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

As Eric Callender thundered across a mountain plateau, high above Beirut, he made sure his snowmobile stayed right in the tracks of his Lebanese guide.

When you make your living as a ski resort mountain planner, there are many potential threats, including deadly avalanches.

But today, Callender wasn't worrying about being buried alive on the slopes of Mount Sannine.

The 37-year-old Whistler resident was more concerned he might be blown to kingdom come.

"The snowmobile guide explained we had to follow in single file behind him because there were tank mines on the top plateau of this mountain," Callender chuckled, in a recent interview. "He said the mines had been cleared but they hadn't, and there were these little posts with X's on them. They said these were tank mines and they only go off if there's something really big and heavy, with a lot of steel in it — and snowmobiles don't qualify."

Callender has spent 15 years travelling the globe to far-flung mountain ranges to scope out ski resorts for Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd.

Although it's easy to picture his job as part-James Bond, part-heli-skier, he says it's often far more mundane than that.

Like the time, while scouting for ski slopes in Kazakhstan, he had to ride to the mapping area on horseback, through waist-deep snowdrifts.

And rather than seeking the steep and deep powder, his job involves mapping out the blue, intermediate runs that are the bread and butter of ski resorts.

In summer, he'll lace up his hiking boots and scramble down mountain trails, watching for natural obstacles and visualizing ski trails, lift towers and lodges.

In winter, Callender's always aware of the danger of avalanches and always packs several sets of survival gear — shovels, probes and transceivers.

"In three different countries I've had my guides say, 'Oh, we don't need that, there's no avalanches here,'" he said. "I kind of look at them and say, 'What? The laws of gravity and physics don't apply in this country?'

"They'll usually tell me they've been there for many years and nobody's ever been killed in an avalanche, 'so don't worry, we know what we're doing.'"

For instance, on Callender's first trip to Kazakhstan his guide was a 45-year-old Russian ski mountaineer who tied a 10-metre-long, blue, nylon cord to his wrist for his avalanche beacon.

His Lebanese guides showed an equally blasé attitude when it came to avalanches.

In the mountains above Beirut, it can snow heavily, very much like on Mount Washington, he said.

"We were snowed in for three days and it snowed something like two metres," Callender recalled.

"We waited for a day to let the snow consolidate. Then we headed up, and around the corner there was a mountain where a pretty good Class 2 avalanche had happened the day before."


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