Opinion » Alta States

Yohann Sheetz — going the extra distance


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"Enthusiasm is the energy and force that builds literal momentum of the human soul and mind."

- Bryan McGill

It's not like he didn't like skiing. It's just, well, it's just that there was too much going on for him to handle all the stimuli with his impaired vision.

"I was always a little scared of skiing," admits Underground Tuning's Yohann Sheetz. "Because of my eyes, you know, I didn't always feel in full control." He laughs. "I'm not the most coordinated person..." A long pause. He laughs again. "And ski boots...man, they really turned me off."

But skiing was the only way to snowplay in the early 1980s. So the young Quebecois just kept at it. "I suffer from ocular albinism," he explains. "It's like being an albino — but in the eyes not the skin. I grew up like a normal child and everything, it's just that my eyes are extremely sensitive to light — they have a really slow shutter speed." He sighs. Shrugs. "Which means I have a lot of trouble adjusting to sudden changes in brightness... stuff like that."

For some reason, though, snowboarding was different. "I got my first snowboard on Christmas Day 1984," he says proudly. "And I felt way more comfortable on that board than I ever had on skis." Unfortunately, snowboarding wasn't legal on the local hills yet. No matter — the young enthusiast had a solution for that too. "I rode my board behind my grandfather's Skidoo. That was very cool." He stops. Laughs again. "You see? I was backcountry snowboarding before the sport was even invented!"

The seven-year-old was obviously hooked. "Snowboarding was a WAY safer sport for me," he says. "It was easier — simpler. So when [Quebec City's] Stoneham finally allowed riders on their lifts in 1989 — that's where I went with my friends..."

The snow-surf boom hit hard in Eastern Quebec. And Yohann's buddies were soon all competing for local fame and fortune. "I tried the comp route too," he says. Laughs again. "But my eyes just weren't good enough. I quickly realized it was better for me to work around the event rather than trying to compete at it." Inspired by Mont Ste Anne's early World Cup events — where the zany après-snow parties were often bigger than the races — the young entrepreneur-wannabe started organizing his own ride-and-music extravaganzas. "I was into punk rock in those days," he tells me. "And we put on some serious parties in and around Quebec City during those years. We had a lot of fun..."

But things were changing fast. Many of his riding pals were turning pro.... And one by one they were all moving to Whistler. Yohann knew why. "My parents broke up when I was young," he explains. "And my mom remarried and moved to Chilliwack. So in 1992, I moved to B.C. for the summer." His reaction? "I was blown away," he admits. 'Wow,' I said to myself, 'I'm moving here as soon as I'm on my own!'"

After graduating from high school in 1996, Yohann announced to his family that he was moving to Whistler "just for a year," he says. And laughs. "I already knew it was a lie. I already knew I wasn't coming back. But. I just couldn't admit it publicly yet..."

Remember what Whistler was like in the late 1990s? It was madness. Rents were sky high, people were paying exorbitant prices to stay in closets and crawl spaces... and everybody was partying like there was no tomorrow!

Yohann showed up in the summer of '97. "We applied for work everywhere in Whistler, but people told us we had to have a place to stay before they would give us a job." He sighs. "But there was absolutely nowhere to stay." What to do? What to do? In classic Whistler ski-bum style, Yohann soon found a solution. "We restored an old squatter's shack out by Fitzsimmons Creek," he says, "And planned to camp there until winter." More laughter. "But on October 1st, we woke up to two feet of snow on the ground. That's when we decided to find a real place to stay."

What they found wasn't a huge improvement on their squat. "I think it was the oldest cabin in Alta Vista," he says. "Pretty basic place — virtually no amenities — the fireplace was our only source of heat." He shrugs. "It doesn't exist anymore."

But at least they had an official place to live. Now, they could at least apply for legitimate work. Easier said than done, says Yohann. "I applied everywhere — all over town. But nothing. Finally I had one résumé left and I decided to drop it off at the only place I hadn't applied yet — the Listel Hotel."

