February 14, 2019 Features & Images » Feature Story

Modern mountain romance 

Charting the high highs and low lows of Whistler's dating scene

click to flip through (5) BY BRANDON BARRETT - Modern mountain romance Charting the high highs and low lows of Whistler's dating scene
  • By Brandon Barrett
  • Modern mountain romance Charting the high highs and low lows of Whistler's dating scene

Fasting love will lead us all to nowhere

When, when will we learn?

I shall avenge the death of all the romance

Until, until I'm gone

-"22: The Death of All the Romance" by The Dears

Whistler is marketed, rightly so, as the ultimate escapist fantasy, a place where you can leave the doldrums of your hum-drum, work-a-day life behind for something a little less traditional, and a whole lot more, well, fun.

But that freewheeling lifestyle means foregoing certain conventions of adulthood. Outside of the tourism sector, Whistler isn't exactly the ideal landing spot to advance a career. I don't even know where you'd buy a suit here, if, for some reason, the need were to arise.

Because of these reasons—the constant churn of our transient population, the unaffordability, the lack of significant job prospects, among others—finding love in Whistler can be a tall order as well.

Whether here for a winter or a weekend, the prevailing mantra among the resort's seasonal set, Here for a good time, not a long time, means the fairy-tale ending sits out of reach for many.

That's not to say the storybook romance isn't possible here; whenever a place arranges itself around a shared set of values, then, you're that much more likely to find someone whose principles already align with yours, or so the theory goes.

Whatever your stance on Whistler's romantic prospects, there's no question the dating scene here is unique. Daunting to some, a world of opportunity for others, I decided to immerse myself in the good, the bad and the ugly of dating in Whistler—just in time for Valentine's Day. I spoke to local singles about their dating horror stories and happy couples who found love where they least expected it. I even dipped my toes into the murky waters of Whistler Tinder for the first time—with the help of an honest-to-goodness online dating coach.

So get ready and strap yourself in for a look at the high highs and low lows of the Whistler dating scene. It's bound to be a wild ride.

Single and cynical

"Tonight I'm going to tell you about the latest chapter in my book of life. I hope you're ready for this, Facebook, because I sure as hell wasn't."

So begins a post, from last year, on Whistler's popular Summer Facebook forum, which seems to provide regular insights into the weirder side of our resort town.

In this case, the story comes from Kate Down, a 25-year-old who moved to Whistler, by way of Edmonton, just over a year ago.

On this September day, Kate decides to share the details of a Tinder date gone awry that I would eventually describe to her as a "goddamn masterpiece" of storytelling. Prior to this date from hell, Kate had been chatting online for a couple weeks with a guy—The Guy, for our purposes—who initially seemed "super normal" to her.

As she would soon learn, normal was not the right adjective.

Already feeling comfortable with her suitor, Kate agreed to meet at his place—probably more common than usual in a town full of twenty-somethings with limited budgets for wining and dining. He planned to make her dinner, maybe have a drink or two, "normal date stuff," Kate says.

Upon arriving, she felt hopeful. The Guy lives in a beautiful, two-storey house equipped with a second-floor balcony and hot tub. He is attractive, and they seem to share a similar sense of humour.

And even though there was no dinner to speak of, the conversation goes well as they chat by the fireplace, drinks in hand. Soon after, he sparks a joint, not unusual for this part of the world, Kate thinks.

Then, he turns to her and says, "I'm just gonna do some MDMA."

Uh oh.

Being the gentleman he is, The Guy offers Kate some, which, after a moment of stunned silence, she politely declines. "I'm a lady, what can I say?" she writes.

Following a brief interlude of drug-taking, he excuses himself for a quick shower, something Kate justifies since he had gotten home from a day of work in Vancouver only minutes before she arrived.

After washing up, The Guy comes down the stairs, sporting only his boxers. Seeking Kate's sartorial advice, he asks her what he should throw on. She responds, quite sensibly, with: "Jeans and a T-shirt?"

Considering this fashion tip for a moment, he ultimately chooses to stay in his underwear. They chat for a little while longer, before it's time for the next psychoactive ingredient to be added to the mix.

"I'm just gonna do some mushrooms real quick," he announces.

"He ends up swapping between beer, weed, MDMA and shrooms multiple times throughout the whopping two hours and 45 minutes I was in his presence," Kate recalls. It's at this point our drug-addled Don Juan decides it's high time for a quick jam sesh.

"He brings out a djembe (for him) and a cajón (for me) and we have a two-person drum circle," Kate writes. "The image of him in his boxers, visibly on mushrooms, on a djembe just given' 'er will forever be in the forefront of my mind."

