The Man Who Built Sochi

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In 2007, before there was even a road to Rosa Khutor, the Russians hired Roger McCarthy (pictured) to turn their fantasy into reality. McCarthy had spent decades running places like Whistler, Vail, and Mont Tremblant, and consulting on the development of new ski areas. In Sochi, he endured a country with a limited ski culture and colorful ideas about things like workplace safety. He flew in sketchy helicopters and drove jeeps through thick forest, figuring out where to put trails, lifts, roads, and buildings that will be unveiled to the world next month.

Six years ago, Rosa Khutor was a barren mountain; now it’s hosting an Olympics. How did you pull this off?
The Russians threw money at it. There was a tiny four-chair ski area nearby, with lifts that were bought from an old ski resort in Yugoslavia and moved at 400 feet per minute. The new lifts run at 1,000 feet per minute. What they’ve accomplished is really impressive – they have that level of determination. Here was a place that had never held a ski race, and now they’ve got the Olympics. Most of them probably didn’t even understand the impact it was going to have. Next to the birth of my son, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been involved with.

What’s special about this mountain?
It’s big – 5,700 vertical feet. That’s 500 more than Whistler, nearly two times the vertical of Vail. I skied some of the amazing chutes right underneath the gondola – there is some really good terrain there. But it has big issues with avalanches, which they’ll have to control with explosives.

You had to scout locations for lifts, runs, buildings – was it tough work?
You’re in a Kamov helicopter, and there’s no door on it. There are seats, but there may not be belts. You’re in this machine just hanging on. I’d fly in, walk around, and figure out [where I wanted something], then put some stakes in the ground for the surveyors that come in.

What was the hardest part about building a world-class ski resort in Russia?
You’re working with people who know nothing about the business – the snow making, snow management, lift systems. And then there’s the culture. I’ve always worked with my door open. In Russia, your office door stays closed and locked. If someone wants to come into your office, you have a little button under your desk you push so they can come in. They’re very staid.

Sounds like this has the potential to be an unpredictable Winter Olympics.
Yeah, there’s a whole culture of politeness and respect that Russian culture is devoid of. There will be Russian guys who come to ski here during the Games with a hooker they’ve picked up in Sochi, who’ve bought themselves some skis and a jacket to show her what they can do – who will go to the top of the mountain, drink vodka until they collapse, then try to ski down. This mountain is also low and close to the coast, so they could have Vancouver-type problems with a lack of snow. But their downhills will be very extreme, and their demonstrations and fireworks will be over-the-top.