Feature - The Russian Front 

A winter nation is discovering skiing through a Whistler company

One of the great laments of most people who have "discovered" Whistler in the last decade is that they weren’t in on things before the resort became huge. Since then, many people have gone east, to Sun Peaks, Rossland, Kicking Horse and Fernie to get in on a ski area before it gets too popular and too expensive.

But there’s a new area developing that may surpass them all. It’s just a little further east, in Russia.

Russia, land of Ladas, Cossacks and vodka, right? Say the word and the cliches and stereotypes of a cold war superpower trying to get up to speed in the 21st century ski world fill the imagination: a tractor with one tire removed powering a rope tow while portly apparatchiks dressed in drab, baggy clothing struggle to balance on 1950s era planks.

Nothing could be further from the truth – apart from the drab, baggy clothing that is in style everywhere – according to the head of a company that has designed ski areas in 25 countries around the world. Paul Mathews of Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, says he had the same visions in his mind prior to his first trip to Russia, six years ago.

"When I first went there I was quite scared, because of the propaganda I’ve received growing up in North America. I had a lot of trepidation," Mathews says.

"When I got there I was looking for mafia and military and bread lines and fat, ugly people, and what I found was quite… I was quite embarrassed by my perception of Russia and the reality of it. I really felt like an idiot.

"Why I would think a population of 150 million people wouldn’t have slim, fat, happy, sad... a whole range of people, I have no idea. It was childish and puerile for me to have ever had such a thing in my head."

It was Arthur Doppelmayr, of Doppelmayr Lifts, who introduced Mathews to the real Russia in 1998. Doppelmayr had been contacted by a group that was interested in creating a new ski area in a town called Trekgorny in the Ural Mountains, a four-hour flight east of Moscow.

"Trekgorny was one of those secret cities, a city of 50,000 scientists in the Ural Mountains that didn’t exist. It’s not on any maps or anything," says Mathews.

The Urals are the dividing line between Asia and Europe, a mountain range that Mathews says looks much like Quebec’s Laurentians and were formidable enough that Stalin moved much of the Soviet Union’s production of steel armaments, including tanks and howitzers, behind them when the Nazis were advancing toward Moscow during the Second World War. Following the war Trekgorny became an important centre in the Soviet Union’s cold war effort.

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