After making sweet music together, the conversation turns suggestive—at least on The Guy's part. He keeps joking about getting naked, which Kate immediately shuts down. "Let's just say this now: He knows I'm uncomfortable; I know he knows because he asked me," she recalls. "My disquiet is not a mystery at all."

But Kate guts it out, interested in seeing where this cringeworthy date is going to take her. Soon enough, The Guy pours himself into a pair of psychedelic tights that Kate describes as "very reminiscent of something a genie would wear if the genie sidelined as a stripper in an acid trip." She is just relieved he's wearing anything at this point.

Lest you think this strange, drug-fuelled carnival ride has reached its final destination, The Guy has another surprise in store: an exhaustive tour of his garden. "He smokes a joint and tells me the scientific name of every single plant in his garden. Every. Single. One. Three of them were wrong (thank you, horticulture class)," Kate says.

The cornucopia of drugs having kicked in, The Guy decides he's had enough of this wearing-clothes business and whips off his genie tights, wrapping them around his neck like a scarf. They keep talking in the backyard, him completely buck naked, her slightly disturbed, until she decides it's time to leave. On her way, she calls her friend with a dating story for the ages, and, still without dinner, makes a pitstop at McDonald's.

The Guy texts her almost immediately, explaining how well intentioned he was, and that it's OK she just wasn't "feeling naughty." Ugh.

"So anyways, I'm still single," Kate says.

Jokes aside, Kate admits she put herself in a precarious position and probably should have left earlier. And while she doesn't justify it, she says when you're dating in Whistler, you sometimes take risks that you wouldn't otherwise.

"There's barely any expectations, really, of dating in Whistler, but then also coupled with the housing crisis—people are living in bunk beds, so it doesn't seem like such a big deal to go to some stranger's house. It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but obviously it was a much bigger deal than I thought it would be. I got a stern talking to from my dad."

Reflecting on the date, Kate says she hopes "this wasn't a very typical Whistler dating experience, but it kind of screamed Whistler to me afterwards."

She believes things would go a lot better if people were more upfront with what they want from online dating. "There's such a hook-up culture here and people go on Tinder with a lot of different expectations, but they don't actually talk about them. People go on Tinder looking for a one-night stand or friends with benefits or they're looking for the love of their life, but nobody actually talks about that," she says.

These days, Kate has officially given up on Tinder ("A guy told me I looked like Mike Myers, so now I'm officially done")—but, despite her pessimism, she hasn't lost all hope.

"My parents keep saying that it will happen when I least expect it, which is exactly what I think will happen to me," she says. "If it does happen, it will be in a super unconventional way and it probably will have very little to do with Tinder."

Put me in, coach!

Tinder has always intimidated me—especially Whistler Tinder. Ask any local who has braved the dating app for long enough, and they're bound to get a faraway look in their eyes and say something like, "It's a jungle out there, man."

Being 32, I'm on the older side of Whistler Tinder, and, committed as I am to a life free from skiing or physical exertion of any kind, I don't exactly fit the mould of a typical Whistler bachelor.

However, I figured I couldn't very well tell the story of Whistler's dating scene without at least trying out Tinder, the world's most popular dating app among Millennial singles.

But first, I needed some advice, so I enlisted the help of Deanna Cobden, the Vancouver-based founder of Dateworks (dateworks.ca), a coaching service that specializes in online dating that has been covered everywhere from the National Post to Playboy.

We agreed to a few things: I would try out Tinder for a month, after which I would send Deanna screenshots of my profile and every interaction I had on the app. This, in short, terrified me.

For my profile, she suggests writing three sentences about who I am and what I like. I mention that I'm a writer, performer and sandwich enthusiast. Can't get much more authentic than that. She also urges me to say something about the activities I enjoy and what I'm looking for in a woman. I say something about being proficient at spooning (who doesn't like a good cuddle?) and ask my potential lady suitors to tell me about their doggo and their most strongly held TV opinions. What could go wrong?

"I'm not sure about the doggo part," Deanna later tells me. "It kind of fell flat to me."

This is clearly blasphemy, but I carry on, undeterred. I figure, if I don't meet anyone promising, at least I'll get to see some sweet dog pics.

Deanna also stresses the importance of posting quality photos (of myself, not cute dogs) to the profile. It's not shallow, she reminds me.

"It's not superficial," she says. "We all want to see each other; it's only natural."

Although I'm not convinced I'm ready to be seen with such scrutiny—isn't that the greatest fear of dating, being seen for what you truly are?—I realize this is for research purposes and trudge onwards.

