SOCIETY

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN

For celebs and the über-rich, Whistler is the best ski resort anywhere. For the lifties and bar staff, it's the most surreal corner on earth. And soon it's going to get a whole lot weirder.

NANCY MACDONALD February 4 2008
SOCIETY

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN

For celebs and the über-rich, Whistler is the best ski resort anywhere. For the lifties and bar staff, it's the most surreal corner on earth. And soon it's going to get a whole lot weirder.

NANCY MACDONALD February 4 2008

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN

For celebs and the über-rich, Whistler is the best ski resort anywhere. For the lifties and bar staff, it's the most surreal corner on earth. And soon it's going to get a whole lot weirder.

SOCIETY

NANCY MACDONALD

"CAN YOU GET CRABS FROM KISSING A GIRL?” Marco asks. He is standing on the dance floor at Buffalo Bills, a sprawling, upmarket, western-themed Whistler nightclub. It is only Wednesday, but this is locals’ night, often Bills’ craziest, and we’re mobbed by a crush of lithe, beautiful young people. Even in this crowd, Marco Rigg stands out, with his blue eyes, red curls, snow-tan and razor

sharp jawline. A 22-year-old with an Aussie drawl, he grew up in Melbourne, where a guy his age can find almost anything but snow. Since moving to B.C. a few months ago with three boyhood friends in pursuit of the mountain life, he’s learned to Double Grab and get Backside Air. And his bartending job almost makes him a local here. Still, some details of his new life escape him. “The

other night I was with a girl,” he explains. “We just kissed. Nothing more. The next night I slept in David’s bed. And David woke up totally itchy. So he’s shaved everything.” Marco and his friends, like most of the seasonal staff around here, descended on the western town in time for its annual cattle call, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce job fair, held in October. Each year 1,200 such employees are hired for the winter by the resort, to join the 8,500 or so permanent staff who wash Whistler’s dishes, make its beds and serve drinks to a visiting population that swells to 40,000 on busy weekends. A surprising number are cheery blokes and sheilas from Rigg’s home country. They come, work a hodgepodge of jobs, and ski at every possible break.

Ski bumming here has become something of an Aussie rite of passage—so much so that the twin mountain resort of Whistler Blackcomb sends recruiters to Australia, as well as New Zealand and the U.K., every summer. This year, they also hired from unlikely ski hot spots like Brazil, Chile and South Korea. If not for the Working Holiday Program—Ottawa’s offer of a one-year working visa for youth under 30, recently extended to two years for Aussies only—the Western Canadian ski industry would collapse, says Michael J. Ballingall, vicepresident of Big White, B.C.’s second resort.

Marco and David may have crab lice. They may not. And they still don’t have a place to live. But they’ve managed to carve out a toehold, however precarious, in the most

surreally opulent corner of Canada.

‘IT’S LIKE NEW ORLEANS DURING MARDI GRAS,’ ONE STAFFER SAYS, ‘BUT PERMANENTLY’

It will only get crazier. By March 2010, almost everyone on the planet will have seen B.C.’s twin mountain resort. The ski hill launched nearly 40 years ago with a single chairlift, two T-bars and a gondola housed in a wooden barn, dreamed up by four Vancouver businessmen who had the maverick I960s-vintage idea that this undeveloped, backwoods mountain with no real infrastructure or paved roads could make an Olympic host. The first bid, for the ’68 Winter Games, flopped, but Whistler has boomed and for months now, its quarter-billion-dollar pre-Olympic makeover has barely stood out, so common is the sight of cranes, crews

and massive construction projects here.

The 2010 Winter Games will be a huge, unpaid commercial for Whistler, dubbed by Forbes “North America’s biggest ski resort— with the lowest profile.” Already, among a certain crowd, Whistler Blackcomb is the king of the hills—the new Aspen, but younger, bigger, brasher. It’s a place unlike any other in Canada, drawing from an international jet set not typically seen in this country. This is where Seal proposed to Heidi Klum, dropping to one knee at 14,000 feet atop a glacier. Nicole Kidman dined with her parents at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, where Gwyneth Paltrow once stayed—and reputedly never left her room. Sometime resident Bill Gates

THIS IS WHERE SEAL PROPOSED TO HEIDI KLUM-AT 14,000 FEET ATOP A GLACIER

has hosted après-ski parties at the Longhorn Saloon, at Blackcomb’s base. This year, Leelee Sobieski visited, as did Michelle Rodriguezbefore her incarceration in an L.A. County jail. On some winter days, the Sea-to-Sky highway, which runs from Vancouver to Whistler, is thick with jet-black limos topped by roof racks. Europeans, including British royalty bored by Klosters, flock here for the New World edge, raw, coastal mountain setting, and annual snowfall, which topped a record 45 feet last season. Global warming, which threatens fully two-thirds of the Alps’ ski resorts, has been a boon here: European bookings spiked 115 per cent last season. “You can’t trust the snow in Europe anymore,” visiting Continentals warn darkly, after a winter—the warmest in 1,000 years—that, in some resorts, left a rash of muddy runs and slushy peaks.

