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Whistler: A river of souls on the slopes of pleasure

By half past 3 in the afternoon in Whistler, the mountain redoubt at the heart of the Vancouver Olympics, the scene is already, like, way under way, dude. Two women - 20 years old, tops, faces painted red and white, decked out in red and white clothing, eagle feathers tucked in their hair - are dancing on the front porch of Tapley's. Half past 3 in the afternoon.

The women are the first thing you see when you climb into the well-kept node known as the Village of Whistler. Fifty metres down the road (it's a compact place), 1,500 folks are crammed into another Whistler micro-square, waving to Damian Marley, one of the late Bob's many musical children, live, as he whumps it out. Some, straight off the hill, are carrying skis and helmets and snowboards and ski boots and are dancing anyway, jumping up and down to the music in artfully slouched tuques, hank to shank with jocks and stoners and new parents and grandmothers and boarders.

A river of souls within the crowd is oozing its way to the gondola that lifts off mid-village for the first two medal heats of women's bobsleigh at 5 p.m.; the Germany-Canada hockey game is already sucking crowds into bars for 4:30. Jamaican flags (Marley again) are waving amid the trees, which are tightly wrapped in thousands of tiny red and white bulbs, while Jon Montgomery, Canada's skeleton-gold-medalist hottie, is attending a champagne reception (every gold medalist gets one) with two women for company (he's much shorter than he looks on TV). The Irish and the Austrians are swarming ("they like to party," a woman proffers on the gondola; who knew they had so much in common?).

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TV cameras perch and point and hang everywhere. In a couple of hours, the daily Fire and Ice show will feature snowboarders somersaulting through a massive set of burning Olympic rings (the rings of burning fire!) while women in skintight outfits hula with their own rings, also flaming. You can watch them on the stage or you can watch them on a giant screen above the stage. "Nobody's competing tonight," the announcer will say, and he will be on the stage and on the big screen too. "They are simply jumping for you, Whistler!" - the philosophy of enthusiasm, preached here, on the slopes of pleasure!

Meanwhile, you can burrow through the crowd to the bar at Tapley's, a standard-issue Whistler bar (bars are to Whistler what French is to Canada, its other official language), and nurse a head-sized glass of Okanagan pinot noir ($7: "we don't fuck around," the waitress says), and look at posters and running tallies of Canada's medal count on the chalkboard above the bar, and play keno and foosball and darts, and watch three different TV shows (hockey replays, motocross, some band) on as many screens as the Gorgon has snakes, all to music thumping out of speakers like a series of never-ending strokes.

Forty separate diversions in a single room, plus dancing and talking and flirting and trying to hook up and random conversation ("What are you here for? Working security? I'm from Halifax. Just here with some friends to have a good time. But I appreciate you keeping us safe!"). All of it is happening at once. That's the way Whistler likes it.

Trappers to skiers

Whistler wasn't always like this. Trappers and prospectors arrived in 1900, ending the pleasant isolation of the Coast Salish and the Lil'wat natives. Whistler (named for the screech of its hoary marmots) was London Mountain then, because of its rain and fog.

The Garibaldi Lift Company built the first ski tows in the mid-1960s, but as late as 1964, roads, sewers and electricity were unknown. In 1924, it took three days to get here: steamer from Vancouver, an overnight, a two-day trek by horse. Today, on the brand-new, considerably safer Sea to Sky Highway, you can make it in two hours in a bus (at least during the security-conscious Olympics). The skiing is now "among the very best in the world," according to long-time resident and ski instructor Al Bone (who should know, having skied all over the world).

But Whistler the Village is less about nature than it is about human nature. The town has inspired both a television drama ( Whistler, a show that snowboarder Ross Rebagliati sued for misappropriating his identity) and a reality show ( Peak Season).

