Few things are more European than Alpine skiing, which was developed in the Alps a century ago. But today, many of these old-style, resorts rich in tradition are being redesigned by a man from the New World.
Paul Mathews designs resorts that are kinder to the environment
Alpine skiing started in places like Davos, Kitzbühl, St. Anton, Zermatt and Cortina d'Ampezzo. They are all modern ski resorts today with strong links to their past. But several resort owners are looking for a man from Canada to redesign the slopes, to make them safer, more fun and more environmentally sensitive.
Paul Mathews may come from the other side of the Atlantic, but he knows the Alps as if he grew up among them.
"I know the Alps intimately, better than the locals actually," he said.
Out skiing during a bitter cold day in the Swiss resort of Laax, Mathews is in his element. There was a heavy snowfall during the night, but the sun has come out and skiing conditions are ideal. As he races down the mountain, he's analyzing conditions, the landscape and the layout of the slopes. He is one of the lucky few who has discovered how to perfectly mix business and pleasure.
New World expertise
He founded his company, Ecosign, 30 years ago and has drawn up the master plans for about 200 mountain resorts in about 25 different countries on five continents. In Europe, the focus has been on upgrading ski lift facilities and redesigning traditional mountain villages. In the late 1980s, the Swiss brought him to Europe, hoping to benefit from the expertise he put into the master plan for the renowned Canadian resort of Whistler.
At the beginning, there was some resentment, he said.
"I've had a lot of individual comments in particular from boards of directors who laughed and said, 'well, if you are going to do a golf course, we might think of you, but for skiing we don't need a Canadian.'"
They were soon convinced, however, of Mathews' skill. Instead of relying on the perceived wisdom of land-owning farmers in the region, who have had the final say regarding the design of Alpine ski resorts for decades, Mathews bases his recommendations on computer models.
His company uses computer analysis to determine solar exposure and avalanche risk, as well as to crunch statistics and numbers in order to come up with ways to make resorts as user and environmentally friendly as possible.
"I'm a manic for solving problems, like having the softest footprint on the environment possible and solving the little hassles in mountain resorts such as stairways, icy slopes, walking, parking lots, traffic jams," he said.
On this day, Mathews is skiing with René Hirzel of the Laax cable car company. They are skiing off piste in deep powder through the forest. Hirzel wants to get Mathews' opinion on his idea to open a new run here through the trees.
"He's everywhere, he's in Japan, he's in Canada, he's in the States and he's here in Europe," Hirzel said. "He also speaks with people like me and he gets his ideas."
Improving on tradition
One of Mathews' most well-known projects is the redesign of the Canadian resort Whistler. That design was inspired by a traditional Swiss mountain village, even though Mathews didn't just want to duplicate the original, he wanted to improve on it.
Swiss villages were around long before ski resorts opened up next door. That means the lifts are generally high above the village, which can cause headaches regarding access, transportation and parking.
"We integrated it with the ski areas, put in underground parking and we made a pedestrian area purposely built and connected it to the slopes," he said. "All my planning now in Europe is to get the lifts back into the center and get the cars out."
After the Laax consultations, Mathews is flying to the Pyrenees before heading to Lebanon to look at plans for a new mountain resort. Next on his schedule is a trip to Moscow for the announcement of a new billion-dollar ski resort in the Caucasus. Even though Mathews has put his stamp on a couple of Winter Olympic Games and alpine ski world championships, he said the Krasnaya Polyana project could be the most exciting yet.
Next skiing hot spot: the Caucasus ?
The potential for ski tourism in the Caucasus is great and despite the security situation in the region, planners are actively looking into developing parts of this unspoiled terrain and constructing a system of resorts. The mountains in the Caucasus cover a distance comparable to that between Nice and Vienna. The mountains are higher and receive more snow.
"I think the Caucasus will be a major center for skiing," said Mathews. "It's one of the last frontiers for resort development, with absolutely mind-boggling beautiful, mountain areas."
The project is supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, an avid skier, who once took Mathews helicopter-skiing to get a better impression of the area.
"At least I felt safe in the helicopters," he laughed. "You know land values have basically tripled and I would say these people see the potential."