I set up my profile and go live. My main photo is of me at a wedding from a few years back when I had more hair and wore a tux for the one and only time in my life. Is that 100-per-cent authentic? Probably not, but since I'm far from the only person presenting idealized versions of themselves online, I might as well go with the flow.

Welcome to the jungle.

Finding love in unexpected places

Élyse Lortie never imagined finding love in Whistler—let alone marriage.

"Meeting someone, and not being drunk, that doesn't really happen here," she says with a laugh. But that's exactly what happened for Élyse and her fiancé, James, who plan to get married this summer.

Like a lot of couples in Whistler, where, outside of dating online or a chance encounter on the hill, there are few avenues to meet other long-term locals, let alone one you'd want to date, Élyse and James met at work. At Zogs, to be precise.

"We take pride in saying we met at a hotdog stand," says Élyse. "Nothing less romantic than that."

They got together despite the couple's cultural and linguistic barriers; Élyse is Quebecois, while James is from Australia.

"The funny thing is I'm French Canadian, so we would spend the entire day working together but we didn't really speak at all because I was working with another French Canadian guy, so we went a full 10-hour shift without really talking," Élyse recalls—although she admits there were other factors that initially drew them together.

"He rides bikes and he's good looking. You know how it is," she adds.

Geographical differences also led to another challenge for Élyse and James, one that many other couples have to contend with in an international hub such as Whistler: residency status.

"At the time when James did his residency, it was in 2015 or something like that. It took a long time," Élyse recalls. "It took two and a half years for his residency to come through, which is a really long time when you think your visa is going to run out. That was a lot of pressure on the relationship."

Based on her past dating experience in Whistler, Élyse never imagined settling down here. In hindsight, however, she recognizes the resort has a way of naturally bringing people together.

"You just don't think it can happen. But it does happen," she says. "That's the thing in Whistler: if you can meet someone that has the same hobbies as you—and everyone does the same things here—it makes it easy. You have the same passions and do the same sports, and then that person becomes your best friend."

The limited LGBTQ dating pool

If you think it's hard finding a partner in Whistler as a straight, cisgender single, just imagine dating in the local LGBTQ community.

"Times are changing by the year for the better, but back when I got here, Whistler was definitely a town that was not a very comfortable place where I felt like I could be someone that was out," says Stephen Greig. "Just meeting someone in the traditional fashion was not available to me."

Stephen arrived in Whistler 16 years ago as a closeted gay man. Despite its multinational, largely liberal-leaning populace, Whistler was, and remains at its core, a sports town, with all the inherent machoisms that that entails.

For Stephen, dating in Whistler was a continual struggle, so he turned to dating websites and online forums that were mostly centred around hooking up—and even then, the dating pool was extremely limited.

"Once you met the five people online, that was it," Stephen remembers. "Through the seasons, though, you'd get a little bit of a turnover in a way, and that started changing a lot as Whistler grew and became more accepting."

With limited options locally, Stephen began to spend more time in Vancouver, where he met a dedicated group of friends in the LGBTQ community. But after splitting his time between the two locales for several years, Stephen became tired of what he called his "divided life."

"I really felt like I needed to get back to Whistler and work on my friend group there," he says.

It was thanks to his colleagues at Whistler Blackcomb, in fact, that Stephen became more comfortable with himself. After about three years in town, he came out as gay.

"I think it was because of my smaller work crowd—I was in Snow School—that I had that support, and I felt comfortable coming out and being myself. It's just been amazing since," he says. "I've only had support from my work group and my close friends."

But after coming out, there were still slim pickings in town. Unlike Vancouver, Whistler has no dedicated LGBTQ venues. Sure, the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival—North America's largest LGBTQ ski week—comes to town every winter, but visitors make up the bulk of attendees.

Seeing few avenues for the community to connect, Stephen launched a now-defunct gay club night a few years back that packed the Savage Beagle once a month. More recently, Stephen started a meet-up group through Whistler Blackcomb that brings members of the local LGBTQ community (and allies) together at the Pangea Pod Hotel. He also credited Alphabet Soup, a monthly drop-in at the library for LGBTQ individuals and their friends and family, for creating another opportunity to connect.

Stephen, now 37, has officially given up the single life, having met his partner online two years ago. They have since bought a house together.

"The rat race has ended," he says of his relationship status. "You're constantly looking for the next person, and now the chase is over. I feel relaxed now. It can be stressful. I'm glad to be done with it."

The various romantic notions of Whistler

Like a lot of aspects of our resort town, there's a stark difference between how tourists and locals view Whistler's romanticism. To the visiting couple, Whistler is a lover's paradise flush with scenic vistas tailor-suited for romance. For many locals, in contrast, Whistler is a singles' wasteland where you're more likely to catch a rash than a suitable mate.

