Had it not been for some homegrown Whistler expertise, Russia’s Olympic Games may not be taking place in Sochi this month; in fact, they may not be taking place in Russia at all.
As it turns out, Whistler’s experience and its know-how are all over the 2014 alpine venue of the Olympics, soon to be beamed across the world when the Games kick off on Friday (Feb. 7).
It began with a fateful helicopter ride over the vast and forested Caucasus Mountains — it was a flight that changed the course of Olympic history. Picture the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Banff and 93,000 square kilometres of majestic snow-capped peaks in between.
That’s when Whistlerite Paul Mathews’ eagle eye, an eye that has spied potential resort sites in 38 different countries to date, zeroed in on the Mzymta River Valley.
“Finding the site in the Caucasus was probably the biggest feather in my hat,” said Mathews, president of Whistler-based Ecosign, one of the most respected resort planning companies in the world.
Mathews’ assignment for the Russian federal government began in 2000 with a goal of developing tourism in the Caucasus to help address soaring unemployment rates, with a hoped-for offshoot that new jobs and money could quell some of the terrorism plaguing the region.
The answer was staring Mathews in the face from 4,000 feet in the air.
And so Ecosign began its work.
In that Mzymta River Valley, Mathews’ team found seven areas that could handle about 93,000 skiers per day. To give some perspective of the scope, and using the same yardstick, Whistler Blackcomb can handle 44,000 skiers per day — at build out. On some of its busiest days right now, WB sees 25,000.
“This is really monumental, large tourism potential of viable ski terrain,” said Mathews.
The real work zeroed in at Rosa Khutor with Ecosign at the drawing board, creating the master plan. Rosa Khutor means “Rosa’s Hut” or “Rosa’s Homestead.”
There was little else on that mountain save that wooden hut. But there were some slow two-seater ski lifts on the neighbouring mountain and a village, Krasnaya Polyana, at the base. There was single-phase electricity, enough to power light bulbs. A dirt road to the mountains.
But perhaps most importantly, the coastal city of Sochi was nearby with 40,000 hotel rooms, generally empty in the winter with a good airport.
“We first designed it as a commercial ski area,” said Mathews, of the time between 2003-2005.
The budget to build the Rosa Khutor ski area was $165 million, backed by the fourth richest man in Russia, Vladimir Potanin.
“That would have handled about 5,000 to 6,000 skiers (per day),” said Mathews, bigger than Revelstoke and Kicking Horse.
Then in 2005, Mathews was paid another $40,000 to come up with a concept that would see Rosa Khutor as the snow cluster venues for a bid for the 2014 Olympic Games. Back on the coast, the city of Adler, just 30 kilometres from Sochi, would host the ice cluster venues.
In July 2007, Russia won the bid — with Rosa Khotur as the alpine venue, a ski area just seeing its first ever lifts installed, never mind the fact that it had never hosted a sanctioned race.
Asked why Russia won the bid, Mathews said: “It was a good plan, let’s put it that way.”
Around that time, resort consultant Roger McCarthy started working for Potanin, on the ground managing the development of this new ski resort. McCarthy was lured there from his job as co-president at Vail Resorts, enticed by the chance to build a resort from scratch.
“Why the hell would I want to leave (Vail)?” said McCarthy. “Because I’d never built one from the ground up.”
This was his chance not to live with other people’s mistakes — mistakes he’d seen at Whistler, at Tremblant, at Vail, and get it right from the get-go. And the Russians, he said, didn’t have a clue.
From the big picture issues such as avoiding avalanche routes, to the smaller nitty-gritty details, like buying overpriced snow cats and training slide slippers for the course during Games-time, McCarthy was at the helm of it all.
Unlike Mathews, however, he was living full time in Moscow, frequently commuting to Sochi. He quickly became disillusioned.
“Do you ever feel safe?” he said. “No. Not even when you’re asleep.”
He was disturbed too by what he calls the “staggering polarity of wealth.”
He was ready to leave after a year and a half.
“Even just talking about it gives me the shivers,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy’s voice trails off as he flicks through pictures on his computer, remembering Russia and his part in making its Olympic dream come true.
“It has every chance of being a raging success,” he mused.
“But… the “but” is pretty big.
“I think it could be absolutely incredible. I think it could be absolutely terrible. And, maybe, somewhere in between.”
McCarthy would love to go back to ski it, after the Games.
For Mathews, there will be a certain pride to see his master plan of Rosa Khutor in full swing for the 2014 Olympics. There are three gondolas, four chairlifts, and a terrain park. Ecosign also did the layout of Krasnya Polyana, transforming it from a small village to a resort base.
This is Ecosign’s fifth Olympics — Calgary ’88, Salt Lake City ’02, Whistler ’10, Sochi ’14, and currently Pyeongchang, South Korea ’18.
He sees the Games, and the $51 billion poured into pulling them off, as the kick-start to Russia’s winter sports tourism.
The true test will be what happens after the Games, when Russia wants to realize its goal of repatriating about half of its skiing industry, pegged at $4 billion; that’s Russian money being spent on the European slopes.
Mathews is hoping that the Europeans will head to Rosa Khutor too, the next exotic new ski location. Incidentally, he added, the electricity to power the ski hill just came on line in late 2013; until then, everything was run on the backup diesel generators.
“I’m hopeful that it works,” said Mathews candidly. “Of the 400 projects we’ve done, 82 per cent have been built and they’re working in the black. I’m really hopeful that our expertise, brought to bear by people who paid us well, that we made a good call and it’s going to be popular.”