Colorado strives to keep its mountains filled with skiers

The lift operator, bundled in finch-green jacket and moon boots, struts over to the growing line of skiers at the bottom of Montezuma chair lift. ''How are the snow conditions today?'' he shouts to no one in particular.

''Great,'' comes a chirp from the back of the line.

''No, they're AWESOME,'' he shoots back, borrowing a chic phrase of the 1980 s.

Keystone - about 70 miles west of Denver - has a reputation for Disney-World-style enthusiasm among its workers. But on this day, not to mention most of the season, the hyperbole may have had some merit.

Bountiful snow and a perkier economy are spinning the turnstiles at Colorado ski resorts - and throughout much of the West - at record rates for the second straight year.

Many enthusiasts who had packed their skis away in the basement, choosing instead a sun-dappled beach, more regular visits to the health spa, or a vacation at home to clear that bothersome brush from behind the woodshed, are making return pilgrimages to the slopes.

That's just dandy, sigh Colorado ski resorts, which are hoping for quick remuneration on the $37 million they sank into slope improvements in the past year alone.

Through the end of December the state's 35-plus resorts had handled 1.83 million skiers - up 4.5 percent from the record-setting pace the year before. Many ski operators expect Colorado to surpass last year's 8.2 million total for the season, provided the weather cooperates.

It has, for the most part, so far. Record snowfalls in parts of the state early in the season have left ski runs well cushioned. Here at Keystone, for instance, it snowed 43 straight days up to Christmas. Most resorts have a four- to six-foot ''base.'' Since then the snowfall has been intermittent. But enough dustings have arrived in the night to keep the irksome sound of ski edge against ice an uncommon occurrence.

Temperature has been another matter. Two subzero cold snaps - one around Christmas Day and another in mid-January - shooed some skiers away, particularly the ''locals,'' many of whom come out only in Currier and Ives conditions.

''Colorado skiers have not come out in the droves they did last year,'' laments Keystone Resort's Lillian Ross. ''We're wondering if there is an alternative in Denver - health clubs, Nautilus centers, or what?''

Most resorts this year have avoided big price hikes, though it still takes nearly a small mortgage to afford a ski vacation. The average daily lift ticket across the state runs about $18 to $20. It varies from a low of $5 (Sharptooth and Ski San Isabel) to $22 (Aspen, Snowmass, Vail).

At least three resorts have cut prices this year (Loveland Ski Area $16, Hidden Valley $10, Sharptooth $5). Four hiked them $2 (Beaver Creek $22, Ski Cooper $12, Copper Mountain $21, Monarch $16). Most of the rest either kept them the same as last year or boosted them a dollar.

''Price is an emotional issue,'' says Jan Pilcher of Colorado Ski Country USA , a trade group. ''The ski areas are conscious of that.''

Well they should be. The ski industry nationwide has been in a no-growth or declining phase for several years. A dwindling market and increasing costs have forced resorts to search for more innovative marketing techniques.

Colorado in particular faces a mounting threat from neighboring Utah, which has been hard-selling the ski industry in recent years. Utah has developed a reputation for deep powder and, in some cases, Ozzie and Harriet prices (Alta is still $10 a day, though Snowbird and Park City are $19 and $22 respectively).

Utah resorts have chipped away at Colorado's lucrative California market, which still represents about 10 percent of the state's total business. But Colorado remains popular among skiers in the Midwest and Southeast, among other places, and handles more than three times the yearly volume of skiers (2.5 million vs. 8.2 million).

Colorado, too, is firing salvos of its own: The state, through its recently formed Colorado Tourism Board, spent $386,000 promoting the industry this year. This is above what the resorts themselves spent.

Stacy Trewhitt is one who flew over Utah and decided on Colorado this year. The University of San Diego student, in blue stretch pants and sunglasses, has been staying here for two weeks with her family.

''The snow has been fantastic,'' she says, kicking snow off her boots on the way up the chair lift. ''As a general rule there's more of it than in California and Nevada.''

To lure more out-of-staters, resorts and airlines are adding new sweeteners to package deals. A one-way ticket from Minneapolis to Denver, for instance, can be gotten for $49, if a person stays and skis at Keystone lodging at least five nights. Out-of-staters flying round trip on Frontier and skiing at Purgatory, in the southwestern part of the state, can get the Denver to Durango leg free if they buy a special ski package.

Kids, too, are a target of a growing number of specials. Resort owners are well aware that upscale 25-year-olds can't fill chair lifts alone. Family vacationers are needed. Steamboat Springs, for one, is in the second year of allowing children 12 years old and under to ski free provided the family stays at the resort five days or more.

A few resorts are also experimenting with single-run lift tickets. These are aimed at the late riser or half-time skier. Keystone offers single-ride tickets for $2.75. The price dips to $2.50 a run if you buy five or more. Eldora, near Boulder, offers two- and four-hour lift tickets.

Colorado skiers can get bargains by buying discount tickets at certain shopping centers and other retail stores. Multiple-day rates shave tow-ticket tabs, too: A three- to five-lift ticket at Keystone comes out to $18 per day. The standard day rate is $21.

Plenty of package deals are also available. Many include a week's lodging, plus lift tickets, a rental car, and transportation to and from the Denver airport. One example: Four people can stay in a two-bedroom condominium at Steamboat Springs for seven nights, get six days of lift tickets, and a rental car for $349 per person (midseason rates).

There is also plenty of room for skiers to improvise. One Texas farmer, for instance, decided to forgo the package deals. He's staying in a condominium in Dillon, just down the road from here, with 11 other people.

''Skiing is getting too expensive,'' he grouses, squinting into an afternoon sun. ''I say that every year - but here I am again.''

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