As resident manager for Whistler World Crawl, Brittney Munro gets to see (and facilitate) the resort's hook-up culture firsthand. She helps organize pub crawls that are marketed primarily to young singles.

Unsurprisingly, most of the attendees aren't exactly looking for lasting love.

"I have heard of other stories where people met on the crawl and then they dated after. But, again, with people leaving town so often, it's generally a fling on your vacation," she explains.

Attendees are divided by coloured stickers: Green means single, red is taken, yellow is hard to get, and blue is horny. The most common classifier? "I'd say most people go for horny, or horny and single," Brittney says.

Ah yes, horny and single—might as well put that on the Whistler welcome sign.

If there is a common thread that ties together the resort's resident and visitor populations, it's a penchant for celebration—and that extends to Whistler's bustling romantic tourism sector.

"I think what Whistler does best is celebrate, so whether it's love or whether it's winning a medal or accomplishing some amazing feat, people come to celebrate," says Katrina Frew, who has hosted many a romantic getaway as Gibbons Whistler's director of festivals and events. "So yes, the atmosphere is romantic. Being on top of the mountain takes your breath away and gives you this natural euphoria."

Katrina says most couples that come here to mark an anniversary or to celebrate their love in some way typically want something outside of the box. "Traditionally, you would think we're setting up candle-lit (dinners) ... and champagne and all that stuff, but what actually is the hidden romance is the fact that they met their partner at après ski, or at Buffalo Bills or on the Longhorn patio, or they got engaged in Whistler on the chairlift, and they're coming back to remember that epic experience or place where they found love," she says.

Then there are the bachelor and bachelorette parties, which Katrina says is "probably our most popular service." Even in these alcohol-soaked environs, there is a method to the madness. "Usually we try to puppeteer and have the bachelor parties next to bachelorette parties, and that's where some couples actually meet," she says. "It's like a scene out of National Geographic because people are hunting and looking for love. There's a lot of love at Buffalo Bills."

I'm sure the dancing cage helps.

Having seen romance bloom in Whistler many times—including with a number of celebrity couples—Katrina knows that finding love here isn't an impossible task. Those that do, she says, are all the stronger for it.

"It's not easy to find, but when you do find it, it's sacred," Katrina adds.

"Sure, we could be totally cynical and bitter about dating and love in this town, but it does exist and those stories are truly genuine and epic."

The Tinder tool

It took me all of three days to grow tired of Tinder. After those first initial dopamine hits gleaned from swiping staged photos of strangers, the novelty wore off pretty quickly. It all feels so forced, like we've been strong-armed into playing a role in a crappy performance none of us really want to be cast in.

I realize this is not exactly a new revelation in 2019. The people who remain on the app these days seem to be doing it either out of sheer boredom or a desire for no-strings-attached sex—or both. Especially in Whistler.

Is anyone out there actually looking for something real?

According to Deanna, my trusty dating coach, despite how it may appear, most of us are just sappy romantics at heart.

"This is the issue with modern dating: people are genuinely looking for somebody," she says. "Even if somebody might seem flakey, the bottom line is, in their heart of hearts, they really do want to meet somebody."

It's this conflict between the authentic and the performative that I kept feeling in my own Tinder experiences. Yes, I genuinely am open to finding love, but the internet isn't exactly the best place to express real emotions. Social media has trained us to value being right above all else, to covet irony and sarcasm above sincerity and earnestness. So it can feel kind of awkward to let yourself be vulnerable and state, outright, what you want. It's this barrier that Deanna tries to break through with her clients. We are so accustomed, she says, to making "those little points of connection" the traditional ways: through family, friends, work, maybe an activity or hobby, that we have yet to figure out how to translate it to our online lives.

"The one thing about modern dating and using apps like Tinder and Match.com is that people don't really understand how to make those connections," says Deanna. "They just think, 'Oh well, I'm going to show up, I'm a nice guy, and I'm really looking for this.' But it doesn't work that way, because everybody is nice, and everybody is just one note. It tends to start looking like a job interview."

It's this "online dating fatigue," as Deanna put it, which set in for me soon after registering for Tinder. In a sea of profiles, everyone begins to look the same. The same heavily filtered photos. The same dull bios. It's to the point where if someone does stand out, it immediately arouses suspicion. There's no way anyone is that interesting/attractive/charming (and I include myself in this assumption).

