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Party Town, B.C.

Exploring the highs and lows of Whistler's let-loose lifestyle

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It's the early 2000s, and Whistler, still in its awkward adolescent stage as a ski destination, is fresh off another promising edition of the then-nascent World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF). By this point in the festival's history, it had evolved from an all-around ski championship to include multiple facets of mountain culture. The first years of Heaven, the interactive, alcohol-free party that marked the end of the festival, were a rousing success. But event planner and local DJ Ace Mackay-Smith had run into some resistance from officials who, spooked by several high-profile deaths at raves in Europe, were reluctant to green-light another edition of the all-night blowout.

This led to what was probably one of the weirder council meetings in Whistler municipal history, where Mackay-Smith, determined to keep the party going, made her case to the council table while dozens of revellers in the back loudly voiced their support like a neon-clad, modern-day version of Footloose.

Wanting officials to get a taste of the event for themselves, she extended a free invitation to the underground party, held where Village 8 Cinemas is today.

"A few of the councillors did show up," recalls Mackay-Smith. "It was 7 in the morning and I was walking through, I was kind of tired (wondering) if they were still dancing, and one of the council members was still there. "And I pointed at him, like, 'OK, this party is happening next year.'"

Mackay-Smith, better known to some as DJ Foxy Moron, has certainly been privy to her fair share of parties — council-attended and otherwise — during her time in Whistler. For the latest episode of Mountain Mythic, the sorta-monthly podcast exploring the peaks and valleys of mountain life, Pique sat down with Mackay-Smith and another longtime local DJ, Scott Arkwell, aka Vinyl Ritchie, for a closer look at Whistler's infamous party culture: where's it's been and what's driving it today.

We also touched on the darker side of the let-loose lifestyle with two people who know all too well the steep cost that can come with drug use.

The interviews below were taken entirely from the recording of the episode, much of which was left on the cutting-room floor. To check out the episode in its entirety, you can listen to Mountain Mythic at piquenewsmagazine.com, on Soundcloud, iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.

Welcome to Party Town, B.C.

Making a scene

If you've spent time in a dimly lit Whistler club at any point since the Reagan administration, chances are either Foxy Moron or Vinyl Ritchie provided the soundtrack to your late-night festivities.

Longtime hosts of popular radio show Soul Kitchen Sundays, these vinyl disciples have seen the evolution of the resort's club scene firsthand from their vantage point behind the ones and twos.

"When I got here (in 1987) there was Club 10, Buffalo Bills, The Beagle, and Tommy's," says Mackay-Smith. "I would sometimes go in the bar and there'd be like three girls, and you'd be like, 'OK, you got that corner, you got that corner."

Thankfully, the gender balance has shifted since those days, as has the character that made each of Whistler's clubs unique, which Arkwell chalked up, in his characteristic deadpan, to "brainwashing ... by corporations and bad record companies."

"I kinda feel that, back then, the clubs had a little bit more of their own personality, so you'd go to Buffalo Bills for sort of the cowboy vibe and you'd go to Tommy's for more of the dance vibe, and then The Beagle was something else," says Mackay-Smith. "They were more themed, I guess, and now I feel like on a Saturday night, you'll go out and it's a lot of the same music in the clubs."

It's a natural impulse to wax nostalgic about the days of old — especially in a place like Whistler where the mythmaking machine is constantly in full gear. But there's no denying that, as the resort has developed into the tourism behemoth it is today, the party scene has been impacted just as the housing and labour sectors have.

It may be harder to find the kind of tripped-out house parties like those hosted by cherished local legend, the warmhearted Finnish logger Seppo Makinen, who had no problem welcoming any resort newcomer into his home — "it was almost like the Playboy Mansion of Whistler," Mackay-Smith says — but there are still those working to keep the culture intact.

'There's people trying to keep it alive," she adds. "I, personally, am with the Hot Doggin' party. I throw the party at the end of WSSF for all the people who had to work during the Ski and Snowboard Fest, and let it go kinda wilder (with) things we wouldn't do at a corporate party. We're not gonna shove a bunch of hot dogs in our mouths. I haven't seen that corporate party."

