White Season Beckons Skiers

Real snow, at last, packs the slopes

`SNOWY" is to skiers as "Surf's up!" is to surfers: the override to all rational resistance, the irresistible call to "just do it."

Look at the excuses for not going skiing during recent not-very-snowy years: too little time, the expense of the sport, the recession, lack of a steady job. They have been especially prevalent among "wanna-be" skiers and spur-of-the-moment, "Hey, let's go skiing!" types.

But this season such excuses appear to be vanishing before the great equalizer: the perception, right or wrong, that it's going to be "a real (read: `snowy') winter." Even the ski industry, which can tout "state-of-the-art snowmaking" as a reason you should consider a ski vacation, appears awed by the drawing power of "snowy."

"Snowy" has not been around for much of the past decade. It avoided the Alps for a few seasons, has appeared only off and on in the Rockies and western US, and threatened to disappear altogether in the Eastern US, where masses of American weekend skiers live. Reasons have been attributed to weather cycles, El Nino, and "global warming." But nobody really knows why.

For at least a decade, many people have left green back yards after hearing industry-sponsored snow reports in the hope of skiing on expensive, machine-made snow - in recent years at $30 to $40-something a pop (and that only covers lifts, let alone travel, food, and lodging).

Should it be any surprise that skiing has at best remained stagnant in popularity? A decade ago there were close to 900 ski areas in North America. Today, there are barely 500, and ski shops that haven't closed have struggled to sell off excess inventory.

Meanwhile, the ski industry has concentrated on a diminishing cadre of hard-core, affluent and, yes, aging skiers, who can and will pay for increasingly costly technology and upgraded services. After all, who but the truly committed could "think snow" in such winters? Others were more likely to "think bowling" or fly south.

For most people, buying today's greatly improved ski equipment signals a major outlay of discretionary income, even after heavy discounting from list prices of more than $600 for some top-of-the-line skis, $350 for boots, $200 for bindings.

The downturn in the economy has brought some relief: more discounted prices, "family" and student rates, even computerized ticketing systems that allow skiers to pay only for the runs they ski (at Mont. Ste. Anne, Que., Mt. Bachelor, Ore. and this season at Attitash and Loon, N.H.).

BUT skiing remains widely perceived as more expensive, hyper-programmed, and commercial than ever.

Enter the winter of 1992-'93, which follows a generally cold summer. First came speculation about the possible cooling effect of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Then the fall was cold; there were some early snows; ski areas were opening in early November instead of around Thanksgiving.

Suddenly, reservation phones were ringing off the hook - never mind the economy. Across ski country, season pass sales, group sales, lodging, and even ski-school reservations shot up. In New England, where the recession has hit hard, increases were as high as 40 percent.

Thanksgiving crowds at a number of Western resorts were incredible - a record 25,000 skiers at Copper Mountain, Colo., 2,000 a day at Snoqualmie, Wash., and 23,000 over four days at Mount Bachelor, Ore. (its best since 1988).

People actually began to buy ski gear - almost a shock to ski-shop retailers. Not just the expensive stuff, which goes to committed skiers, but in some cases more mid-priced boots and skis.

Of course, the promise of winter is not the same as its delivery. Most of New England has just received its first major snowfall of the season. Even at one of the country's biggest snowmaking resorts here at Sunday River in Maine, there was a "need to restore momentum soon," said president Les Otten. But if "real" winters do make a comeback, more people are likely to consider playing in the snow instead of just shoveling it.

Shortly before he died two years ago, one of the world's foremost consultants to ski resorts, James Branch, said he thought nine years of "horrendous sun spot activity" affecting the jet stream were about to end. "I anticipate a stabilization in weather despite concerns about the greenhouse effect," he told me. "I honestly believe we're going to see the good old winters again. That will have a positive impact on skiing. We'll have ski clubs and [smaller, local, inexpensive] ski areas once more breeding n ew skiers."

Branch also saw the costs of new technology and ski-area expansion stabilizing. Both contributed heavily to the soaring price of skiing in the '80s. "Skiing in the '90s may be a better bang for the buck," he concluded.

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