Never have the snow and cold looked so warm and inviting as they do in this year's ads and promotions for North American ski vacations. Bargains are drifting down like fat lazy snowflakes just waiting to be plucked. The deluge has been so effective through the long sunny autumn that I've found myself patting my long-neglected skis and dreaming winter dreams again.
Mine are skinny cross-country skis, but most of the huckstering I've heard has been on behalf of the downhill way. Following a nearly snowless winter a few years back, many of the Rockies areas installed snowmaking devices to keep the lifts moving in all weathers. Purgatory, for example, not far from the old mining town of Durango in southwest Colorado, trusting nothing to nature, has made the state's largest capital investment this year, $7.5 million worth of snowmaking and chairlift improvements.
For a change, the airlines are doing something about the always-expensive proposition of simply getting to the mountain. Indeed, in recent years, the Alps have sometimes come cheaper than their domestic counterparts. Continental, which flies into ski country all across the West (Denver; Salt Lake City; Albuquerque, N.M.; Grand Junction, Colo; Casper, Wyo.; and Portland, Ore.) has put together some highly economical packages. For instance, the Washington-Denver round-trip fare, when applied to a ski package, will cost as little as $176 or $234, compared with the normal low of $284 for a ''supersaver.'' United, TWA, American , Frontier, and Republic are also crooking the finger to skiers. Republic will fly children into Denver free with a paying adult.
Kids are in fact a big part of this year's cost cutting. At Steamboat Springs in Colorado, they go free when an adult pays for a lift ticket, lessons, equipment rental, or a room at the Sheraton at the base of Werner Mountain.
Lift tickets, or the price one pays to ride up the mountain for a day's skiing, now average about $18. The highest price is $22 at Aspen and Vail, but little Eldora, not far from Boulder and popular with University of Colorado students, has introduced an hourly rate for those who like their skiing short and sweet. And Keystone, the handsome, all-purpose family resort 75 miles from Denver, will sell single lift tickets for a dollar, which is just the thing if you want to ascend the mountain for lunch.
Of course you don't have to ski at all to enjoy the high country. All of the resorts offer one or more of the following activities: indoor tennis, ice-skating, snowshoeing, downhill tubing, hot tubs, sleigh rides, ice climbing, dog-sledding, and glacier skiing.
If all those lures don't get me out the door with my skinny skis this winter, then perhaps dreams of certain wonderful, rustic lodges will. One is the Timberline Lodge, built by Works Progress Administration craftsmen in the 1930s on Mt. Hood in Oregon - all hand-hewn timbers, hand-hooked curtains, hand-appliqued bedspreads, hand-carved furniture. When the lodge began to show its age a few years ago, a group called Friends of Timberline went to work to restore the handiwork. Half of the 54 guest rooms have been brought back to '30s form, among them the President's Room, which FDR used when he came to dedicate the building.
Another winter dream has me trekking into Yosemite National Park to the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Fifty-five years old this year, the massive six-story, three-wing pile is faced with native granite and concrete stained to resemble the surrounding redwoods - and positioned to blend in with the towering Royal Arches. Inside are mosaics, rugs, and hangings in an Indian theme. From the cathedral-like dining room, with its 34-foot ceiling, granite pillars, and candlelit tables, you can see Glacier Point and icy Yosemite Falls. There is downhill skiing at Badger Pass, ice-skating at Curry Village, and cross-country touring on 90 miles of Yosemite back country.
The Ahwahnee architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, went on to design such resort monuments as the Timberline Lodge and Sun Valley Lodge in Idaho. Sun Valley, commissioned by Union Pacific's Averell Harriman and opened in 1936, also incorporates the brown-stained concrete. Billed as the American St. Moritz when it opened, Sun Valley was for years the downhill destination of such stars as Gable, Lombard, and Cooper. Today, while you may see a Hemingway granddaughter around (the author lived in nearby Ketchum and is buried there), the stars aren't as frequent and the diversions go far beyond downhill skiing.
Cross-country is well entrenched thanks to Leif Odmark, a stalwart Swede who runs the Nordic Ski School and Touring Center with a staff of 20. You can either ski the 18 miles of groomed trails around the resort, take a bus over Galena Summit and try the wide-open terrain of Stanley Basin, or go up by helicopter to some lofty white ridges and ski all the way home. At night you can ski a torchlit one-mile route to Trail Creek Cabin for dinner - or go by horse-drawn sleigh. I can hear the bells already.