Arts & Entertainment
5 min

3,000 queers flaunt their WinterPride at Whistler

A week of skiing, sledding, sashaying and shirtless men

IT'S NOT JUST FOR SKI BUNNIES. 'There's some great non-skiing activities people can do now,' says ski guide Dave Hill. He lists bungee jumping and dog sledding, among others. Credit: Rob Easton photo

Check out Xtra.ca videographer Rob Easton’s report from WinterPride:

Suspended over Fitzsimmons Creek between the twin peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb, the new Peak 2 Peak gondola is proof in motion that the impossible can, in fact, be conquered.

Out the rear window, a rainbow flag snaps and dances with every gust of wind. In one corner of our gondola, five Mr Gay World delegates flex and smile for several professional photographers. The 14 other delegates are in the gondola car ahead of us, en route to a media event on Blackcomb’s summit.

Daniel Flores, a 24-year-old psychology student from Scolima, Mexico, is appropriately awestruck. So am I.

“We don’t have this kind of view in Mexico,” says Flores, gesturing at the Mr Gay World delegates and then to valley floor, nearly 500 metres below us. He reveals that he’s never skied in his life and has come to WinterPride to learn more about gay life in Canada.

Halfway through the 11-minute ride, the gondola jerks suddenly, shudders, and then rocks back on track.

Flores shrugs at me and smiles.

It strikes me that this is a good metaphor for the queer experience. In less than five minutes, the very earth beneath our feet has completely disappeared. Strung out between two impossible distances, we are trapped between where we once were and a place where we hope to arrive safe and sound — and in one piece.

***

When I first came out, my only gay friend at the time told me that if I wanted to meet gays and lesbians and learn more about the community, large Pride festivals were the easiest environments to do exactly that.

During summertime festivals, where many choose to drape their bodies in rainbow flags or beads while wearing as little clothing as possible, it’s generally pretty easy to spot fellow queers. In the middle of winter though, visitors to Whistler are homogeneous out of necessity:  bulky coats, snow pants, toques and snow goggles are mandatory due to the sub-zero temperatures.

This has left me wondering: how easy is it to meet people at WinterPride?

Igor Ostrowski, a 42-year-old attorney from Warsaw, Poland confirms that meeting gays and lesbians at WinterPride takes little more than a smile. Like me, this is his first wintertime gay event.

“I don’t have any gay friends in Poland that snowboard or ski,” he tells me over lunch at Christine’s, a restaurant atop Blackcomb. “This trip is different because I’ve always skied alone, and here, there is a group who actually wants to ski with me.” He drinks some of his champagne and adds, “Yesterday was the best day of skiing I’ve had in my life.”

Ostrowski tells me that in Warsaw, gays he has met in bars and clubs will walk by him on the street and pretend they don’t know him. “Whistler is outrageously expensive, but it’s worth it,” he says. “People here are friendlier and more open. It’s okay to just go up to gay men and women and say hello.”

Two nights later at Snowball, WinterPride’s famous and best-attended party, Sarah Greer, a 24-year-old student from Seattle, tells me a different story.

I’ve been watching her dance, her beaded top glowing in the black light. After she notices me staring, she shimmies her way over to my two friends and me and jokes, “I’m lost in all this cock.”

Greer bought a $90 ticket to the Snowball because the headliner, Ana Paula, is one of the world’s best-known lesbian DJs. Although clearly enjoying herself, Greer is also frustrated. “Where the hell are all the women?” she eventually asks us.

Taking a quick look around, I can see why she feels out of place. Hundreds of shirtless men, including the Mr Gay World delegates, have been dancing non-stop for the last two hours. On a hoop suspended above the crowd, a male acrobat is executing a jaw-dropping routine as Vancouver’s finest drag performers weave across the dance floor.

At first glance, the ratio of men to women appears to be about 20 to 1.

This gender skew was one of the most noticeable things at this year’s WinterPride. For the four days I spent traveling in and around Whistler, I only managed to meet three lesbians. Part of this gender disparity may be due to a new focus on women’s events, which this year, were programmed by women for women.

“All our events are inclusive,” says Alpenglow Productions’ Dean Nelson, one of the two men in charge of planning and coordinating this year’s festival. “But the women have been asking for more secure spaces for themselves because some women are really quite intimidated by being surrounded by so many men. This year we were able to create safe spaces for women to be themselves.”

Still, with every stroll I took through Whistler village, I also found myself wondering where the women were. When I ask Nelson about this, he tells me the number of women attending is down.

“I really think it’s due to the current economic situation in the world,” he says. “Lesbians, in general, tend to be a much more cautious consumer.”

***

The recent warm weather has caused most of the snow to melt during the day and freeze over night. The dogs pulling our sled are running so fast that large chunks of ice fly up from under their paws, shooting around us as we whip past.

“I feel like I’m in a meteor shower,” Jeph Perez, my dogsled partner for the day, shouts back at me. “Good thing I brought snow goggles.”

The 35-year-old Londoner is enjoying his second year at WinterPride and taking a much-deserved break from his duties as a nurse. He also volunteers for a variety of HIV/AIDS organizations in the UK, which doesn’t leave him with a lot of free time.

“I only came for the long weekend last year, but I had fun. So much fun that I came back for the whole week this year,” Perez tells me as our sled careens through a maze of backcountry trails in the Soo Valley outside Pemberton.

Like many other local and international visitors who travel every year to WinterPride, Perez is searching for more than just a ski holiday. It makes sense that companies like Outdoor Adventures Whistler have decided to recognize the gay and lesbian travel market by booking queer-only adventure packages for dog sledding, snow mobile-ing and zip trekking throughout the course of the festival.

These tours, however, come with expensive price tags. In addition to his airfare from the UK, his hotel costs, lift passes, party tickets and meals, I ask Perez if he thinks the $169-per-person cost for dog sledding is pushing his budget to the limit.

“I bought a lift pass for the whole week and didn’t manage to find a discount for my hotel room, both of which ended up being very expensive,” he says. “A friend told me that a number of airlines were offering discounts for gay and lesbian travellers flying internationally to Whistler, so I saved some money there. But it’s all worth it,” he adds. “My whole vacation was definitely worth it and I would recommend all of these things to anyone who hasn’t done WinterPride before.”

Aside from dog sledding, Perez tells me that his favourite part of WinterPride is the people he’s met, which is what many other visitors told me — unprompted — over the course of my four-day stay.

In its 17th year, Whistler’s Gay Ski Week is still all about bringing queer people together to celebrate and share their love of winter sports and the outdoors. It’s the one thing that brought approximately 3,000 gays and lesbians to Whistler this year, despite uncertain economic times, and it’s the one thing that will keep visitors returning in the years to come.