Resorting to the Slopes

By Boaz Joseph - Surrey North Delta Leader

Give her the facts and figures – topographical contours, roads, rivers, lakes, tree lines, proposed building footprints, parking lots and lifts and perhaps a few photos – and she’ll give you an amazingly detailed animated fly-over above your proposed winter resort.

It’s a job Willis has held for 20 years – contributing her numerical, computer and artistic interpretation skills at Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.

“I make realistic models of the mountains and the images and animations are almost life-like.”

The company has designed more than 350 winter resort developments and several Olympic venues in 32 countries since 1975.

Ecosign designed the layout of the recently opened Peak 2 Peak Gondola (a 4.4-km link between Blackcomb Mountain’s Rendezvous Restaurant and the Roundhouse Restaurant on Whistler Mountain) and was the master planning company of the Nordic Centre in Callaghan Country.

That centre will be the main venue of the 2010 Winter Olympics’ biathlon, ski jumping, nordic combined and cross-country skiing events.

Willis’ artistic contributions to a recent Sun Peaks Resort project also paid off in an unexpected way.

“There’s a trail named after me,” she says.

She was initially hired in 1989 as a secretary by a boss who recognized her potential and respected her BSc in Forestry.

She got a promotion within months and after seven years was trusted enough to work from home, building 3-D computer models and completing analyses of tricky terrain in which the Whistler-based company’s clients were interested.

Surrounded by several computers and binders full of maps, drawings and pictures in her tidy Panorama Ridge home office, Willis explains some of the data needed to produce her 3-D pictures and animations.

Apart from the topography (the raw physical features), climate, and projected human activity in an area under inspection, there is solar analysis to determine how much snow a mountain will retain, and aspect analysis, which is a slope’s position relative to north.

The aspect ratio is important in designing the location of ski lifts, since skiers have a tendency to prefer southeast-facing slopes in the morning (to warm up in the sun) but prefer shadowy areas in the afternoons where the snow stays relatively cool and compact.

Solar analysis led Willis’ team to reconfigure the position of Blackcomb’s Glacier Creek Lodge by just a few degrees to make the sun deck more attractive to visitors.

Complicated stuff.

More complicated than Trekhgorny/Mt. Zavjalikha (Chelyabinsk Region, Russia), Alberschwende, Volarlberg (Austria), Hemsedal, Buskerud Filke (Norway) and the names of dozens of other resorts she’s helped her company plan.

“When I started, I didn’t think that there were that many ski resorts,” she says. “I didn’t even know people designed ski resorts (in this way).”

She’s visited a few of the resorts she’s worked on – notably while making hands-on surveys of some B.C. slopes.

In 2001, she got a chance to see the region of Krasnaya Polyana near the Black Sea.

A few months prior, company
president and chief planner Paul Mathews was surveying the area for the Russian government, which was looking to upgrade some low-grade ski resorts in the area.

A chance fly-over off the intended route led to Mathews’ discovery of the site that would be chosen as the outdoor hub of the 2014 Winter Olympics that was awarded in 2007 to the nearby city of Sochi.

Willis was sent to make surveys of potential ski runs, and got a chance to slalom through a virgin forest of beech trees.

“That was a bonus – heli-skiing from a Russian military helicopter.”

For more information and to see some of Chris Willis’ 3-D animations, visit