Another factor that doesn't get talked about much is the role that drugs have played on Whistler's club scene. As DJs, there's a chicken-or-the-egg debate Arkwell and Mackay-Smith have engaged in before: do the musical trends follow the drug culture, or are the drugs a response to the latest tracks hitting the clubs?

"So, like, dubsteb, for example: I kinda feel like it maybe was a type of drug that made people make this certain type of music. It was dark and everybody didn't really dance," says Mackay-Smith. "But it was a totally different vibe from the happy, funky house of the raves that I used to go to. Everybody really got down and you looked at each other and didn't face the DJ."

Ecstasy, in particular, was a "game-changer," Arkwell says.

"Then the drugs got sketchier, and got darker, and got heavier, and people got more into them. And then they would use this music-DJing scene as a façade for their drug habits."

That brings us to another important point: in a town that loves to party, where the binge-drinking rate is the highest in B.C., is it a tough place for people struggling with substance abuse? "I think it's for sure tricky when people first come here, and especially if you don't have a lot of experience with that kinda thing," says Mackay-Smith, who thinks that, while Whistler has plenty of healthy distractions, it can also be easy to fall into the après-hopping routine.

"If you want longevity here, you have to learn to pace yourself."

Easier said than done for some, says Arkwell.

"I've seen so many casualties of war here, just from the DJ booth,' he adds.

"I'd be in the DJ booth and I'd have a few beers, but the party would be kicking off all around me. And I'd see the same people: oh, this guy over here, this guy's doing his little deal here, she's over here doing her thing, and they're all messed up. And I'd see it every night. It's a weird thing to watch go down."

Searching for answers

It's been nearly three years since the sudden death of her youngest son and Jennifer Janson is no closer to finding the answers she is so desperately seeking. There are lots of smaller, specific questions that race through her mind, but when you really drill down deep, they all amount to different versions of the same one: Why? Why had Marty, a straightlaced kid with ambitions of becoming a helicopter pilot, turned to drugs? Why, after a run-of-the-mill night out with friends, was he left in his room, alone, to die? Why did this happen in Whistler, of all places, a resort town half a world away known for its health-obsessed populace and its family-friendly atmosphere? Why him?

The tragic story of Marty's death has been shared on these pages before ("Marty's Story," Pique, Jan. 22, 2015), so there's no need to go into too much detail here, except to say that his journey started like that of so many other young transplants to Whistler, and ended in a nightmare nobody would have predicted.

Fresh out of high school and hungry for adventure, 19-year-old Marty had saved up enough money to make the move from Australia after working three jobs one summer. He came alone, looking to meet people, and landed a job he loved at a local hotel. Before long, he had amassed a solid group of friends, his beaming smile and easy charm a natural attractant.

Then, only a few months into his stay, Marty went out one night partying with friends. It would be the last time they saw him alive. On the evening of Sept. 2, 2014, Marty was found hours after he had died from a lethal combination of cocaine and sleeping aids.

The next night at their home outside of Sydney, Jennifer and her husband got that knock on the door that no parent ever wants to hear. They struggled to absorb the words coming out of the officer's mouth.

"It was just so unbelievable," Janson says. "Because it was Canada, it's Whistler, it's a clean town. In our naivety, we didn't know about the drug culture at all. It was just so confronting that he had passed away that way."

Homing in on something as elusive as a drug culture is a difficult thing to do, but especially so in Whistler where a narrative has been crafted that is intended to be all things to all people. It's that seeming dissonance — Whistler as the pristine winter wonderland and the haven for debauchery — that Janson still has trouble coming to grips with.

"There's this stark contrast between fitness and health ... during the daylight hours, but in the nighttime hours, it's a different thing," she says.

"There's these conflicting arguments of why you go to Whistler."

While Marty is by no means the first 19-year-old to experiment with drugs and certainly won't be the last, Janson believes he got sucked into the devil-may-care party culture that is especially prevalent among Whistler's seasonals.

"I do very much feel Marty was naïve, he was part of the culture," she says.

