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Weasel Workers work their magic

Local volunteers defend ski courses against foul weather

These Weasels wake from their warm beds in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed but ever ready to scurry to the slopes to push, haul and dig under falling snow and surrounded by thick fog.

They may look small compared to the alpine backdrop but their presence is vital. In fact, there likely would be no Winter Olympics up the highway without the Whistler Weasel Workers, many of which commute from Squamish to prepare the speed and technical tracks hours before the average morning alarm sounds.

The core group of about 250 workers has increased to 1,400 to run the venue's biggest event ever, which kicks off Saturday (Feb. 13) with the men's downhill and ends two weeks later with the men's slalom, before preparing all over again for the Paralympics.

The next few weeks will require long, cold hours on the mountain, but the friendships that are formed with fellow Weasels from all over the world make the work worth the effort, said local volunteer Peter Allan, who has been a Whistler Weasel Worker for two decades.

"It's all about the guys you work with. Everyone parks their ego at the door, and you could be working alongside a doctor or a banker or a truck driver, and everyone gets along famously. It's just a great crew," he said.

Allan has been working closely with Weasel president Patrick Maloney and chief of all volunteers Owen Carney to build the Weasel House, a 10,000-sq-ft tent in Creekside providing workers from all over the world a place to thaw their boots, wet their whistles and watch the Games on big screens between 4 and 7 p.m.

The Weasel House officially opened earlier this month as hundreds of volunteers began pouring into town. The sanctuary, which Allan said has a budget of about $300,000, is not a gift from VANOC but is rather funded by sponsors and fundraising initiatives like ski jacket sales.

The Whistler Weasel Workers are responsible for such tough work it's important to have a place to relax at the end of the day, said Allan.

"They can sit and relive the wars on the mountain," he said. "It's been a huge success."

For Carney, who was the chief of course at the Calgary Games in 1988, the event has grown in scale in all aspects from security to spectators. The tracks, however, are similar.

"The inside of the fence doesn't change much. The skis are better so now you've got more safety, but the track's the track," said Carney, whose son Mike was the top Canadian in the men's downhill in Calgary, placing 14th overall.

Carney was anticipating crews to be busy battling snowfall this week, but the main cause for concern so far has been poor visibility from thick fog, which led organizers to postpone training runs. Although the Whistler Weasel Workers don't have the power to clear the air, they'll be ready to work around the clock managing snow, said Carney.

"It will be interesting," he said. "But that's why we've got so many people."