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Ian Brown

Whistler: A river of souls on the slopes of pleasure Add to ...

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?).

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).

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.

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