After two years, ski industry finally has white Christmas

The ski industry, like a marionette, lunges in the direction Mother Nature tugs its. This year she has been benevolent. Bountiful snowfalls from California to Maine are bringing out skiers at some resorts in droves.

Still trying to shrug off memories of lean lift lines and stubble-covered ski slopes, the estimated $2.5 billion-dollar-a-year industry is jumping off to one of its best starts in several years.

Many of the nation's 7 million active skiers seem to be taking a recreational time out from economic woes. Their return to the slopes could help some states and communities ease the sting of a deepening recession.

Here in Vermont, where more than 5,000 jobs hinge on the ski industry, five feet of snow has fallen over parts of the pastoral state so far this year. At Killington, one of New England's biggest resorts, the ski condition report tacked on the outside of the lodge over the weekend said simply, ''Best December skiing in years.''

Gordon Wasley had no argument with that. The Boston-area resident, wearing a Russian-looking fur hat, paused after a day's skiing. ''It's been fabulous this weekend,'' she said, squinting up at the mountain. ''This is the first time they have had that much snow in four or five years.''

Reed Austin, icicles forming on his broomlike mustache, concurred. ''There's probably more snow on the mountain now than all of last year,'' he said, sculpting breathy ghosts as he spoke.

Still, the real test for the Sherburne Corporation, owners of Killington, and the rest of the nation's 700 ski operators will come between Christmas and New Year's. This is the brief period when many ski resorts attract one-third of their volume.

If the weather holds, it could be a good holiday season for many operators. Heavy snows plus a pent-up desire to hit the slopes after a two-year hiatus are pushing a good number of skiers back to the hills in some areas. Other resorts are reporting good snow conditions but few skiers. Early snowfalls helped California's Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, a popular ski resort seven hours from Los Angeles. It opened in October for the first time in seven years. Some 10,000 skiers a day plunged down the resort's slopes over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend - a record.

Colorado's Copper Mountain ski area started the lifts running Nov. 4, the earliest ever, and has again been socked by heavy snows in the past week. The resort, 75 miles west of Denver, is expecting a record-breaking season of more than 650,000 skiers.

Indian Head Mountain in upper Michigan has been covered with more than three feet of snow so far this year. ''It's been coming down like buckets - and it's still coming down,'' says the resort's Julie Nikolai.

In the east, skiing got off to a slow start but has since snowballed somewhat. Mt. Stowe, Vt., tallied a record Thanksgiving holiday weekend, with some 14,000 skiers. The mountain at Waterville Valley, N.H., was in full operation by mid-December - ''something we haven't done in several years,'' says Robert Foster, marketing director of Waterville Company Inc., operators of the ski resort.

This year's good tidings come on the heels of at least two bad winters for many operators. Last year it was the West that struggled through a nearly snowless season. The year before it was the East. In fact, stung by temperatures that vacillated between tundra and shirt-sleeve weather, many resorts in New England that year were forced to ask the federal government for disaster assistance.

The fickle attitude of Mother Nature has bedeviled skiers and ski operators ever since a wily Dartmouth University student built the first rope tow at the ''Suicide 6'' slope in Woodstock, Vt., 47 years ago. But in recent years resorts have been scrambling to install more ''weatherproofing,'' in the form of artificial snowmaking equipment. The industry spent $40 million on new snow machines last year alone. Ski operators in Colorado and other Western states, traditionally thought to be more immune from snowless seasons, spent most of the money.

The enthusiasm of skiers returning to the slopes is helping out some retailers, too. Generally, during a recession, skiers will continue skiing but hold off buying new boots or bindings. Anticipating this, plus coming off two lackluster years, sporting goods stores cut back inventories this year. But many are quickly reordering in the face of brisk sales.

Hoigaards Inc., a big sporting goods and furniture store in suburban Minneapolis, moved much of its old stock at a big sale earlier this year. And in recent weeks, cross-country skis have been selling like copies of Bing Crosby's ''White Christmas.''

''We're quite pleased,'' says Glenn Pfaff, vice-president of Hoigaards. ''Cross-country sales have been exceptionally good.''

Overall, analysts predict, retail ski sales could pierce the $1 billion barrier this year - a mark the industry has been shooting at.

Still, the ski industry is nowhere near wallowing in fat profits yet. One day of warm rain in February, many resorts' biggest month, could hobble the industry. The deteriorating economy could also take its toll. Although the industry is relatively recession-proof, job layoffs are now spreading beyond the manufacturing and construction trades to areas where more ski-oriented workers live.

Some skiers, jittery about reduced plane flights because of the air-traffic controllers' flap, may just decide to take vacations closer to home. Morever, says Charles Goeldner, director of business research at the University of Colorado in Boulder and an industry consultant, ''skiers are shopping around a little more this year than in the past. They are a little cautious.''

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