'"

To that end, he also isn't convinced Whistlerites, in general, come to the mountains to avoid responsibility or adulthood, or are any less inclined to mature than their counterparts in bigger towns or cities. "I'm not a believer that people all run away to Whistler," he says.

At the end of the day, there's no lack of commitment in Whistler. While the more career-oriented types might make work their priority, they often apply the same commitment to their lifestyle or activities. But in some cases, that love for the outdoors can turn into an inability to commit to much else — and that's where the mountain-town stereotype of Peter Pan syndrome arises.

"Do I think there are men — that's who it's usually applied to — in this town who are not interested in committing to long-term relationships?" Milstein ponders. "Probably more here, I'd say, than in the city, because there are people who have come here because they really are connected with and want to explore an outdoor life.

"That's not always consistent with settling down. If you're going to settle down and have children, your partner's not going to be happy if you go up to the Spearhead for two weeks. They're not going to be happy if you jump in the blowhole and you hurt yourself.

"Are there guys that don't commit, absolutely, but there's also women who don't commit."


Although Whistler has a reputation for attracting young, seasonal workers, eager to get rid of the travel bug before settling down, there's also a large contingent who have already spent part of their lives working in full-blown careers elsewhere, who've come to start new ones in Whistler.

At 31, Joe Howard is only one example. Armed with a pair of environmental chemistry degrees and one summer season spent in Whistler in 2009, he left a comfortable job selling scientific instruments — turning down a promotion — and the house he owned back in the U.K. in order to turn the lifestyle he had that summer into something more permanent.

Howard's currently on a working visa, but seeking permanent residency.

In his sales job, "I'd be out and about on the road for a couple of days during the week, and there'd be like 30,000 pounds worth of equipment in the car that I was going to demonstrate, and then my BMX tucked up next to it to go ride the skate park that night rather than be in the hotel by myself."

He bought a house, "because I was sick of moving stuff around between rental accommodations, and because it was the right thing to do," but the Whistler itch never left.

"I was always like, 'what if I came back?' I called myself out and did it as I was about to be too old to get the working holiday visa again. I figure it's better to regret something you have done rather than regret something you haven't done."

Now, Howard works as a customer service rep with RideBooker — taking a "pretty tremendous pay cut" to do so. The single room in a shared house that he now calls home also costs him the same per month as the mortgage and bills for his three-bedroom home in Sheffield, England.

It was also lifestyle that drew Vancouver native Patrick Smyth to Whistler seven years ago. After years spent working in Los Angeles and Costa Rica, Smyth's work in venture capital and finance is now carried out from his Whistler home office. Despite bigger opportunities being available in larger, metropolitan areas, "after spending five years surfing every day, I wanted to move back to Canada and wanted to have a similar-type lifestyle but try something different...

This is the place I want to continue that lifestyle," he explains.

"Not to say I don't work my ass off, but there's balance... I don't have that two or three-hour commute and I use that time to go snowboarding or fishing or cycling or whatever I want to do."

Living in a smaller town with "more of a community aspect" is also ideal for raising his two-year-old daughter, Sydney, he adds.

However, living in Whistler comes at a cost, especially when supporting a young family. "I work full-time. My partner, she works full-time. We both work hard... I would make a lot more money at a desk job in Toronto or New York or L.A., but my soul would die, so it's a choice," Smyth says. "Yeah, you do have to work a little harder because it's expensive here, but it's quality of lifestyle."


Rather than accepting a lower pay grade in exchange for a Whistler address, many in town have adjusted their skills and carefully crafted their career paths to thrive in the mountain-resort setting.

Milstein is one example. After obtaining a PhD in psychology and working as university professor for a period of time, the now-75-year-old decided he didn't like doing research anymore, quit psychology, and went into business. "I did that for awhile, and then I decided what I really wanted to do is live in the mountains, so I went and re-trained in clinical (psychology)," eventually opening his own practice in Whistler after arriving in 1995.

While that move may not have been considered a traditional life path at the time, shifting careers is far more common these days, Milstein explains. "There was a time that our economy was such that you came out of school, you got a job and if you were lucky you had a job for life. We also died at 65. It's not like that anymore."

For 37-year-old Jamie Drummond, making it in Whistler meant abandoning her plan, and her training to become a police officer, after relocating from Ontario 17 years ago. The RCMP wasn't an attractive option for Drummond, because of the wide variety of locations officers can be posted. "I didn't want to be sent to Alberta after I found this fantastic place to live," she explains.

"Before I moved out here, I kind of felt that I had to go down that path, where everything's mapped out for you. You know, go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house. I really didn't like that, and I felt like I was having to dress in a different way that was more suitable for a grown-up. When I came out here, it was like, 'holy shit,' I can just do whatever I want and still be young and not have that pressure of following the line. There's just a lot of young people, and I found my niche here too, but everyone's just... effervescence(nt) — young at heart."

After spending her first seven years in Whistler working for the mountain, at grocery stores, gas stations and hotels, she heard about a massage therapy course offered in town.

In addition to the opportunity to re-train without having to leave Whistler (the course, unfortunately, no longer exists in town) and the fact she had a prior interest in the career, Drummond, "knew it was a well-paying job and it was prevalent in Whistler where you get a lot of work. It kind of went hand-in-hand."

