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Whooshing it up at WinterPRIDE

Alpenglow carves out a new gay ski week at Whistler

GAY SKI WEEK: Cirque Du Soleil's Marco and Paulo Lorado flank WinterPRIDE organizer Sean Kearns whose company, Alpenglow Productions, hosted this year's gay ski week at Whistler, Feb 4-11. Credit: (Douglas Boyce photo)

When I first heard about WinterPRIDE, the latest incarnation of Whistler’s annual gay ski week, I have to admit I was pretty indifferent.

First of all I don’t ski. Well, I haven’t in the past 10 years anyway. I am more of an après skier, than an actual skier, if you want to know the truth.

Plus, I was under the impression that it was really just a big circuit party, which is not my thing either.

Fact is my days of dancing shirtless till dawn are long past. I’m at the age now where I am not even that comfortable taking my shirt off in front of my doctor, let alone a room full of buff, sweaty men.

So it was with some trepidation that I found myself boarding a shuttle for WinterPRIDE, Feb 6.

As we pull into Whistler Village, it is the same as I remember, though I haven’t been for a few years.

What I do notice are a handful of rainbow banners hanging from the street poles on the main road. Next I see a rainbow-coloured WinterPRIDE banner strung across the entrance to the village square. Something is definitely going on here.

Heading to my hotel, I find myself eagerly checking everyone out. Is he gay? Are they gay? Those guys must be gay, I think to myself.

Of course, it’s kind of hard to tell with everybody sporting thick snow pants and ski boots.

At the hotel, I receive a warm greeting from the duty manager as she checks me in. “We’ve been expecting you,” she says brightly.

“Really?” I ask. “You know who I am?”

“I know you’re here to cover this week’s events,” she replies. “It’s so nice to have everyone here.”

“But surely you must be used to this by now, with all the groups that come to town. Isn’t this just like another conference?” I counter.

Being very careful not to speak ill of any group, she explains how nice it is to deal with the WinterPRIDE guests because they are not all stressed out like the Christmas visitors tend to be. Nor, I suggest, are they all tied up in work and frantically checking their BlackBerrys.

She nods and smiles knowingly.

After registering, I head out for what should be an interesting evening at the Men’s Spa and Toy Party, one of many nightly after-skiing events scheduled throughout the week to ensure there’s never a dull moment.

The organizers are still setting up when the first guests arrive. They open the doors and we mix and mingle in the yoga studio for over an hour enjoying some wine and canapés. For some reason, this group seems a little tense and standoffish. It’s Tuesday night in the weeklong Pride-fest, still early by most people’s standards and new friendships are still being forged.

I start chatting with a pair of guys from Anchorage, but as our pauses grew longer I withdraw and sit down.

A presenter places a book about anal pleasure and health on the table beside me. Henry Pabian, a 55-year-old retired furniture salesman from Canton, Ohio can’t help making a suggestive comment.

Not to be outdone, I quip back something about size.

To which Paul Addison, a 62-year-old retired shipping company executive sitting next to Pabian, retorts something about my presumed level of experience. The ice is broken.

Pabian and Addison met and became friends on a gay cruise back in 1999, they tell me. Pabian has been coming to Whistler’s gay ski week for the past 13 years. He and his partner, who could not join him this week because of work, were married in Toronto in 2003.

Addison has been meeting Pabian and their other friends at gay ski week for the past five years. They stay in Pabian’s timeshare in the village. His partner of 13 years is home in Rancho Mirage because he’s not the dedicated skier that Addison is.

As the evening proceeds, I learn more about my new buddies. They have been to other gay ski events in Aspen, Telluride, Lake Tahoe and Steamboat Springs, but think Whistler is a great place to ski.

As the lubes, dildos and other toys are circulated, demonstrated and sampled, Pabian and Addison mention they’re really enjoying the improved ski-guiding program this year. The program allows skiers of similar skill levels to ski together with a qualified guide through different terrains.

“It’s a great way to meet new skiers at your level,” Addison explains.

When the party’s over, we head over to the country and western-themed dance at a nearby bar. The place is packed with men in plaid shirts and cowboy hats dancing up a storm.

By 1 am, though, it’s pretty much empty, so I make for the door.

“People wanted to be able to have earlier events so they can be in bed by midnight [and] up for the early skiing,” Sean Kearns explains to me. Kearns is president of Alpenglow Productions Corporation, which developed and now runs WinterPRIDE.

“I was happily surprised that people really wanted to return to what ski week was originally about: people getting together to be on the mountain and share each others’ joy and passion for skiing, boarding and being outdoors,” he says.

Based in Seattle, Kearns has owned a home in Whistler for more than seven years. He and his partner developed the website GayWhistler.com four years ago to promote the village as a gay-friendly destination.

Kearns is quick to point out that Alpenglow did not take over Altitude, the former Whistler gay ski week. Rather, the previous organizers “formally ended their program and withdrew,” he says. “We stepped in after they had cancelled it.”

Altitude was created by Vancouver resident Brent Benaschak. For more than a decade, he produced and organized Whistler’s gay ski week, until he committed suicide in 2003.

After Benaschak’s death, Altitude continued for two more years under the direction of San Diego businessman Lee Bergeron, who purchased the company from Benaschak’s estate. However, in January 2006, Bergeron abruptly cancelled Altitude, leaving the event in turmoil. That’s when Kearns and a group of local investors stepped in to produce a gay ski week of their own.