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You can still find the athletic essence of the place, but you have to seek it out. One way to find it on this particular evening, as Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse prepare to hurtle down the bobsleigh track on their way to winning gold in their two-woman sled, is by walking up the course itself. It's a cliché to say bobsleigh is one thing on television, another thing entirely in person, but the cliché is true. Resort Whistler subjugates nature to pleasure. Sporting Whistler submits human beings to the demands of the elements, the ice and snow and cold. One is indulgent and the other is daring. Only one is always capable of taking you by surprise.

At the Whistler Sliding Centre, most spectators congregate inside the last, biggest, fastest turn - Turn 16, the one commentators call Thunderbird, through which sleds careen at their peak speeds in excess of 140 kilometres an hour. The inside of the curve is the size of a football field, and on race days resembles the town square of a medieval village, something Brueghel would have painted: people of all ages and sizes wearing red and white Dr. Seuss hats, in felt moose heads and Polartec Maple Leaves and flag capes, wearing storm gear and snow pants and boots of all description, speaking multiple tongues, German and Russian and Canadian and even Gaelic (the Irish have an emerald sled contending).

People ring bells and blow horns every time the rumble of a new sled approaches in the early-evening light (these races have been held at night), and their heads turn as one as the carts race by. The pagan rites of winter - bobsleigh brings them out.

From Turn 16, the fans make their way up the track, pausing as the racers hurtle by with their cargos of fast, muscular, big-boned women who add inertial mass to the sliding speed. Their upper arms are the size of cottage hams.

"I trust Kaillie with my life," Heather Moyse, the gold-winning pusher, will say later this evening of Kaillie Humphries, her driver. Bobsleigh is called a mature sport, one you come to from other sports, because you have to be 18 to do it - old enough to risk your own life.

Eventually, a spectator arrives at the start, and sees the women warming up, the coaches wiping down sled runners, the bright sleds stacked and waiting in the start house like fresh candy bars, all of it weirdly reminiscent of Cape Canaveral. A robot camera on a track follows the women as they push down the track and slip into their capsule, then returns to its starting point, an obedient little camera. Every detail is cool, fascinating. The start of a bobsleigh course is a movie set where everything has to happen at once for a moment, and is then reset for the next take.

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If the spectator is lucky, it starts to snow-rain at the bottom (the athletes housed in Whistler have been calling it Pissler), but graupel and even powder up here, Swiss dots coming down in infinite numbers out of the blue black sky over the drooping, heavy-limbed giant firs that lurk behind the track, waiting to repossess its terrain. Nothing so loud and grand as a hockey game in which the artificially composed reputations of two nations are allegedly at stake. But just as unforgettable, and private.

Extrovert culture

Maybe it's the $90 T-shirts and the $1,200 baseball jackets at Whistler's Russian Olympic merchandise store; maybe it's the prices of the area's fine homes, houses advertised as being for sale during the Olympics at astronomical prices, $3.25-million, $7.95-million, and the way those numbers lurk in the air here, like fog. Maybe it's because a salad of roasted beets costs $18.50 at a Whistler restaurant called Araxi. Whatever it is, the Olympic resort of Whistler doesn't feel like it suffers from too much inner reflection. It's an extroverted culture, a tourist town looking to please as many people as possible.

Jessica, the bartender at Jamaica House (in non-Olympic times, it's a bar called The Savage Beagle), claims the visiting Olympic crowd in Whistler is different from the regular one - "a different, older" and less energetic crowd that likes "a place they can sit down and have a beer." Without them, Whistler Village - as opposed to the town proper - is so young it still eats with its hands.

"A lot of people have to work two jobs to stay here," the manager of a local restaurant says. But they look like they enjoy it anyway, the pretty women in the clubs, in their sleeveless vests and their woollen ski headbands, the uninhibited young men with their enviable energy and their lack of self-consciousness. How much fun would it have been to live that way? In Whistler, it's easy to be reminded that you never tried.



One night in a bar, a plainclothes RCMP officer told me not one but two brothels have opened up in the town for the duration of the Olympics. The Whistler police I spoke to didn't know anything about them. "But it could spring up for the duration of something like this," one said.

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