Culture

Whistler’s Old School Ski Bums Tell Us How the Mountain Has Changed

Some have been around long enough to remember the squatters' huts.

by Michelle Gamage
Apr 18 2019, 7:34pm

Photos by George Benjamin, courtesy of Whistler Museum.

"Side by side mountains and a village of hot chicks in the middle," is how notorious punk rocker and self-titled "King of Nakedness" Johnny Thrash remembers being introduced to Whistler, British Columbia, which is today better known as a glitzy chic international ski resort.

That review was all the fresh out of high school Albertan teen needed to load up his “bitchin' Camaro” with his skis, guitar and amplifier and drive west.

Thrash landed in the heydays of the resort municipality in the mid 1980s, back when the mountain was family owned and the slopes were dominated by live-to-ride skiers.

The mountain started gaining a reputation as a place to ski in the mid 60s when chairlifts were first built. In those days the area was known as Alta Lake and tourists mainly ventured out to spend lazy summer afternoons on the water.

That's back when the town was 400 strong and around 15 percent lived in squatter huts proliferating the surrounding woods, longtime resident Stephen Vogler told VICE. It's where you went to drop out of the mainstream.

Vogler was 12 when his family moved to the town in 1976. Back then there was only one and a half TV channels and teenagers would meet at the town's gas station to play pinball.

"It was a strange and unique hippy ski bum town," he said, remembering stories from his childhood when the adults knew when the one RCMP officer would visit from the next town over and everyone would be on their best behaviour.

For Thrash, Whistler was a haven of West Coast hardcore punk music and skiing. Playing frontman in his band The Harpoons he also put his time in as a lifty and cook at the Rimrock Cafe.

"Everyone in that kitchen was a ski bum, even the owner," said Thrash. "He was this amazing German from the Black Forest and we'd stay up talking about Nine Inch Nails and how we should get tickets to the Butthole Surfers. We'd go skiing with everyone on the crew and come back and all work together."

Befriending Oscar-winning filmmaker John Zaritsky, Thrash helped produce "Ski Bums," which followed 10 live-to-ride locals who did whatever it took to ski everyday. The film never made it past the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, but locals still refer to it as one that captured the heart and soul of the town.

Thrash was known to wear a red dress, fishnets and heels on stage with The Harpoons and started building his reputation as the King of Nakedness at a particularly debaucherous toga party where a friend dared him to streak. The tradition grew till Thrash would even streak at friend's celebrations of life.

"He would get naked at Merlin's, a really old bar, and climb the rafters naked," laughed longtime ski instructor Stephanie Reesor. "He still does."

Reesor first heard of Whistler in the early 90s while working at a ski resort in Switzerland.

Surprised to hear of a ski town in her own country she ventured to BC to see for herself.

"I drove up the Sea to Sky Highway and I said, 'This is it. I'm staying here,’" she told VICE.

That decision came with its downsides.

"It was more making a lifestyle choice and a financial sacrifice," she said. Rent was high and space was limited, but Reesor loved the town where you could forget your skis out front of the bar for three days and where the kids in the town grew up on the slopes together.

"We take care of our own. If someone's house burns down obviously we come together and pool money. There's a lot of intelligent and successful people in this town. People have left high-powered careers to move here, we have rocket scientists running lifts," she said.

Arguably the most legendary Whistler party was known as Dusty’s last stand in March 2002.

A week-long bender was planned to honour a treasured watering hole which was being torn down and rebuilt shiny and new.

Kicking off the week was Thrash's 30th birthday, where, after the original venue was cancelled, he ended up at Dusty's open mic night with the Dayglo Abortions and five kegs of his own beer which sold for a buck-a-beer.

Reesor was in a wheelchair for Dusty's Last Stand after breaking her leg. "That was the biggest party of this whole town," said Reesor. "People were dancing on rooftops, jumping off of things, it was insane. They were tearing the place apart and taking pieces off of the walls. I think I even saw the mayor on the roof dancing."

King-of-Nakedness-Johnny-Thrash
"King of Nakedness" Johnny Thrash at Extremely Canadian's 25 Year Anniversary Party. Photo by Coast Mountain Photography.

In those days you could scam your way onto the gondola for free, climb on top of the roof and smoke a joint while cruising up to the top of the mountain, said Thrash. "You can't do that anymore. They put turnstiles on all the lifts so it registers everybody as they go up."

Whistler has evolved from catering to millionaires to catering to billionaires, he added.

Whistler was gaining international attention as a skiing destination when Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Sea to Sky highway, which connects Vancouver and Whistler, was upgraded and the resort municipality became more accessible than ever before.

In 2016 the international giant Vail Resorts purchased Whistler, which increased prices and changed the energy of the town. Day passes now ring in at $180 which is pricing visitors form Vancouver and Seattle off the slopes, said Vogler.

"We're not as busy anymore. Skiing in April should mean this place is packed. Restaurants should be heaving, but they're not. I don't know where all the people went, it's half empty," said Reesor.

The calibre of skiing has gone down and it seems skiers are more out-of-control and scary, said Vogler. "They're not mountain people, they're just people with enough money to come to Whistler."

Cabins worth $20 million are being built, and that is pushing the locals out because they can't afford to live here anymore, said Thrash.

He talks about a doctor who had to close her doors and leave town because she couldn't afford to rent a clinic space or to staff it.

"That's fucking insane, it shouldn't be like that," Thrash told VICE.

Whistler is unique amidst global ski resorts because infrastructure to support the local ski bums was never built.

"We're busy catering to the whims of the people with all the money and [Vail Resorts] doesn't care about the little people who are making it all happen," said Thrash. "You need to cherish your ski bums not push them out. They're the ones making your food, making your bed and fixing your car."

But, he added, at the end of the day those upset about change need to "embrace it or shut the fuck up about it... Whistler ski bums are a tough soul to crush."

And while a lot of the old guard locals have sold their homes and moved away, the heartbeat of the community is still going strong. Old timers are still hitting the slopes on power days with their kids and grandkids, and sharing beers at Dusty's after, said Thrash.

"You can't quench the tenacity and inventiveness of ski bums. I know a couple of buddies of mine who have been skiing free all year. I can't tell you how, but know you can't keep a good ski bum down," he added with a laugh.

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