“I wouldn’t say that we’re better business people,” he says of the previous organizers. “I would say that we have a different business sense. We’re very fiscally conservative. Our goal is to be able to produce an event that is a tremendous value for our guests. We’ve proven that last year. In 12 days, we produced what some guests say was the most fun they’ve had in years.

“Now,” he says, “we’re building on that fun. We surveyed hundreds of our guests last year, so we’re providing the experience that they’ve asked for. We’re really listening. It’s not what we want; it’s what they want.”

Dan Enright, a 43-year-old high tech worker from San Francisco says what he wants is to ski.

“It’s hard to find gay people that like to ski and be out in the cold,” he declares. He likes to meet men who are actively involved in sports, and says he feels “much more likely to meet a lot of different people” at WinterPRIDE. So far, he has met men from the United Kingdom, Australia and France.

It’s his fourth year coming to Whistler for gay ski week. He used to go to Aspen, but found its gay ski week “very gay pretentious. It was not about having fun and meeting people.” He says the people there were too cliquey and concerned with money.

Jeff Morgan, a 46-year-old management consultant from Seattle is in Whistler for his first gay ski week. He describes WinterPRIDE as “a ski event that happens to be gay, rather than a wrapped-in-a-rainbow-flag gay event where you do some skiing. Most people [in the village] don’t know it’s gay ski week,” he suggests.

Having said that, he admits his friends did enjoy seeing the rainbow flags when they arrived in the village.

Ernie Lu, a 47-year-old employee at Microsoft and five-year Whistler gay ski week veteran, organized this year’s trip for Morgan and three of their friends. For Lu, WinterPRIDE is about “skiing with friends, and the opportunity to meet other gay guys.”

Asked what he thinks of the cost, Morgan says it’s less expensive for his group because “we can drive to [it].”

Lu thinks the costs are in line with what one would expect to pay at “the premier ski resort in North America.”

Lu is one of only a handful of Asian men that I encounter while at WinterPRIDE. One can’t help but notice that it is an almost exclusively white, male event. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but in today’s increasingly culturally diverse world it is a bit unique. Perhaps this has more to do with the demographics of skiing than it does with anything that the organizers are not doing to be inclusive.

I seek out a couple of guys at an après ski party to get their perspective. Brian Lighty is a 42-year-old financial director and his friend Michael Brady is a 47-year-old real estate developer. From Chicago, these African-American gentlemen know that they stand out in a crowd, and they’re used to it.

“This is the way the world is,” Brady states resolutely, “particularly when things are more affluent.”

“There are six of us here,” Lighty says dryly, “and we know the other four.”

Brady owns a condo in the village and has been to gay ski week before. Lighty, whose husband and two kids are at home, is sampling this event for the first time. Like the others guests whom I have spoken to, they are in Whistler for the skiing and to meet up with old friends.

Women are also few in number at

WinterPRIDE.

Tamara Davis, a 37-year-old information technology worker, and her partner of four years, Lisa McDaniel, a 46-year-old federal employee, are from Seattle. I find them enjoying a cocktail at an another après ski party. They came to gay ski week last year. They say they’re not bothered by the gender disparity.

In fact, Davis feels that it’s “nice to be around our brothers. They’re always friendly.”

She does admit, though, that it’s “nice to see more women” this year.

Davis says she would like to see more women’s events, because “the energy is a little different.”

Cherie Litson agrees and suggests the organizers consider an alternative space for women beyond the daily après ski parties. “A lot of women are not as comfortable to go there,” she states. “We like it a little quieter.”

Litson, a 56-year-old printed circuit board designer, is visiting from Seattle with her partner Carol Berndt, a 48-year-old geographic information system employee. They have been together for 15 years. This is the fourth time that they have come to Whistler for gay ski week. “It’s a fabulous way to meet people,” Berndt offers.

Although they both love to ski, today they are in the village enjoying a day of relaxation after two days on the mountain. They own a timeshare in Whistler and come up about once a year.

Berndt is impressed with all of the different activities that are planned this year. She likes the choice but notes “nobody is going to do everything.”

Litson says she enjoyed attending the mixology class earlier in the week, even though she was the only woman there. She went because she likes mixed drinks and wanted to learn what was in them, and what to ask for when ordering.

Berndt concedes that if she were at home on a typical weekend, she might think things here were expensive. However, when “it’s a vacation, your budget shifts,” she says. She advises people to determine their own price points, and decide how many events they can attend.

By the time the WinterPRIDE banquet roles around later in the week, I have gone from the confused outsider I was when I arrived, to someone who has to juggle people at three different tables during the evening.

I may not have yet become a skier, but I certainly have a better understanding of the attitude and appeal of a gay ski event. I have also learned the unique and important role it plays in many gay and lesbian people’s social lives.

From what I witnessed in Whistler this year, WinterPRIDE has succeeded. It has succeeded in spite of many obstacles, including highway closures that stranded guests, the unexpected death of Kearns’ father during the week, lengthy registration lines, some poorly attended and cancelled programs, and even the deferral of what was to be the week’s new continuing medical education program.

WinterPRIDE has laid the foundation to rejuvenate Whistler’s gay ski week, but the bigger challenge still remains ahead. In order to distance themselves from the difficulties that have surrounded this event in the past, the organizers need to create an economically viable property that balances the on-mountain demands that their avid skiing guests demand with the best off-mountain activities necessary to round out the whole experience to keep their guests returning annually.