She's been working in the field for the past decade. "I can afford to take time of when I want to, and know when I come back I can make a really good hourly wage, and then tips on top are just a bonus," she says.


While that youthful spirit Drummond describes still exists in town, the bubble that could, at one point, have been confused for a real life Neverland has grown up.

For Alvarez, that means Toad Hall and the way they do business has had to grow up right alongside it. "Whistler has become very corporate, I guess without a soul," he says. "In general, the big boys don't play with the little boys. The big players don't want to do much with the smaller players."

While business deals of years passed may have been sealed on top of Spanky's, "Now you get calls from a hotel, and it's Mr. Whoever or Mrs. Whoever, it's not Bill or Beth... The dynamics are changing in the valley, and it's forcing people to grow up. Even us, (and) we were the ultimate hippies. We were printing art on garments, we were selling posters and stickers and a lot of them were not very PC. More than one of our illustrations raised an eyebrow, and more and more as the years have gone by, to the point that a lot of that sub-culture has really gone underground," he continues.

"Now, I see restaurant owners walking around on their cell phone wearing a suit — not a ski suit, a suit."


As the resort and its visitor numbers have skyrocketed, so too have the costs associated with living here, and, subsequently, the list of demands Whistler puts on its residents to stay — in some cases, forcing them to grow up whether they want to or not.

"How can you expect a young guy from up here, or a young girl, in their 20s from Ontario or Australia, or wherever they're coming from, to live the dream?" Alvarez asks rhetorically. "I've got news: It's not what it used to be, and basically you're going to have two, maybe two and a half jobs."

Between her two jobs, Ferguson often works upwards of 75 hours a week in the winter so she has more spare time to focus on racing bikes in the summer.

"I'm trying to save up money now for another summer that I don't have to work as much," she says. "Sometimes at work, you're standing at the bottom of the hill watching everyone come down and you're like, 'I want to be skiing so badly,' but it's a choice I'm making to try and allow myself to have a lot more free time in the summer."

For Blake Durell, 32, having enough cash to fund the kind of life he wants in Whistler means heading east every summer to work on passenger ships travelling between Maine and Nova Scotia, while working in a restaurant kitchen during the winters.

"I don't want to go to sea all the time, because summer's pretty nice (here), but I don't get to see it," he said.

Asked whether his restaurant salary could sustain his lifestyle year-round, he says: "Absolutely not. If you want things, you kind of need to look elsewhere for work," adding that his restaurant job compensates him the best it can, considering the high costs of operating in Whistler.

But in other cases, those same financial pressures have forced some, like Durrell, to sacrifice "growing up," settling down or hitting some traditional milestones of adulthood in order to stay in Whistler.

"I can't afford to have kids...(though) I'd like to one day," he says.


Or so Chili Davis says.

While a typical workday at Toad Hall Studios of past years might have included a quick break to smoke a joint, these days, says Alvarez, "We've all grown up, whether we want to be or not. We all drink less, we all party less, we smoke less. A lot of it is age. Age will get you in the end no matter what. You can still be young at heart, but your bones are still going to hurt the same at the end of the day."

Whistler's community may have developed a reputation for its youthful spirit, but it seems that — and the resort's lower age demographic — can be boiled down to the natural effects of aging.

"I'm 56. That's 30 years of pounding your hips, your knees — I'm one of the lucky ones, knock on wood, that doesn't have any screws or bolts or plastic parts in me. But a great percentage of my friends all have fake hips, fake knees, broken this, broken that," Alvarez explains.

As priorities change with age, so do lifestyles, Milstein adds. "If you choose to have a family, if you choose to (say), 'I want to own a house,' you can't work 20 to 25 hours a week and go play the rest of the time. You have to buckle down and you've got to work 40 hours a week or whatever you've got to work. Earning an income becomes more of a primary thing."

Earning a stable income — often easier said than done in a mountain town — also becomes more important as one ages, Milstein adds. "You recognize you're going to get to a place where if you don't build up assets, you're going to be screwed when you get older. How much do you think social security is going to pay you?"

In Alvarez' view, "You know you've grown up when you don't just live for the day, you also start thinking about tomorrow."


Sometimes, I'll joke with friends that I lead a double life. By day, I work my first real "grown up" job — or at least the first non-internship job I've held that's required my degree. In my spare time, I'm right alongside most of the other 24-year-olds in town serving drinks, spending what little spare time I have on top of a mountain and blowing most of my income on rent.

But your mid-twenties are a weird time in general. Some friends are killing it as accountants, nurses or public servants; starting their own businesses and families, buying homes in the suburbs and putting down monthly payments for brand-new vehicles. Others are backpacking around the world or studying or living with their parents or sharing rooms or living any one of the other infinite number of scenarios each vastly different from what I once pictured "adult life" to look like.

To me, Whistler is a microcosm of all these scenarios. There are locals who thrive in corporate careers, while their peers happily fill positions most 16-year-olds would be qualified for. There are others just living the dream day to day, and many are managing creatively to do both. While the vast majority still name the mountains and the outdoors as their main motivation to stay in Whistler, those passions don't have to come at a cost of sacrificing adulthood or maturity — I would argue that sometimes, they require it.

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