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Whistler after dark

A bleary-eyed look at the life of Whistler's late-night worker bees


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It's five o'clock somewhere. That age-old saying is supposed to signify the appropriate time to crack a brew, put your feet up and enjoy the end of the workday. But for hundreds of employees around Whistler, when evening rolls around, it's time to rush off the mountain to get showered and shaved for another night of work. For them, five o'clock is wake-up time. It's game-face time. It's another night of serving the people who have been enjoying five o'clock the clichéd way.

To work overnights in this village is to live a different kind of lifestyle. Whether it's in bars, cabs or on the peaks above, there's a whole host of nocturnal activity going on in town while the rest of us snooze away. These are just some of their stories.

It's Whistler, after dark.

[Editor's note: In some cases, Pique agreed to withhold subjects' full names so they could speak candidly about their job.]

Raising the bar

The village's service industry is made up of a variety of people from different backgrounds; some have a true passion for what they do, others might come from another career or an academic background but wanted a job that would keep them close to the mountain.

But they all have one quality in droves, and that's patience.

"I always tried really hard to be as nice as I could to the customers all the time. It's in our company's values to treat people with respect. But there are some times when it is a little bit trying. It takes patience to work in this industry," says the FireRock's Chad Deabreu, who used to work late nights as a Buffalo Bills bartender.

In a loud, crowded, booze-fueled environment, you could forgive bar workers for slipping into the occasional bad mood. Yet the job calls out to the easy-going and the thick-skinned, those that won't take their frustrations home with them.

"Working at a club, I've realized how rude people are to doormen and barbacks. It's obviously not on purpose, but even simple things like waving your hands or snapping your fingers at the bartender to get their attention, that can piss them off. You don't realize it when you're drunk, but nobody likes having fingers in their face," says Abbey Williamson, a server at a village nightclub. "And if you work one busy night at coat check, you will never again ask someone, 'Can I have free coat check?'"

But of course, if you stay in the business long enough, every employee ends up having a story about that one problem customer.

"Last year at Martin Luther King weekend, I was working. I had to grab some cups or limes over the bar because I was serving a table," says Williamson. "I tapped someone on the shoulder, told them I worked here and that I wasn't butting them, I just needed to grab some things. Her reaction to that was to grab me by the back of the head and whip me to the ground. It happened so fast, and I'm just laying on the ground thinking, 'What just happened?'"

Unsurprisingly, that prickly individual didn't get to stay for the duration of the night.

These are rare cases though. Exceptions to the rule. For the most part, Williamson enjoys her job. Particularly on nights when customers are in a giving mood with their tips.

Relatively speaking, a bar job is low stress, and allows employees to stay a part of a vibrant, social atmosphere. And when you work at the place that's hosting the party, that can greatly cut down on the FOMO. You still get to see your friends who swing by, but instead of the night costing a fortune, you walk out ahead.

While getting off work is usually a relief, social responsibility can often require these late-night bar staff to lend patrons a hand before they can go home. On a few walks to his car at the end of the night, Peter, a local bar manager, has found people passed out in unsafe conditions. Sometimes he'll call their friends to pick them up, or provide them with a ride home himself, but there's never a reason to leave somebody behind.

"We're all here to have a good time, and I'd like to think someone else would look out for me if I was in that bad of shape," he says. "You just have to have their best interest in mind. It can be really tough, too, after a whole night of partying and people being rude to you; the last thing you might want to do is show compassion. But you have to be who you are. You won't last too long in this town if you're not."

Shortly after sharing that sentiment, a random passerby asks us if we have any pot.

"That's another thing: everyone asks you for drugs," Peter adds. "Every city slicker thinks the bartenders are coke dealers or weed dealers on the side."

Driving Mr. Lazy

In the same vein, a cab driver's responsibility doesn't end once the meter is off. Many times in his nearly 10 years of driving night cabs in Whistler, Robert Caterina has had to escort passengers out of the cold.

One fateful night, he drove an intoxicated passenger to their home in Alpine. The passenger was so disoriented, rather than climb the seemingly endless stairs to get to the front door of his house, he simply laid down in the snow. Caterina couldn't just leave the man there, so he helped him all the way to the top of the steps. There, the man realized he had left his phone all the way back in the cab, so Robert had to make the arduous climb all over again. Once he got back to the top, he found out the man had no keys to get inside, so he would have to try and wake up one of his roommates. Eventually, an older man finally came to the door, and explained, in no uncertain terms, that the drunk individual did not live there.

He lived next door. At a house with no stairs in front. A common mistake.

It's one of the reasons Caterina has adopted a strict policy in his taxi: passengers in rough shape never hitch a ride by themselves.

"My new rule I've had for the last couple years is, if you look like you're sick, I don't take you alone. If someone's really drunk, they have to be escorted by one their friends," he says.

