`Vermont snow,' scenic splendor to rescue in Colorado Rockies

You could call it ironic. The last time I spent Christmas week in the Rockies was 24 years ago, and that was a ``bad'' snow year, too. But 1962-63 was really a bad snow year. Snowmaking then was confined to municipal ski hills, and I remember breaking an old Kneissl Combi - the last pair of wooden skis I owned - on a rock on Little Nell at Aspen.

The early '60s marked the end of skiing's ``natural'' era. From then on, the sport was to be increasingly affected by synthetics - metal and plastics in skis, compressed air and water shot from guns in ``snow.''

This season, we spent several days skiing Keystone, Vail, and Copper Mountain; and while there was not a snowflake in the air nor a weather forecast promising any, the skiing wasn't bad. Not good by Colorado standards, but not bad. At times the snow resembled ``Eastern powder'' - heavily trafficked, slippery, and loud under ski. Westerners who don't know better called it ``icy.''

One reason that a number of trails were becoming even a little slick was that, unbeknownst to most vacationers, much of the snow cover was machine-made. Having a much greater water content than natural snow - especially in the dry powder country of the Rockies - machine-made snow tends to ice up faster than natural snow, though it lasts much longer.

So this holiday season, the Texans, Mexicans, and assorted flatlanders who annually spend Christmas week at Vail and other Colorado spas were treated to a tiny taste of ``Vermont snow.''

Of course, in the East, where snowfalls ironically have been pretty good for a change, ski areas brag about their snowmaking. In Colorado, resorts like Vail and Keystone have more snowmaking than most of their Eastern counterparts, but they don't talk much about it. After all, people don't book a Rocky Mountain ski vacation because of the fabulous snowmaking. But in New England and other Eastern states, with their more erratic weather, picking a resort with lots of dependable snowmaking can be smart vacation ``insurance.''

``Dependable'' obviously is an important word when considering snow and where to ski. Note all the disappointed people who had to cancel Christmas vacations this season when resorts in the northern Rockies and California surprisingly didn't have enough snow.

``Dependable snow'' is the reason why even resorts in the Alps are now investing heavily in snowmaking. But overemphasis on the availability and quality of snow can be a hang-up. Sometimes it may even obscure the most important part of a skiing getaway.

For example, this past Christmas week we traveled over back roads to different ski areas a lot more than usual. Of course, it was less relaxing than staying at the base of a powder-filled slope, hopping on a lift, and skiing your legs off. But the passing winter scenes provided me with fresh insights into the winter-bound Colorado Rockies.

Sparsely snow-covered pastures stretch across a 10,000-foot plateau to distant snowcapped peaks. Little clusters of cattle and horses try to scratch out meals on brush barely covered by snow. Overhead, the brilliant blue of the winter sky is interrupted only by the white contrails of a jet. Below, long, winding ribbons of highway, cattle fences, and telephone lines are sometimes visible for a mile ahead.

Maybe, as John Denver sings, it's the sunshine, but there is something magnificent, open, and promising about these mountains, even with a shabby, white, winter coat. Now, when I ski them, it's with a different eagerness than before. Here is more than challenge and pleasure on 3,000-foot vertical drops. These are the Rockies in winter, and it's good to be skiing in them, even in ``a bad snow year.'' Pro circuit seeking greater visibility

It was on that same trip to Aspen 24 years ago that I covered the second ``World Professional Ski Championships.'' Seven years later, former US Ski Team Coach Bob Beattie made pro skiing into a going business for 12 seasons. He popularized the head-to-head, dual course racing format, lassoed Jean Claude Killy for a season, and helped make the names of racing champions like Spider Sabich, Hank Kashiwa, and Henri Duvillard.

But when Beattie left in 1981, World Pro Skiing collapsed. It was succeeded by various regional tours while the separate women's pro circuit grew slowly.

Then again, except for those early ``big name'' days, pro ski racing never has been seriously covered by the media. This season, however, 30 minutes of the US Men's Pro Ski Tour championships (at Stratton Mountain, Vermont), which began 10 years ago as a regional tour, will air on ABC-TV. There will also be increased cable distribution and telecast syndication of the tour, and a home videocassette. Using ``state-of-the-art special effects'' and tightly editing races for the spectacular, tour officials estimate they will reach 70 percent of all US television households this winter. As in so many sports today, it looks as though public perception of skiing is to be increasingly shaped by the video media.

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