From vision to reality 

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

  • Photo by Tom Bear for the wall street journal, courtesy of ecosign
  • Paul Mathews

Page 4 of 10

"Sometimes governments will go bananas on you and say you have to follow what they ask," said Mathews. "But since we went and found good areas first and then informed the client we had broadened the study area, they seem to have taken it in good stride."

Ecosign is no stranger to this type of work.

A couple of years ago, the company did a similar project in Norway, which was using North Sea oil royalties to develop resorts.

"We studied the whole of Norway," says Mathews. "They have a lot of resorts but they're designed for Norwegians, so they have T-bars with 100 cabins. We went up and looked at the whole country and told them what were the key target areas."

The very first search of that kind done by Ecosign was in 1980 for the late-Premier Peter Lougheed, when the Alberta government was planning for the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

"He gave us 22,000-square-kilometres from the U.S. border up to Lake Louise," grinned Mathews. "And, shit, I flew 175 hours in a Bell Jet Ranger on that project back in the early '80s. We did snow coverage and satellite snow coverage and looked at satellite imagery, topographic maps."

The key to good skiing is slope gradient, he said.

"The funny thing about ski terrain is that God didn't make as much of it as you would think," he added. "So many mountains are too steep and then, of course, you can be too flat. So you're looking for the missing porridge that's just right for the three bears."

From a helicopter, good ski terrain can look quite gentle until you get down close to it.

"After you get some years of experience, you get to be able to spot it with the naked eye fairly well.

"I don't know how many people in the world have that special talent but I guess, after 38 years, I've probably had 750 to 800 helicopter hours now."

The original Alberta plan called for Olympic skiing to take place in three different areas with a race on each mountain.

"It was the most inefficient design you could have and it would penetrate deep into Kanaskis Country that's still very undeveloped," said Mathews.

Ecosign combed the 22,000-square-kilometres and came up with 17 starters before narrowing the field down to seven or eight.

"I went and landed on the top and hiked down each one of them," he said. "Then we started doing rough plans of what they would all look like. We were having meetings about every week to 10 days with the Alberta cabinet in Edmonton and reporting our findings."


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