5 min

Altitude with style

Whistler's gay ski week a hit

Credit: Robin Perelle

WHISTLER- It’s all about the boys, laughs Alain Dubuc as he skids, naked, to a halt on his snowboard halfway down the mountain.

Wearing nothing but mardi gras beads, a nipple ring and his snowboard boots, Dubuc has just blown by his competition at the Pink Flamingo Open, Altitude’s annual clothing-optional ski race.

“It’s not so cold,” he grins, as he pulls his long underwear back on and strikes a Marilyn Monroe-like pose for his fans on the chair lift overhead.

Dubuc is just one of the estimated 3,500 queer skiers and snowboarders who descended upon Whistler last week for Altitude, the resort’s annual gay and lesbian ski week. Undeterred by the sudden death of its founder and producer, Brent Benaschak, just one month before the start of this year’s festivities, participants streamed in from all over Canada and the US, as well as Australia, Europe, Japan and parts of Latin America.

Some came for the skiing, others came for the sense of connection they feel flying down a mountain surrounded by gays and lesbians; still others came to see old friends and make new ones.

“It’s the best time!” Dubuc enthuses, now fully clothed and ready to tackle another run with the friends he made his first day on the mountain. “It’s a great place to meet people.”

Dave Hendrickson agrees. From the moment he arrived, he met a bunch of snow bears who adopted him and his partner and showed them around the mountain. It’s more than just a ski vacation, he says. It’s about being part of a brotherhood and creating relationships that will last long past the end of this week.

Michael Schweitzer can attest to that. He’s been coming to Altitude since 1999, and in that time has forged lasting friendships with queers from all over the US. Now, whenever he travels, he always has a place to stay, he laughs, noting that more people actually tend to visit him in Florida than the other way around.

And it’s more than just a brotherhood, Hendrickson continues. It’s a sisterhood, too. Back home in the Castro, he doesn’t get to socialize with as many lesbians as he’d like, he says. But here, one of the highlights of his week was taking a snowmobile ride up the mountain after dark for a fondue dinner with lesbians in the lodge atop Whistler’s summit.

Matt Taylor, from San Jose, California, can’t get over how friendly everybody is. “You can be yourself and be crazy and have fun,” he smiles, adjusting his big purple wig and squinting through the blowing snow outside Whistler’s Roundhouse lodge.

“You can be comfortable being around your sisters and boyfriends in a gorgeous setting,” he continues. “You can walk hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm and not feel like everybody’s staring at you.”

Seattle’s David Noe wholeheartedly agrees. “We’re always surrounded by heterosexuals,” he says, “but for gay ski week we get to be surrounded by our people. That’s what makes it special.

“It’s just nice to feel there are more people like us,” he continues. “I hate to use the word family because it sounds so clichéd but it is like a big family up here.”

Noe is sitting with friends in a bar packed with gay men in ski gear just off the mountain. It’s Wednesday and the men have gathered for Altitude’s daily apres-ski event, this one at the base of Blackcomb, Whistler’s sister mountain.

What, to you, is the quintessential gay ski week moment? I ask. That’s easy, smiles Noe. “You’re having lunch at the top of the mountain and you and your friends notice an incredibly hot-looking man and he plants a big, wet kiss on an equally attractive man-and you feel an instant connection, a kinship.”

Three tables down, Mark Johnson has flown in all the way from Ohio just to be here. He, too, thinks gay ski week is all about that common bond. “We can all talk about the same things,” he explains. Just this morning, he met a group of Altitude people in the gondola and they spontaneously talked about gay marriage all the way up the mountain.

Skiing at Whistler is always wonderful, he says-but skiing at Whistler with other gays and lesbians “just makes it all more comfortable and fun. It’s just nice to be among people you’re comfortable with.”

“It’s just a wonderful experience,” agrees Boston’s Bill Mandel. “The mountain is incredible, the people are incredible. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had skiing because you can just be yourself.”

And the ski conditions “are absolutely perfect,” says Mandel’s friend Michel Guilbault from Montreal.

Hendrickson agrees. “It’s overwhelming,” he says. “The vastness of the terrain is beyond anything we’ve ever skied before.”

Johnson sighs. “This is as close to heaven as you can get.”

Cherie Litson still breaks into a smile when she remembers her first gay ski week. It’s Friday and Litson and her partner, Carol Berndt, are relishing the company of women at Altitude’s only women’s apres-ski event. “We had a blast,” Litson says, recalling the honourable mention they got in last year’s scavenger ski hunt.

It’s partly the mountain that drew them back this year, she says, but it’s mostly “the fun of being among other gay people and being so out.”

Litson is looking forward to the big women’s dance scheduled to begin later that night. “It’s where all the women finally show up,” she smiles ruefully. Though Litson loves gay ski week, she wishes its organizers would add more women’s events to the roster. Right now, of Altitude’s dozens and dozens of events, only three are specifically designated for women, and the third event (a spa night) was only added this year. It’s fun, says Litson, but it could be better.

She’d like to see more women’s apres-ski events earlier in the week. Then the women could meet at the beginning of the week, rather than the end. And if they meet in the beginning, they can make plans to attend the other male-dominated events together, she explains, so everybody can have more fun. “It’s intimidating” being the only woman in a room packed full of guys, she adds.

Around her, the women of Altitude are all nodding. They, too, would like to see more women’s events at the world-famous ski week, and particularly more women’s apres-ski events earlier in the week.

Jo Gras, from Berkeley, California, would also like to see a women’s ski group formed at the daily meet and ski gathering. And she’d like to see the women get together for a morning latte before they head up the mountain.

Still, she says, she has no regrets about attending this year’s Altitude. “It’s like finding family,” she says. “What a better way to experience Whistler?”

Altitude’s assistant producer, Rodney Plante, says he’s always looking for ways to enhance the lesbian part of gay and lesbian ski week. “But we’re limited in terms of space and availability,” he says. Altitude has to guarantee a certain turn-out for the bars in order to book space for events such as apres-skis, he explains.

Gras says Altitude might not get the required turn-out until it adds more events to attract women. But “if you have more events, they will come,” she predicts.

Plante says it comes down to a money question. “But we’re very open to ways to make the week more enjoyable and festive for everyone.”

On a personal note, Plante says the week was an emotional one for him. Benaschak was, after all, one of his best friends.

“We had to suspend grieving in order to pull this event off,” Plante says. “It was difficult to be there.”

But he’s very proud of what he and his colleagues accomplished. “I’m amazed that we were able to do as much as did in such a short period of time. I think [Brent] would’ve been proud.”

Some of the money earned by this year’s gay ski week will go towards the purchase of a bench in Benaschak’s name to be placed near his home in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. Benaschak died Dec 30, 2003. He was 41.