Canadian Expert Trusted With Zermatt’s Future

Snow Stories (4) These resorts where our winter vacations are played out

“Most ski resort managers are hotel owners, entrepreneurs or lawyers with vested interests in the resort. I offer a neutral, outside look at things.” This December day under the radiant skies of Zermatt, Paul Mathews is in ski attire, taking advantage of the afternoon to have a few runs before returning to Canada. Mingling with the officials and journalists assembled for the inauguration of the Matterhorn-Express, his presence is discreet. Although his name is not mentioned during the press conference, for him this day is the culmination of a five-year process. The revamping of the Lac noir and the glacier above it has been done according to his recommendations. Paul Mathews is a ski resort planner by profession.

A Canadian specialist telling Valaisans what to do! Not an easy task… the local authorities recall the adverse reactions and jokes that abounded following their decision to hire Ecosign. Comments such as “Our guides are the farmers, they know when the sun rises” were heard throughout the village.

Matterhorn Bahnen hired Paul Mathews in 1997 before the three Zermatt lift companies merged. The company was at an impasse because of opposition to its very costly “funétel” project. Ecosign was mandated to prepare a master plan on which to base development for the next 20 years.

Since his first visit to Zermatt some five years ago, Paul Mathews has seen history speed up. Initial rivalries were overcome. Under pressure due to financial difficulties, the resort of Zermatt refused to sell off its patrimony. In the end, a merger of the lift companies provided the necessary impetus for a fresh start.

Last week’s opening of the new Matterhorn-Express is a first step. Le resort plans to invest 125 million francs over a five-year period. The new 8-passenger gondola takes only twelve minutes to whisk 2,800 passengers an hour to the Lac noir and eliminates the nightmarish bottleneck at Furi, which made the resort less attractive. According to the work calendar established by the master plan, both the Hörnli and Trockenersteg-Furggsattel lifts are scheduled for replacement by the 2003-2004 season.

Paul Mathews has always been surrounded by mountains and snow. Born in the U.S., he grew up in Colorado. His parented founded the ski club in Breckenridge, a town which has since become a major resort. Studied at University of Seattle, in 1975 founded Ecosign – blend of ecology and design-. “A child of the green movement, concerned by errors committed by certain resorts, I wanted to reconcile development with respect for nature.” Ecosign’s master plans, which cost about 100,000 francs, are based on a central computer model that takes into consideration slope angle, geology, flora and fauna.

Athough this green business card has its limits-the WWF and Pro Natura opposition in Zermatt has not been disarmed-it has gained Paul Mathews and his 20 employees a world audience. He is most proud of his achievements at the Canadian resort of Whistler, 120 km from his home city of Vancouver and the Olympic venues for the winter games in Calgary (1998). In Europe, Ecosign has been involved in projects from the Sierra Nevada to the Tyrol and even the Caucasus.

Paul Mathews readily admits that Zermatt is not his favourite ski resort. But it does have that unique piece of rock and he is justifiably proud to add Zermatt to his curriculum vitae. “There are only three mountains in the world that everyone recognizes…Mount Everest, because it is the highest; Mount Fuji and the Matterhorn, because of their shapes. Mount Fuji is woman and the Matterhorn is man.”