"I don't even mind driving the other person back to the village for free. It's not a question of money. If they're really your friend and you really care about them, you should escort them home and get them in."

But as a colleague of Caterina's learned, people don't always do the right thing. He drove a trio back to Pemberton one night, even though one of the passengers was passed out. When they got there, the two who were still conscious said they had to go inside and grab some money, and decided to leave their passed-out friend as collateral. (Caterina says it's not uncommon to ask for collateral in these situations, to prevent runners, but typically it comes in the form of a cell phone.)

After 20 minutes, the duo still hadn't returned, so the driver roused the still-unconscious passenger from his alcohol-induced slumber. It turned out he didn't live in Pemberton and had no idea who the two men riding with him were. He had just fallen asleep near the village taxi loop and unwittingly became a free ride home.

Positive or negative, these are the kinds of interactions that bring a certain spark to Caterina's job. After initially feeling frustrated by some of his late-night clientele when he started out, he's learned that if you just bring a positive attitude to each fare, you can finish the night both richer in funds and stories.

"At the end of the day, I realized that the obnoxious people that used to irritate me, actually make the night pass quicker... You never know what's going to happen. It's a lot more hectic and chaotic, but I find that makes my job more interesting," he says.

In fact, he enjoys the people of Whistler so much, he's continued to work here even though he lives in Squamish and could easily find work there.

The Network

The resort workers who share odd hours tend to form bonds that stretch across industries. When you're among the few people awake and sober at the crack of dawn, it's easy to strike up a conversation with someone in a similar state.

Caterina instinctively knows which passengers have been out all night for business, not pleasure. It can make for a fun ride, as most of them have been interacting with the same kinds of people all night.

"Bouncers have the most interesting stories; a lot of time we deal with the same customers. They kick someone out of the club, and I'm the guy who has to drive them home. We kind of connect the dots of getting someone away from the village," he says.

With so few restaurants open late, Deabreu says the odds of running into fellow staffers from other bars and clubs looking for some post-work eats are extremely high.

"Fridays we'd go get Subway because we'd try and be healthy," he explains. "You'd see all the other night workers. The bouncers from Moe Joe's, the door guys from Garfs, all the people you know that are working in the industry, waiting patiently for these wasted people to finish ordering their subs so we can go home."

Since most of them wake up around the same time each morning, these night workers often hit the slopes together, or hike and play baseball in the summer months. Forming relationships with other late-night employees can also lead to some nice perks.

"The industry looks after the industry," Peter says. "There's a lot of good people in this town; sometimes I've been offered a discount because they'll know who I am (even if I don't know who they are). In a high-priced town, you can survive not making those huge figures by who you know and how you're connecting with the people in town."

For bars and restaurants, Peter says camaraderie runs beyond just the staff, too. Management is looking out for the best interests of other establishments, even if they operate under different ownership.

"Whistler's competition really complements each other. If one bar runs out of a certain spirit for a high roller, we'll help them out. We don't try and poach them," he says.

"We make sure the same unruly guest doesn't make it into their bar. If I notice someone's leaving my place and going to a rival bar, and they weren't party-friendly, we'll go tell them. It's not to ruin that person's night, it's to look out for the best interest of that pub."

Answering the call

For the on-call doctors and nurses of Whistler, a lot of things can prompt the dreaded phone ring that immediately spurs them from bed in the middle of the night. A woman could be going into labour early. A sudden bout of chest pains could trigger an emergency call. But on weekends, one of the most common causes of late-night clinical visits is a case of MYOB: Minding Your Own Business.

It's a joke among some in the local medical community, a result of the oft-used opening line from an intoxicated individual who now requires face stitches and a re-set nose: I was just minding my own business.

"They're so sorry to be calling us in," says one local doctor who wished to remain anonymous — mostly so readers don't call her up asking for impromptu diagnoses of their various ailments. "We come in all groggy-looking from the middle of our sleep, and they're drunk, they've been punched in the face and they go, 'I don't what happened, I was just walking by and somebody just...' Then slowly as they get to know that I'm not the police, the real story comes out. Then they're just really apologetic."

The Whistler Health Care Centre operates like that of any other small-town B.C. clinic, closing its doors at 10 p.m. But in a village that has a booming hospitality industry and a capacity for over 30,000 overnight visitors, the demand for medical services usually picks up on big bar nights. Where a weekday night in the down season may see only one case a night, on long weekends, triage may be necessary to sort through the bustle of activity.

"Some nights you may just get called in for one thing and then you go home. But sometimes you get called in for one thing, and then another one shows up, and another one, and you never get out of there, and you're exhausted. Then you might have to go home and be a parent the next day, or maybe you're working next day. That's a big deal for sure," says the doctor.

One doctor and nurse are on-call per night shift, with a backup pair available should things get really busy. Local lab and X-ray technicians can also be called in if necessary, but for the most part, it's just two workers who are primed to handle any number of potential scenarios. So it can be frustrating when their time is taken up by very preventable injuries.

