DURING America's bleak depression era, an exciting young sport soared to popularity in the East - skiing! Tiny ski areas, the first in America, began popping up all across New England. Every Friday night, the ski trains roared from the big cities into the mountains. On weekends, enthusiasts jostled cheerfully to grab a moving rope and be hauled to the summit of a snowy hill.
Balancing precariously on long wooden slats locked firmly onto sturdy leather boots by heavy cable ``safety'' bindings, they would plunge down narrow, icy trails.
If they survived, they called it fun.
But over the next 40 years, a curious thing happened to New England ski resorts. They forgot to change. True, rope tows were replaced with creaky chairlifts; the icy trails grew longer; the weekend crowds grew larger. But the resorts remained primitive and isolated.
As skiing turned into a national passion, the crowds that went on two- or three-week vacations fled elsewhere. They hied themselves to the Alps or flew to the Rockies, where they found resorts that cut trails as wide as football fields and groomed them every night.
Following the lead of Idaho's fabled Sun Valley, where glamour skiing was born in the United States, other Western regions added new resorts with all the amenities - gorgeous hotels, elegant health spas, trailside condominiums, and dazzling apr`es-ski attractions.
But in the '70s, New England resorts began to catch up. Since snow patterns in the Northeast are notoriously fickle, resort operators began visiting Hunter Mountain, in the Catskills, to study how the Slutzky brothers had developed man-made snow. Then they hurried back to cover their slopes with snow-gun flakes.
The typical narrow trails, blue with ice, gradually gave way to wider ones. Grooming moved from an occasional pastime to an obsession that rivaled that of the Rockies. More and faster lifts were added to begin resolving one of the oldest complaints of Eastern skiers - long and frustrating lift lines.
In the early '80s, the roar of the bulldozer and the echo of the hammer were heard in the New England mountains. Lush resorts and trailside condominiums started to be built, providing New England skiers with scintillating apr`es-ski life.
Today, by every measure, the major New England resorts are world class.
Killington, central Vermont's huge six-mountain resort, typifies the new New England ski scene, repeated in one degree or another by ski areas throughout the Northeast.
Ten years ago, when weary skiers made their final run of the day down Killington's 3,160-foot vertical drop, they climbed into their cars and drove up to 20 miles to their lodging. Now, 3,800 beds in mushrooming clusters of luxury condominiums are within walking distance of the slopes.
Forty miles of trails, from broad and gentle Snowshed, a beginner's paradise, to the awesome plunge down the sheer face of Bear Mountain, can be blanketed with man-controlled blizzards when winter is stingy with snow. High-speed quad (four-person) lifts have been added to the doubles and triples that weave their way up the slopes. Old trails have been made wider, and new trails have been opened.
An existing fleet of a dozen $150,000 grooming machines has been augmented by five more for this winter.
Look at Stratton, the first Eastern resort to accept the fact that skiers really like wide, fall-line trails. A fantastic $60 million base village, with shops, restaurants, hotel rooms, condos, and all the amenities, has just been completed.
Stowe still retains its classic charm as the quintessential New England village at the foot of Mt. Mansfield. But it's alive with a new sophistication that would shock the skiers of yesterday.
Okemo seems to add new lifts and make new trails and build row upon row of charming trailside condominiums every year.
Pico, Killington's backyard brother, has opened a condominium complex.
To Frank Heald, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, all of these improvements - almost $100 million during the past year alone - ``means we have the product, facilities, services, and packages in place worthy of the distinction as a world-class vacation destination.''
New Hampshire resorts have moved with equal vigor into world-class skiing. Waterville Valley, long noted as host to international races, has been steadily upgrading facilities, improving grooming, and expanding its charming self-contained lodging. The ski area has added a large health spa complex and linked everything together with a free shuttle bus service.
Attitash did not own a snow gun seven years ago. Today it has one of the most complete homemade blizzard systems in the state.
Sugarloaf/USA, far closer to Eastern skiers than the Rockies, still seems a world away in distant Maine. The complex boasts an extensive self-contained resort, complete with an outstanding holiday hotel. The summit is the only place in the East where skiers start from above timberline.
Sunday River has been changing faster than a winter landscape on a warm spring day. It is regularly adding new trails and improving the lift service with high-speed quads. At present it is opening its third base lodge.
More packages available
To coax sophisticated skiers to the Northeast, virtually every major resort is offering a variety of week-long ski packages that take a lot of the sting out of the cost of enjoying the excitement of a ski holiday. Actually, for little more than the cost of a weekend ski outing, families can enjoy a week frolicking on the mountains.
And, of course, New Englanders won't have to fork out for increasingly stiff airline tickets to fly somewhere.
One place in New England has vigorously resisted any nonsense about changing: Tuckerman Ravine. High on the granite face of towering Mt. Washington, the dedicated skier still must strap skis and boots to a backpack and climb two miles to the snowfields.
If you go
For further information, call or write some of New England's major resorts: Vermont:
Mt. Mansfield: Mountain Road, Stowe, VT 05672; (802) 253-7311.
Mt. Snow: Mt. Snow, VT 05356; (802) 464-3333.
Stratton: Stratton Mt., VT 05155; (802) 297-2200.
Okemo: RFD 1, Ludlow, VT 05149; (802) 228-4041.
Pico: Rutland, VT 05701; (802) 775-4345.
Smugglers' Notch: Smugglers' Notch, VT 05464; (802) 644-8851.
Sugarbush: Sugarbush, VT 05674; (802) 583-2381.
Killington: Killington, VT 05751; (802) 422-3333. New Hampshire:
Waterville Valley: Box SD, Waterville Valley, NH 03223; (603) 236-8311.
Cannon Mt.: Franconia, NH 03580; (603) 823-5563.
Loon Mountain: Kancamagus Hwy., Lincoln NH 03251; (603) 745-8111.
Attitash: Rt. 302, Bartlett, NH 03812; (603)374-2369. Maine:
Sugarloaf/USA: Carrabasett Valley, Kingfield, ME 04947; (207) 237-2000.
Sunday River: Box 450 Bethel, ME 04217; (207) 824-2187.