A Snowy Working Holiday of a Lifetime on the Canuck Slopes
I had bailed. And it was spectacular; two perfect cartwheels and a textbook landing. Now I lay spread-eagled, alone and swallowed whole by a foot-thick mound of freshly fallen snow. Somewhere in the whitewashed, powder-puking sky above me, I could hear a faint humming noise. ‘Could that be the sound of a search and rescue helicopter coming to find me?’ I thought. Even though I wasn’t hurt, I secretly hoped it was, in a way. Perhaps one of the rescue team was a keen photographer, and would be kind enough to capture this unforgettable moment for me with his Nikon Pro SLR Powershot 360, or something to that effect, before hauling me out of my icy tomb. Then I realized that I’d probably have to get into the helicopter afterwards. That couldn’t happen. Not today; a powder day. And the first that we had had all season in the sequestered and small-town ski-resort of Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. This was shaping up to be the best day of my life.
With this objectionable, albeit highly improbable scenario now a sudden possibility, I drew in a sharp breath and flung myself forward. I was off, nose pointing downward, once again weaving my way between snow-smothered pines and popping off pristine pillow-like rocks without the slightest of concerns- there was simply no cause for any with this much of the white stuff around to cushion my fall.
Moments later, I tumbled into my friend, Nick, who had just stopped to roll a ‘special’ cigarette with the intention of brooding over his being here as I had just been doing. I joined him.
Nick, unlike me, had wound up out west on a year-long university placement. For this I was exceedingly jealous of the guy, as he could feasibly return to Canada on a separate visa following his graduation. I, on the other hand, had already graduated, which meant that this was most likely going to be my one and only experience of ever having lived in the country, due to tighter visa regulations for non-student/graduate applicants. This, quite frankly, was a deeply upsetting thought. Canada, up until and especially including now, had been better than I had ever imagined. I liked snowboarding before, but now I was obsessed. And the best part? My job allowed me to hit the slopes almost every single day.
I was a ‘banquet server’, working mostly night shifts in The Fairmont Chateau Hotel, a vast, imposing edifice beside the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Louise herself. Picture that one in ‘The Shining’ and you have a pretty accurate fit (save the blood-flooded corridors and axe-yielding psychopath). Us banqueters, or ‘penguin patrol’, as the chefs cordially nicknamed us, were the undisputed droids of the near 500-strong hotel workforce. When we weren’t serving buffet lunches and face-screwing ‘Bloody Caesars’ to inebriated businessmen / wedding guests, we were being herded into other restaurants as ‘function help’, where we would often be barked at for not being able to carry more than three wrist-splintering plates of fat-spattering nachos, or not knowing table numbers or the correct pronunciation of, for instance, ‘boeuf à la Bourguignonne’. We were everywhere.
It paid well. Before I took the job, I had fretted endlessly over the prospect of earning just CDN$8.40 an hour (roughly £5.30), as was stated in my pre-contract. It was only the said promise of potentially trebling my income in fixed gratuities (roughly 17% of any bill) that cajoled me into thinking it wouldn’t matter. Thankfully, it didn’t. I earned enough to live comfortably, make monthly payments for my season lift-pass, take occasional trips to other resorts and even, if we’d had a busy month, have a little left over. At times, however, the number of shifts per week could dwindle to three or sometimes even two, due in principal to the recent impact of the global recession on the catering industry. But even then, we still scraped by. And it wasn’t like anyone was complaining – less work = more skiing and snowboarding!
Other jobs generally available to people on their gap year included restaurant server, housekeeper, adventure guide, kitchen hand, deli-assistant and changeable managerial roles.
I wouldn’t have found mine if it hadn’t been for BUNAC who practically did all the work for me. For an overall fee of about £339, BUNAC provide vital assistance in applying for the compulsory IEC Work Permit, potential employers’ email addresses, opportunities to attend face-to-face interviews in their London office and continued assistance – focusing on job-hunting, CV building and social security – throughout your stay in Canada.
The interview process for my gig at The Fairmont spanned two, lengthy telephone calls; the first an undisclosed ‘personality’ test, and the second a series of quick-fire questions related to the job in question. I applied and was interviewed for another serving position in Whistler, British Columbia, but turned down the subsequent offer owing to the lack of staff accommodation. One glance at the going rate for a privately rented four-bedroom flat and my decision was made. Some were in excess of CDN$750 a month.
The staff accommodation at The Fairmont was cheap – at just CDN$90 a fortnight with bills included – and cheerful. Very cheerful, actually. The place felt like student halls all over again, except this time, there was a potent mix of Brits, Aussies, Canadians and Kiwis – and nobody was studying. There was also a bar, a dining hall, at least one condo party a week and of course the inevitable security mêlées that followed. Three strikes and you were out! Though it rarely came to that. In fact, it was often the case that such vetoed shindigs, while frenzied and booze-fuelled in their short life-spans, ended quietly and promptly when broken up; we had to get up and go snowboarding in the morning. And if we were lucky, it would be, as the Canadians so eloquently put it, ‘shitting snow’, like it was today.
We ploughed on, this time a little slower than before, and emerged from the woods a few minutes later to find our snow-bearded buddy – grin stretched from ear to ear and looking a lot like an actual yeti – stood, waiting with his arms held aloft.
“F***ing awesome!” he yelled, in that radical Canadian accent of his.
“Extreme!” or “Gnarly as!” I felt like yelling back.
I didn’t. I may have been able to pull off the bright yellow headphones and ass-hanging, mocha-coloured snow pants, but not that.
He was right though. It really was fucking awesome.
Featured image supplied by Chris Gardiner
If you’re inspired to head to Canada on your gap year then make sure you head to our Canada country section for more advice and information.
Also, if you’d like to make that move a little more permanent then read Ben Allen’s article on ‘Moving to Canada’, a personally account of how it changed his life.
And don’t forget to jump on the Canada message boards to chat to some other gappers about your gap year!
About the Author: Josh Taylor
Josh first became fixated with travel after a one-month jaunt in Thailand in 2007. Since then, he has spent a year hurling himself down mountains in Canada, dragging himself up mountains in South America and more recently, galloped solo around the Adriatic and Dalmatian coastlines, where he befriended a cross-eyed gypsy and choked on a poisonous spider. Thankfully, he lived to tell the tale, and is now telling more tales via his blog, Spain For Pleasure, of his life as an inadvertent expat in Spain. He hopes to relay some of these here at gapyear.com.