Bargain (no-refund) lift tickets may be a burden on spotty slopes

In a snow-scarce season, like this one in the East, many ski areas hardly would have bothered to open 15 years ago. And a lot of people wouldn't have bothered to ski. Now, despite a tropic-like December that left limited terrain open; despite ice, crud, and heavily traveled machine-made snow that demand continual regrooming; despite rocks and brush that lie in ambush just beneath the surface on natural snow trails, waiting for the first ski bottom that dares to trespass -- in short, despite the terrible-snow winter to date, a few ski resorts are having near-record seasons.

Sunday River, Maine; Loon, N. H.; Mount Snow and Killington, Vt. are four resorts whose slopes have been crowded this winter. Each makes a lot of snow and, significantly, is known for doing so.

That's the key. People want to go skiing, and they will pay incredible prices and undergo war-zone hardships just to do what they have been looking forward to doing since last spring. That is, they will do it once, maybe twice. But if the experience is less than pleasant -- if it's crowded, expensive, and generally a hassle -- most people will not return quickly.

I'm in receipt of a complaint by one New Jersey skier who is angry because Sugarbush, Vt., would not grant her any credit for the five-day lift ticket she bought over the holidays. ``It rained non-stop'' for two of the first three days, she writes. ``The few slopes that were `open' had so many rocks and bare spots that I felt like I was risking my life skiing on them.'' She left after three days.

Sugarbush marketing director Chan Weller responds that the area's no-refund policy (except when all trails are closed, a common policy) is clearly posted. ``We have a free half-hour every day (9-9:30 a.m., similar to many areas) when customers can determine for themselves'' if conditions warrant buying a ticket.

``People come in with great expectations. It can be raining, and they still buy five-day tickets,'' says Weller. One reason probably is today's high cost of lift tickets; at Sugarbush $26 for an all-day adult ticket can at least be reduced by 10 percent with a five-day ticket. ``During inclement weather I wouldn't buy multi-day tickets,'' Weller cautions. ``I'd pay the higher one-day price and keep my options.''

Weller says that if a ski area gave a refund to everyone who was dissatisfied with conditions, ``I don't know where my rain checks would stop.'' He emphasizes that skiers arriving at a ski area should ``take it easy, go slow'' before buying multi-day tickets. Talk to skiers, look at conditions, use the free-ski time, look at the weather report. Then it's probably a prudent policy to buy tickets for no longer than the minimum period you're likely to ski, even if you have to pay more per hour than with a ticket good for a longer period.

OK, the no-refund policies of most ski areas are clear. It's just that some skiers don't like them, especially when conditions are very bad. In the words of the rained-out New Jersey skier: ``. . .some policies have to be changed if [New England ski areas] want to keep my business and I'm sure the business of many others. With the cost of flying out West so reasonable. . .they better wise up.''

For years people have been trying to improve the action of a cross-country ski boot in a cross-country binding. A few seasons ago they came up with 50-mm boots and bindings. But there were problems. Then Salomon made a breakthrough with its new integrated boot-and-binding system. Once you try the system and see how simply it allows for longer strides, greater control, and easy getting in and getting out, you wonder why somebody didn't think of it years ago. (One answer may be that earlier there wasn't enough money in cross-country to warrant the research and development.) Now, other boot and binding manufacturers are producing their own versions.

I was impresssed with the system I tried. But Chip Chase, director of the White Grass Cross-Country Center at Canaan Valley, W. Va., says that while the integrated systems are great in prepared tracks, the sturdy, high-top, wide 75-mm boot and binding can't be beat for stability and control in wilderness and off-track skiing. Any comments?

Skiers wanting to take advantage of the new ultra-low air fares (American, TWA, United) should not dally. Relatively few seats are to be available at bargain rates. Tickets must be purchased at least 30 days in advance; any changes after that bring a 25 percent penalty. Sample price: New York/Newark-Denver round trip $218. These will match or beat the new higher fares of People Express, but People has fewer restrictions.

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