It helps to explain my apprehension towards the few matches I did get over the month—although I should also add that I went on a few dates in that time with someone my friend set me up with, which was obviously another factor. Skipping past the initial feeling-out process online and actually meeting someone in the flesh to see if things clicked was far more appealing to me than Tinder.

Even still, I had a promise to keep, and wanted to gauge how I fared in the competitive field of online dating. After sending the screenshots to Deanna, it was time to face the music. The first message I sent was to a woman who wrote only, "Netflix and chilli" on her profile. Being a lover of food puns, I decided to message her something about the joys of five-alarm chilli and eating said chilli without spilling in bed. This was going well.

Shockingly, I never got a response. Match No. 2 appeared to be some sort of underwear model I wasn't sure actually existed. Still, I was inspired to write. This time, I complimented her on her looks, but only after acknowledging that I wasn't like all the other dudes complimenting her on her looks. "I'm trying to resist opening the conversation by saying something like, 'You're incredibly attractive,' but sometimes you gotta call a spade a spade," I flailed. Regular Rico Suave over here.

This tact, it would seem, isn't that effective (she never responded).

"You don't really need to comment on someone's attractiveness. Because that's all she gets," Deanna advises. "It's a boring, standard comment."

Oh no! Am I another lame fish in a sea of lame fishies? It would appear so.

Match No. 3 went much better, with several days of engaging back-and-forth. Also, I have a job, which seemed to be a major plus for this particular woman. But after a few days of banter, I didn't really feel the urge to take that next step to a real-life date.

Deanna did comment on the quality of (most of) my messages, so at least I can toot that horn.

"I love your messages. They're great. You definitely have awesome opening lines," she says. "The kind of messages you're writing, you can't really teach people that. You either have that knack for wittiness, being able to look at someone's profile and comment on it, or you don't."

Finally, being a writer was paying off for something.

Where I was lacking, however, was in the photo department, according to Deanna.

"Your pictures are not the best, I'm going to honest with you," she says.

Oof.

"You have your shirt on, that's a plus. You don't have a selfie in the bathroom mirror, so that's good." So what, exactly, is wrong with them? Well, apparently the one of me twerking at a Seattle karaoke bar is "too goofy." I guess women want an adult as a partner, not a beefy manchild who knows how to throw down. Who knew?

OK, what else?

"They've actually done studies where a candid, half-turned face off to the side gets a lot of interest for men," Deanna says. "You want to have a photo of you looking at the camera, not filling the entire iPhone. A little bit back, but not far away. Hit the sweet spot."

Whoa, that is very specific. On top of that, you should have a full-body photo, one showing you engaging in some sort of activity, and absolutely no group shots, such as the one of my dad and I at a Vancouver pub. "You want to have just you in the picture," adds Deanna. "People ask, 'Who's that guy? He's better looking!'"

Uh, that's my father, Deanna. My stupid, hunky father.

"Well, no one knows that. You can't really caption 'Me and my dad' on Tinder. The exception is puppies and kittens. You can have those."

Good to know.

Throughout our conversation, the one thing Deanna stresses again and again is authenticity. I ask her how she reconciles this notion with the scientifically proven need to angle profile photos to a precise degree. How can something so calculated be authentic?

While acknowledging this incongruity, Deanna says Tinder is a tool, and like any tool, depends entirely on what you do with it.

"You can use a hammer to fix something or destroy something. It's all about how you're going to use it," she says."(Online dating) is such a new thing, most people don't know what they want and struggle with feeling good enough for the person they actually want. Thinking they're on the same level. Often, it can really feel like, 'Oh, I have to settle.' But that's all coming from you. Dating is truly a journey of personal growth, understanding and really being OK, fully, with who you are."

Taking a leap of faith

What has been reiterated to me consistently through this process is that, in all matters of love, whether online or otherwise, fortune favours the bold. You can sit around waiting for the perfect partner to land in your lap, or you can go out and take a chance.

Online dating may foment an ambivalence towards romance—after all, why take a risk when there is an infinite supply of new matches on the horizon? But even Tinder requires a certain amount of courage to burst the bubble of online anonymity and meet someone.

And, if we're being honest here, Whistler is all about taking risks. Most of us have left behind lives to come here and take a chance on our own happiness, and that doesn't have to exclude love.

"You can't let those opportunities go by," says Kyle Marques, who met his now-girlfriend, Meghan, last summer in the middle of Alta Lake. Literally. Kyle spotted her from a floating dock as she passed by on her stand-up paddleboard—the most Whistler of meet-cutes. He shot her a smile and waved her over. They've been together ever since.

"Whistler is an amazing, magical place and moments like this can happen," Kyle says. "Don't take the expiration date on your time here as hopelessness."

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