What draws everybody is serious skiing. If you stacked Le Massif and Mont Tremblant on top of each other, Whistler would stand taller. If you closed half its runs and half its lifts, Whistler Blackcomb would still eclipse most resorts. There are more steeps, more moguls, more gondolas here than anywhere else in North America. Whistler offers over 8,000 skiable acres, the continent’s only vertical mile and a nine-month season, North America’s longest. It has five snowboard parks, three glaciers and, at $83, the country’s priciest lift tickets. If you want to make it, you’ve got to go to Whistler, a 19-year-old aspiring pro snowboarder assures me. “Everybody knows that.” And so the bewildered youth of Australia converge with elite athletes, supermodels and action photographers drawn from all corners of the globe.

With new friends like these, the town has ramped up the swank factor. For $115 a dayabove the $400 room rate—the Four Seasons will outfit guests in this season’s Prada or Spy-

der ski clothes and top-of-the-line Atomic skis. Every morning, your Salomon boots are handed to you pre-warmed. At the end of your last run, you simply step out of your bindings and dump the ephemera into the waiting hands of a concierge—who is standing slopeside with hot chocolate.

Living at the epicentre of the snow universe, however, is tricky, and bound to get trickier. The bartenders, fifties, trail groomers and kids who wax your skis and sharpen your snowboard edges have developed an

underground culture and economy with its own laws. Locals call it Whistler Darwinism. If you can’t cut it in Whistler, the saying goes, you don’t deserve to stay.

In any resort town from Bala to Kenora, there is an obvious divide between the workers and the vacationers—a point hammered home on Whistler, the glitzy O.C.-styled snowboarder soap produced by CTV, the network that, with Rogers Communications, won the Canadian broadcast rights to the 2010 Winter Games. The class system in

LOCALS HAVE AN UNDERGROUND ECONOMY OF THEIR OWN, CALLED WHISTLER DARWINISM

Whistler further divides the real locals from the seasonal workers. The former work the system, get the good apartments and meet for brunch at Function Junction, the buzzing industrial area tucked far from tourist eyes. The greenies are in for a rougher ride. All they know are the rumours they’ve heard on the bus from Vancouver—the ground zero for key information. “By the time you get 4 off the bus in Whistler,” recounts Paige ■ Harvey, 28, from Australia, “you are terrified. We heard that a bag of chips costs $10, that all the good jobs go to Canadians, that there are no full-time jobs, or housing.”

Some of this is true. Rental property in Canada’s most expensive municipality is hard to come by, and subsidized staff housing is limited. Some landlords refuse to rent to seasonal workers, especially young, male, single ones. One agency refuses outright to deal with anyone under 25—this in a place with one of the country’s youngest populations. Half of all Whistler residents are between 20 and 34, and the median age is 28. Evan Mysak, a young Aussie who managed to secure staff housing at the Chateau Whistler with his two younger brothers, has three Australian friends, all employed. “They’re moving back because they can’t find anywhere to live,” he says. “Landlords think they’re going to trash the place and piss on the carpets.” Since arriving in B.C., Marco and his friends have slept in a series of dorms, hostels and couches. At one point they’d moved to Pemberton, north of Whistler, where they were forced to juggle work schedules with sporadic bus service to the resort town.

Still, Marco says they have made it up the mountain five days a week since arriving in the fall. And that’s the main thing. “What is your priority at 21?” asks Mike Varrin, Whistler icon and manager of the hill-hugging

Garibaldi Lift Company—the number one mountain bar in North America according to Skiing magazine, which, for 11 years running, has named Whistler Blackcomb the best resort on the continent. “It’s owning a new snowboard and having enough money to party every night.”

Forget the stereotype: most ski bums aren’t lazy. Some log five or six hours of daily skiing atop their jobs. Their priorities simply differ from most. In a city, the point is to earn and save. In Whistler, the individual lives to ride. Whistler is like never-never land, says Varrin, pointing to a locals’ table he calls Liar’s Corner, far from the bar’s famed, rock fireplace. It’s anchored by a loud-talking, wind-burnt, white-haired ski instructor who looks to be in his mid-fifties. At 86, Russ White is still blustering through his beer after a day of lessons.

Given the cohort—young, single, cheer-

fully immoderate—Whistler is naturally hedonistic. “It’s like New Orleans during Mardi Gras,” says one young woman, “but permanently.” She’s part of a quintet of foxy Aussie fifties hitchhiking in heels from Whistler’s darkened outskirts to the Four Seasons for the upscale, mountain-staff Christmas party. “You do things you never do at home.” (Fittingly, they routinely dole out condoms in staff residence, says her friend—a job perk that might be unique to Whistler.)

Still, there are challenges for those who make the place tick. The demographic is predominantly male. Local legend once put the ratio at seven boys for every girl. Whatever the true figure, the straight boys hate it. What happens when one of you brings a girl home?

