3 min

Altitude is a go

Brent Benaschak's parents find a buyer

Credit: Jacques Gaudet

Whistler’s world-famous gay ski week is back on track, a slightly frazzled-sounding staff member told Xtra West Jan 19, less than two weeks before opening day.

Altitude 12 was in chaos after its founder, owner and organizer, Brent Benaschak, died suddenly Dec 30.

Preliminary coroner results show Benaschak died after he fell from his 20th-floor balcony in Vancouver. He was 41. Coroner Colin Harris says it’s too soon to say if Benaschak fell or jumped, but he doesn’t suspect any foul play.

Benaschak’s death pushed preparations for this year’s rapidly approaching gay ski week into limbo. Staff closed the Out on the Slopes office and stopped answering calls as they waited for Benaschak’s lawyers and parents to sort out who owns the company and what to do next.

Now, it seems, the uncertainty is over. Late last week, the Benaschaks asked a gay man from San Diego to take over the reigns and run the company.

And the new director says the show will go on.

Altitude will take place as scheduled, promises Lee Bergeron, with a hint of southern US twang. “There’s nothing to be concerned about.” All events are on except for the kick-off fashion show, which has now been cancelled.

Bergeron is accustomed to salvaging projects in disarray. Among other things, he works as a consultant specializing in projects whose pieces are falling apart beyond repair. His role is to pull them back together again.

“I’ve always taken on challenges that other people were not willing to do,” he says.

An entrepreneur from an early age, Bergeron founded his first company providing janitorial services when he was 21 years old. He had been living in his car and moving from place to place for two years by then, ever since his parents kicked him out of the house for being gay when he was 19.

Bergeron has been coming to Altitude for the last four years. When he heard about Benaschak’s death, he called the parents to offer his condolences. Then he asked them if they had anyone in mind to take over gay ski week and offered to buy the company.

“We all came to the conclusion that it’s the right fit,” he says, though he won’t discuss any financial details, nor say who owns the company at this time.

But his involvement is not just a temporary arrangement to save this year’s ski week. “I’m in this for the long haul,” Bergeron says. He plans to spend at least part of the year at his Vancouver condo from now on.

News of gay ski week’s reprieve spread quickly among its biggest fans.

“I’m very happy about it,” says Altitude regular Bruce Williams, from his home in San Francisco.

“It’s a great community event,” the avid skier continues. “It unites something I really like to do with being in the heart of the gay community.”

It would have been a huge loss had it folded, he adds-for both the gay community and the Vancouver/Whistler tourism economy.

Altitude really put both Whistler and Vancouver on the map as gay destinations, Williams says, noting that he used to go to Aspen, Colorado’s gay ski week until he discovered Altitude four years ago. He hasn’t looked back. Between the great skiing, the sense of community and the favourable exchange rate, Williams prefers Whistler.

He’s not the only one. An estimated 3,000 gay and lesbian skiers flocked to Altitude last year for the slopes and the parties-which explains why Tourism Whistler staff breathed a huge sigh of relief when they heard that Altitude 12 will go ahead as planned.

Last year’s event injected about $1 million into Whistler’s economy, notes Tourism Whistler spokesperson Michele Comeau Thompson. That’s why she and her colleagues did everything they could to help keep Altitude afloat throughout its period of uncertainty, from convincing local hotels to keep rooms available to encouraging party venues to prepare contingency plans.

“I think a lot of people were very happy this morning when they heard the news,” she says.

The last few weeks’ limbo left many would-be travellers feeling frustrated and tense. Williams, for one, had already rented his non-refundable condo for several thousand dollars and couldn’t find any information.

“I don’t know who to be angry at,” he told Xtra West last week, “but to me it’s ridiculous that there’s been nothing on [Out on the Slopes’] website. Someone could have done something.”

Now that Altitude is again answering its phones, Williams has a couple of suggestions to improve Altitude in the future. He’d like to see more visible events in the village and on the slopes, such as a Pride Parade costume ski down the mountain. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says, recalling Aspen’s similar event.

Of course, Out on the Slopes wouldn’t be able to charge admission to stand at the base of the hill, but not everything has to be profit-oriented, he adds.

Bergeron says he wants this year’s Altitude to be a tribute to Benaschak and his legacy. He plans to establish a foundation in Brent Benaschak’s name and collect donations at every event for whatever charities Benaschak was passionate about.

This year’s gay ski week opens Jan 31 as planned and will run until Feb 9.