"A lot of people are mad that they put a one-drink max on the mountain (at Whistler Blackcomb), but I don't think any of the people who are mad are doctors or nurses," the doctor says. "Doing an extreme sport high and drunk, your chances of injury have increased. People have to think about that stuff and they don't. So I'm glad somebody is."

Snow place like above

Not all paths cross on the night shift. While down in the village, most professions are interacting with one another, up on the mountain the snowmaking crews are on their own.

"Working night shifts for that long was such a weird and reclusive experience," says former Whistler Blackcomb snowmaker Matt Barker. "You're not going out and enjoying drinks with friends at the bar or going to a party. I've skipped over countless New Year's' and Christmases. It's all about a different experience when you're up on the mountain by yourself. There's very few people that know what its like to get up at 10 p.m. when everyone is going to bed."

While that experience may sound odd for some, for Barker, the job had its benefits. While he no longer works the night shift, he still finds himself thinking about the serene calm of the overnight wilderness, even now. There are few places where you can enjoy such an unencumbered view of the night sky, or watch the sun come up in the morning.

"I miss it now. I've watched New Year's fireworks from above looking down, as opposed to looking up. There's been so many nights when you get a high-pressure system and the clouds are all compressed into the valley so it looks like you're standing on an island up there. And starry nights up there are just crazy."

The snowmaking crews aren't just standing around and gawking all night though. Barker was constantly on the go, powering snowmobiles through thick powder, inspecting each sprinkler to make sure they weren't freezing up or blowing snow into a chairlift. When daybreak hit and the mountain opened up, he switched off to his snowboard and would ride around to each snow gun, shutting them off when the weather got too warm.

An opportunity to ride was the big reason he took the job in the first place. But other perks of the job soon emerged. Going to work at 11:30 p.m. effectively removed him from the rat race; there was never any traffic along Highway 99 on the way to and from the mountain.

It did make socializing with those outside of his line of work difficult, however. Not only was he unavailable most nights, but even on off days, going to sleep at two in the afternoon was a tough schedule to break out of.

That meant most of his time was spent with the tightknit crew of snowmakers, who would often stop by Citta's (RIP) for a pint before heading home. But while the crew hung out regularly, there was a lot of turnover each winter, partly because of the job's unorthodox schedule.

For those that may seek out these odd hours, it's nice to know not all night jobs require constant interaction with the intoxicated. Some just offer views that are intoxicating.

The Fog of Work

No matter the line of work, there's one common drawback to working nights; getting the recommended seven hours of sleep comes at a cost. Taking advantage of all Whistler has to offer requires daylight, which means you're either missing skis or missing Zs.

"When I started working there, I thought it would give me the freedom to snowboard every day. In reality that didn't end up happening," says Deabreu

Finishing up at 3 a.m., it wasn't like Debreu would immediately go home and fall asleep. After grabbing a late-night bite and winding down from the high-energy job, he and his roommate, also a bartender, wouldn't end up going to sleep until five. Despite making plans to wake up early, sleeping until noon would often win out — unless, of course, there was an epic pow day in the forecast.

For others, the call to get out of bed is even stronger than a great day of skiing; it's the call of responsibility. Many, like Williamson, are juggling jobs that see them work both days and nights, so sleep comes in small doses.

Harrison Douglass is a photographer, snapping pictures for dogsledding tours by day, and for local clubs by night. That demanding a schedule can do quite the number on you if you aren't properly prepared, he says.

"For me, the biggest thing it to stay organized. If I have to get three hours of sleep and go to work the next day, if I can't find my pants in the morning, then the whole day goes wrong. I've gotta have my coffee made and my clothes ready to go," says Douglass. "It's too hard to organize stuff when you're tired, so you just have to do it when you can."

Most describe spending the daylight hours wandering around in a fog. Zombies, sustained by caffeine and adrenaline. Even the on-call doctor isn't all that well-rested on nights the phone doesn't ring.

"You sleep different when you know you have to answer a phone if it rings," she says. "When you got to bed anxious, you've just reviewed all resuscitation info, and you're climbing into bed too early. You're lying there with your eyes closed, but your brain is fully thinking, 'Please don't ring.' That's not really the same kind of sleep."

Diet can be another area where night workers suffer. If you aren't organized with groceries and meal-prep like Douglass suggests, then your only option for late-night meals is of the fast-food variety. It's nice once and a while, but four times a week can start to add up around the waistline.

Beyond patience, tolerance, and an ability to sleep while roommates and partners are up and about, there's no one trait that connects all night workers. They're a diverse group. Caterina would like to keep working nights well into the future. Others can't see themselves doing it for much longer. A few have already left the game.

One thing almost all of them mentioned though, was how they do not care for people who wander near the roads at night without reflective gear or flashlights. And since it appears we don't always make their nights, maybe we could at least make their commute a little easier.