The first things I notice as the shuttle pulls into Whistler Village are the rainbows. They weren’t nearly so prominent the last time I covered gay ski week here, in 2004.
Richard Kaye noticed them too. “It’s just nice to see,” he says, sitting by a roaring fireplace at the Feb 3 après ski, surrounded by many of the 16 friends he brought with him to this year’s WinterPride from London, England.
“Whistler has never been an unwelcoming place,” Kaye says, “but it’s nice to see a formal recognition of gay and lesbian skiers.”
I agree. Last time I was here, the resort’s businesses weren’t nearly as effusive in their gay greetings. Now WinterPride posters adorn many of the village’s windows. Of course, businesses here are still recovering from Olympic aversion, now compounded by the bad taste left in many people’s mouths by allegations of a local company’s grisly sled-dog cull.
Still, the prominent display of rainbows was one of the first things Dean Nelson and his co-investors insisted upon when they rescued Whistler’s ailing gay ski week from imminent collapse in 2006.
“If we take this on, we need to make sure the [Whistler] community is behind us,” Nelson told the resort’s businesses at the time, urging them to make their visitors feel welcome.
Five years later, Kaye feels the welcome is now woven into Whistler’s fabric. “It all just seems very casual and easy and not forced,” he says. “I like that.”
“We were looking for an organized ski trip and saw that Pride was on,” Kaye’s friend Tom Sleigh tells me, when asked what drew the group to Whistler this week. “It’s nice to be around like-minded people. It lowers the barriers to conversation.”
It’s a theme I remember well from previous gay ski weeks: skiing at Whistler is wonderful, but skiing at Whistler with other gays and lesbians “just makes it all more comfortable and fun. It’s nice to be among people you’re comfortable with,” one Ohio man neatly summarized for me seven years ago.
Another man told me his quintessential ski week moment took place on a gondola full of gay people who spontaneously launched into an open discussion of gay marriage.
Gondolas figure prominently in gay ski week stories, I’ve noticed. This year, it’s their dubious connection to the mountaintop party’s cancellation. Rumour is the much-loved party was yanked due to shenanigans in gondolas leaving last year’s party, Kaye tells me sadly, lamenting the party’s loss. Stories of felching and supposedly telltale straws littering gondola floors have been enthusiastically whispered around the resort.
Kaye can personally attest to shenanigans in the gondolas but laughs when I ask for more details. “I couldn’t possibly comment,” he grins.
Nelson puts the rumour to rest. “The mountaintop party will never happen again,” he confirms but says Whistler’s stricter enforcement of its liquor laws is to blame. So it’s not because of sex in the gondolas? “No, absolutely not,” he pauses. “Because people have sex in the gondolas in the daytime, too.”
An hour and a half into Thursday’s après-ski, the room is packed. WinterPride attendance is up this year, beating even 2009’s pre-Olympic-aversion numbers, Nelson says.
Since buying out his original partners in 2008, Nelson hasn’t had the easiest ride, given the world economy and all. “It’s been a challenge, but I think we’ve weathered the storm pretty good,” he says. “I think we’ve shown our community and our sponsors that the event just keeps getting more and more stable.”
It’s an impressive feat, given the week’s unravelling following its founder’s suicide in 2003 and the questionable practices of its subsequent owner, who abruptly pulled the plug just days before ski week was scheduled to begin in 2006.
When Nelson and his colleagues stepped in, they had less than two weeks to pull off an event they had never produced before. Five years later, they have not only stabilized gay ski week but broadened its vision and content, infused it with new energy and enhanced its presence in Whistler Village.
Now if only more business people would bring that kind of commitment and energy to the Davie Village, we might see a similar renewal at home, too.
Robin Perelle is managing editor of Xtra Vancouver. Her WinterPride accommodations were generously provided by the Nita Lake Lodge.