I ask two 18-year-old boys. Part of a house of

II guys, they meet the question with silence. “It hasn’t happened yet,” one finally mumbles, immediately receiving a sharp punch to the

bicep from the other. “This is a place where the woman plays the lead,” says Melissa Pressnail, 24, an engineering graduate from the University of Western Ontario. “It’s up to you—who you want to hook up with, who you want to bring home or if you don’t want to bring anyone home. There is nowhere in the world like it.”

Money is a perennial problem. The Aussies say “B.C.” stands for “bring cash.” Most are earning $8 per hour. This is hard to stretch in a town where single detached homes can push $12 million and dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro, a foodie haunt boasting North America’s biggest champagne selection, can run $800 a head. Even a bowl of French onion soup from the bar menu costs $15—clearly unaffordable for anyone on minimum wage. But there’s a secret to

thriving here: it’s all about the hook-ups— not sexual, but economic.

The lifeblood of the local community is a second economy—some call it the hook-up economy—based on barter, trade and nonmonetary exchange. Others have dubbed Whistler Bartertown, as in Mad Max. Uneaten goods brought home from the bakery are traded for a ski tune-up, marijuana for fast food, and six-packs of beer have become a

common currency. There are direct servicefor-service exchanges, like a massage for a haircut, says Sheryl Sharkey, an 18-year-old Edmontonian who lost 15 lb. her first month in Whistler and visited the food bank before catching on. “Now everything the grocery store where I work throws out—all the outdated food—gets brought home,” she says. Sharkey has two roommates who work in Whistler clubs. As repayment, she never pays

for cover or drinks at their bars.

SOCIALLY, IT’S A WOMAN’S WORLD: LEGEND PUTS THE RATIO AT SEVEN BOYS PER GIRL

Lesley Hunter, 22, a snowmobile guide and nighttime pizza deliverer for Domino’s, spices up her diet by trading meals with restaurant staff. “Every night I phone over to another restaurant—say, the Mongolie Grill— and say, ‘Do you want to trade staff meals?’ ” She says it happens every night. When Alexis Sirman, 23, a whitewater rafting guide who’s lived in Whistler on and off for five years,

worked at the local Subway, she’d bring home filled-up Sub Club cards, worth a free Subway sandwich. She would trade them for admission to clubs, beer, or “real food.” “Our mission is to get up the mountain,” says Rory Blyth, 23, an English literature graduate from the University ofWarwick, in England. “Money has no real place or meaning here.”

The high-end establishments, the heliskiing outfits and resorts, have their own version of the barter economy. Whistler restaurant owners bribe local concierges to recommend their restaurants to guests. This generally means the concierge and a guest will be invited to dine, but, one former restaurant owner, requesting anonymity, says some even demand cash for each table booked. These underground transactions create a sense of both order as of interdependency, conferring status and benefits to veteran Whistlerites. But some argue that, among locals, they also create a sense of entitlement. At the end of the day, someone’s pocket is being drained.

In any case, this Whistler is changing. They can’t paint the town with Olympic rings until Beijing’s Summer Games wrap up in August, but they’re already knee-deep in Games fever. Years ago, Olympic organizers promised to have all venues, including Vancouver’s new hockey, speed-skating and curling rinks ready by the end of2008, giving Canadian athletes a full winter to train on them—a major leg-up in technical sports like the luge, where every one-hundredth of a second counts.

Whistler beat the deadline. More than two years before the torch touches down, its $250 million worth of venues are already built. Last month, the first cross-country ski competition was held at the freshly minted Whistler Olympic Park in nearby Callaghan Valley. In February, the FIS World Cup will put the men’s and women’s downhill courses on Whistler Mountain to the test. Meanwhile, four-time Olympic bobsledder Pierre Lueders has already taken a spill at Blackcomb Mountain’s new sliding centre for bobsled, luge and skeleton—one of just 15 tracks in the world.

The early-bird resort town actually needs the boost. Whistler isn’t growing the way it once did. On a busy day, the mountain can handle 60,000 per hour. But business has flatlined since the 2000 season, even as the most influential industry magazines, from Ski and Skiing magazines to Snow Country, continue to designate the resort among the world’s very best. In 2004, for the first time in five years, visits fell below two million; that year a whopping 35 per cent of visitors surveyed told Tourism Whistler they wouldn’t be returning because it’s grown too expensive. Since then, winter hotel-room bookings have fallen by 20 per cent. The ripstrong Canadian dollar and new passport rules for Americans entering Canada by car are expected to sting.

The high finance of the ski industry and Olympic public relations, however, matter little to the people who keep the mountain town going. The fifties, greeting you with a nervy ‘How ya goin’ mate? ’ having woken up with a Red Bull smoothie, the iconoclasts, living hand-to-mouth, with their own customs and unwritten laws, will continue to give this billion-dollar hill its soul, Games or not. For them, as they say, it’s all about sex, drugs and powder. Nothing more. M