Yohann smiles. "The manager at the Listel looked at me and said: 'Do you want to work today? If so, you can be our ski valet.' And I said 'I'm your man.'" He stops. Smiles happily. "And I started work that very afternoon."

Of course, the young newcomer had a lot to learn. "I remember the hotel maintenance guy found an empty tin container, shoved a few bucks in it and then showed me where to put it so it would be conveniently visible to my clients." He laughs again. "Wasn't long before I was making 150 bucks a day in tips!"

But it was obvious too that the young Quebecois was doing more than simply taking care of the guests' skis. You see, Yohann clearly understood what "high-touch" was all about. Whatever his clients needed — or wanted — the young valet would deliver.

"A funny thing happened to me soon after I arrived in Whistler," explains Yohann. "I was stopped on the hill one day by a member of the Speed Police. I didn't think I'd done anything wrong, but the guy who stopped me explained that I had scared a beginner by riding too close to him. 'And if you scare a beginner,' he said, 'chances are he won't come back. And that hurts all of us. Instead, you should be helping people like him to fall in love with skiing! Our future depends on it.'" Yohann is quiet for a breath. Then he goes on. "What he said really stuck with me, you know. I decided from that moment on, that I would always interact in that way with my clients." Another pause. "And I've never wavered on that point."

Which explains why he did what he did a few weeks later when a guest approached him with a singular request. "He asked me if I knew how to wax skis. And if so, would I be interested in waxing his family's boards? Well, my dad had taught me how to work on my own skis years ago, so I told the guest I'd be happy to do it."

Although Yohann didn't know it at the time, his affirmative response was about to open a whole new world of possibilities for the young go-getter. "That was, literally, the start of my tuning business," he tells me. "For the next year, 1998, I approached the general manager at the Listel and asked him if it would be okay if I started an old school hand-tuning and waxing service for his guests. He was totally enthusiastic about the idea. He told me: 'Since my guests are talking so highly about the fantastic standard of service you offer on a friendly basis, let's get started tomorrow! I will back you up.'"

That arrangement remained in place until 2010. And his business — the eponymously titled Underground Tuning (it was actually located in the hotel's underground parking) — thrived. But hand-tuning guests' skis wasn't the only thing keeping Sheetz busy. "All my pro snowboard friends were living in Whistler now," he explains. "And I quickly realized that if I invested a little money in some cameras and film, I could still ride with them — and provide them with a much-needed service too." So that's what he did. "I worked a lot with (former Canadian Team standout) Guillaume Brochu and other freerider friends," he continues. "My job was to produce freelance footage for the guys — stuff that they could use to promote their sponsors' gear and such." He laughs. "I gave a lot more than I ever received back," he admits. "But I really believed in what I was doing. So that was okay."

Doing business in Whistler is never a straight-line thing. And Yohann suffered the slings and arrows of resort zoning issues and hotel management changes and difficult working conditions while trying to grow his client base. For a while he even worked out of his own garage. But all that strife, he says, is now behind him. "In the summer of 2011, I got a call from an old friend. It was Mr. Tony Medd, now the GM of the Summit Lodge. Mr. Medd, a former employee of the Listel Hotel, knew I was looking for a new space for my business. 'Come and see me at the Summit Hotel,' he told me. 'I have an amazing location for you. And I want you on my team.'"

Sounded interesting. For sure. But Yohann wanted assurances that he could eventually develop a fully-licensed commercial business at the hotel. Medd's response was promising. "He said to me: 'Let's do a year trial with you as valet and we will see if the owner of the Summit Lodge likes it and if you like it." Yohann's smile slowly spreads across his face. "Well," he says, "everything last year worked out as planned. I now have a long-term deal to develop a first class shop at the Summit Lodge."

Couldn't happen to a more enthusiastic Whistlerite...


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