From vision to reality 

At the peak of their profession, Whistler's Ecosign designs the world's snowy playgrounds

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY TOM BEAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, COURTESY OF ECOSIGN - Paul Mathews
  • Photo by Tom Bear for the wall street journal, courtesy of ecosign
  • Paul Mathews
 
 

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While his clothing may have appeared casual, there was a flinty resolve in his manner, when it came to describing his company and his passion for designing super-efficient ski resorts.

Mathews had recently returned from an energy-sapping trip to Kazakhstan.

"It's a long bloody way — 18,000 kilometres each way and that's just Almaty," he grinned. "Then I had to go up to Astana, just to add a couple more thousand."

He opened a large world atlas on the boardroom table to show exactly where Ecosign is working in Central Asia.

The butt of jokes in the spoof movie Borat, Kazakhstan may seem remote from Canada, but its government aims to attract ski tourists from the huge markets of Russia and China.

"There's a lot going on in the former Soviet Union," said Mathews, who has also done work in Georgia and Turkmenistan. "In Kazakhstan, they have oil and gas wealth and they're putting seven per cent of their royalties aside for future industries and tourism is one of them."

Ecosign is working on two projects there.

"The government wants us to study the whole mountain region near Almaty and see if there's some potential resorts for the future," said Mathews. "Then there's a second project called Kok-Jailau (Green Valley) that we won a public tender to design. It's right on the city's edge."

So just how do you go about finding good ski terrain in a place like Kazakhstan?

Mathews said his company starts with Google Earth and satellite imagery and then sources old Soviet military maps.

"It's funny that man-made features aren't on the maps so accurately — things like bridges, highways and powerlines," he chuckled. "It was the old Soviet way of leading people off track. But we go in with hand-held GPS and go click where the bridges are."

Ecosign, which has a staff of 15, begins each project by finding the best available contour maps and colour-coding them, based on the steepness of the terrain.

Then they go out in the field armed with topographical maps, compasses and GPS devices to climb or ski down mountainsides, marking reference points, boundaries and working out where obstacles may lie.

Back in the office, planners and designers use tracing paper to pencil in things like lifts, trails and base areas. They also use sophisticated, 3-D computer modelling and two programs they've developed called Terrain Capacity Analysis and Base Land Suitability Analysis.

The Kazakhstan government originally asked Ecosign to look for suitable ski terrain in a 30-kilometre radius of Almaty.

"But that wasn't very intelligent, because half of the radius would be out on the steppe, where there are no mountains," said Mathews.

Instead, Ecosign pushed the zone east and west, into a 2,108-square-kilometre rectangle, and found good potential at either end, well outside the original terms of reference.

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