The scouting trip was a surreal scene: Private jets, helicopters, senior Russian government ministers, armoured limousines, police escorts, guns everywhere. Drunken dinners, the vodka flowing, including one bash in an open forest, pigs roasting on spits.
It was Paul Mathews’ wildest assignment ever. A decade ago, the veteran mountain resort designer had been called to assess the potential of Russia’s North Caucasus mountains by oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
“I had my own bodyguard who was a knockoff of Arnold Schwarzenegger, called Sacha. It was like an acid trip,” Mr. Mathews recalls.
Ecosign presented a plan that envisioned as many as seven ski resorts in a region he believed could rival France’s famed Three Valleys. The area, just 40 kilometres from the Black Sea and the Russian beach resort of Sochi, is of the rare kind that leaves winter aficionados agog: “an amazing mountain range – tonnes of snow, almost too much sometimes,” Mr. Mathews says.
Control of the project eventually went to mining oligarch Vladimir Potanin, after internal Russian politics led Mr. Berezovsky to flee to exile in London. Russian officials then began to feel they had what they needed for a Winter Olympics bid, after failed attempts in the past.
The package was assembled in a rush in 2005, with Ecosign in charge of the outline of the mountain venue. Mr. Mathews’ presentation to Olympics officials was an important part of Russia’s win of the 2014 Games.
From an oligarch’s private jet a decade ago – and then a closer tour by helicopter – Mr. Mathews immediately spotted the potential of the mountains that are now home to the near-complete Rosa Khutor resort.
“I said,” remembers Mr. Mathews, “‘This is definitely the place.'”