"It's almost strange if you don't take drugs. If you're the one who doesn't take them, you're probably one of five per cent of that (transient) population that come in and then you become the abnormal one. No one wants to feel abnormal, everyone wants to fit in and feel a part of a tribe."

Three years on, and Janson has worked tirelessly to ensure Marty doesn't become, as she put it, "a blur in the history of Whistler." She's pressured police to do more to stem the flow of drugs into the resort. She's called for research on the drug habits of Whistler's transient population. She's worked with Vancouver Coastal Health on an outreach campaign.

Now, all she can hope is that someone out there will hear her.

"How do we make this more poignant in Whistler?" she asks. "Who's willing to listen? Who's willing, in the government organizations of Whistler, in the council, to say, 'This has happened to this young man from Australia who was coming for a season or two, but went home in a coffin?'

"It's our loss. It's society's loss as well. Who knows what he would've become. You never know. But we lost a lot."

'It's time to talk'

Shawn Kiselius wasn't quite sure how to react when his best friend Matt Sherrow started lecturing him one night in early 2016 on the dangers of mixing illicit substances.

"When I showed up after work, he sat me down and we were all talking, and he said, 'Shawn, you don't know when you mix drugs together what's in what and how much of it can kill you. It can even be a tiny little amount.''

It was an innocuous seeming rant in the moment that turned out to be eerily prescient.

"It was a very strange conversation to me. I said, 'OK, Matt, I get it, I'm listening.' And that was basically the last conversation we had, because he was dead two hours later."

Matt, the type of big, brawny outdoorsman that this part of the world tends to attract, doesn't fit the typical picture of an overdose victim. An admitted health nut, Matt was known to eat the entire fruit — skin, root, stem and all.

"It's just ironic, you know?" Kiselius muses. "You hear all these stories about addicts on the streets who've been abusing and using for years and years and years. Not somebody who eats the root, who eats celery root, you know?"

But like a lot of resort residents, Matt would dabble with drugs on occasion to release stress. His overdose last year, from a mixture of coke, ecstasy and methamphetamines, was proof enough to Kiselius that, despite his friend's prophetic warning, he still failed to grasp the true danger of what he was doing — and believes Matt isn't alone in that.

"We would go out to music festivals together and we'd do drugs there, go dancing and have a good time. That's what it meant to me. That's what drugs meant to me: you'd go use them appropriately and properly and you have a good time, and that's what they're for," says Kiselius. "So it's kinda confusing when ... you go out to have a good time and end up dead. It's hard to process that, you know? Then you look around at all the other ski towns and see people and all the risks they're taking that they're not aware they're taking. It's an issue."

Compounding the problem for Kiselius and his friend was one that is by no means new to ski towns. The two had been living for months on end out of a van, unable to afford the sky-high rents that have become par for the course in Whistler's increasingly tight housing market.

"It (was) very stressful. It (was) very hard," he says of his itinerant lifestyle. "On my time off, my days off, I was just blowing off steam. That stress. If I had what I needed, a nice place and I had a bit of security, my decision making would've been better, for sure."

These days, Kiselius's main hope is to get Whistler's drug culture out from the shadows, even if that's an uncomfortable proposition for some. We all know drugs are being done anyway; in dark laneways off the Village Stroll, in dingy nightclub bathrooms — why not face it head on?

"It's all subculture," Kiselius says. "It's not brought into the main eye and no one wants to talk about it. But we have to now. We're losing people all over the place left and right, and it's time to talk about it."

In the midst of B.C.'s fentanyl crisis, Kiselius is a fervent proponent of the free, anonymous drug testing that is starting to spread to music festivals like Shambhala, where attendees can rest easy knowing what is actually in the drugs they're taking. It may sound farfetched, but it's a harm-reduction measure that Kiselius believes should also be adopted right here in Whistler.

"Stop hiding. Don't be afraid. What's worse than losing a young person in these horrible tragedies? Are people gonna stop coming here because some people do drugs here? No. They're gonna come here for skiing whether they come or not. We can't be judging lives for money. It's time to do something about it in a good way, in a positive way," he says.

with files from Braden Dupuis


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