Ready to carve rooster tails yet? Or just planning on mastering the stem christie this year? Either way, it won't be long now. Colorado ski areas are already basking in six feet of snow and a reservations list up as much as 70 percent over last year. Several resorts, including Eldora and Purgatory in Colorado and Brighton in Utah, opened for business in October. New England ski areas are patiently waiting out an exceptionally warm autumn, but resorts everywhere expect to be off and running by the first of December.
What can skiers expect this winter? Last year's bountiful snow lured record numbers of skiers to the slopes from California's Lake Tahoe to Colorado and Vermont, and most ski operators are hoping to sustain this momentum by trying to keep lift lines full and package prices down. To ensure this steady stream of skiers, many areas have been busy this summer tapping new ski packages into computers, hauling new snowmaking machines up mountain sides, and erecting new lodges, hotels, and sports complexes everywhere.
''The two biggest trends this year are overall capital improvements and a greater emphasis on family packaging and amenities,'' says Katie Dillman, spokesman for the National Ski Areas Association.
To wangle the best air fare and ski package, Dillman recommends working with a travel agent, since prices and availability frequently fluctuate. No airline is offering any special fares for children right now, but other bargains are available.
Air fares from New York and Boston to Denver are at an all-time low - $260 and $290 round trip, respectively - and with People Express beginning air service into Denver on Nov. 15, all fares are expected to stay low. Air fares to Salt Lake City run higher - $390 round trip from Boston - and they are scheduled to increase after Dec. 14. For nonpackage air fares into New England, People Express offers highly competitive prices on its routes into Boston; Portland, Maine; and Burlington, Vt.
Some of the ski packages available this year include: Colorado
What's new at the grandaddy of US ski country, that corner of the Rockies that snares more skiers than any other state? Besides $52 million worth of capital improvements this year, including plenty of new snowmaking equipment, Colorado ski operators have done their marketing homework. Faced with both a baby boom and a growing public interest in ski racing, Colorado resorts have initiated a fleet of children's programs and a flurry of amateur racing tournaments. At nearly every resort skiers of varying abilities can participate in race camps - Billy Kidd teaches at Steamboat and the Olympic medal-winning Mahre brothers operate out of Keystone.
Many areas offer substantial discounts on family ski packages as well. ''Everyone is experiencing a mini-baby-boom,'' says Jan Pilcher of Ski Country USA in Colorado. ''Families are getting more and more breaks. For example, at Steamboat, the first resort in Colorado to initiate special family rates three years ago, children under 12 ski and stay free with parents on the five-day lift ticket plan. Copper Mountain, Keystone, and Monarch all offer similar packages. And at Ski-Sunlight, a family including children under 18 can ski for $39 a day. At Aspen Highlands, the same family can ski for $40 a day when a five-day lift ticket is purchased.''
At the other end of the scale are those tours that cater to business people. Not only do some resorts such as Copper Mountain offer tax-deductible business seminars for vacationers, but others have made it easier for business people to escape to the slopes just for the day. Some Denver-based retailers rent equipment and clothing and the Ski Lift Program offers discounted lift tickets and round-trip bus rides from Denver to such ski areas as Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Loveland, and Winter Park among others.
Other package deals can be found with particular airlines. Continental Tours offers vacation packages with a number of the Summit Country resorts that include air fare, airport transfers, lodging, and lifts. Frontier Airlines will beef up its air schedule from Dec. 15 through March 31 between Denver and Dallas , Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Access by rail has also taken off as an alternate way to reach the slopes from both the East and West Coasts. Amtrak regularly drops off passengers from Chicago in Denver or Winter Park.
As for lift-ticket prices, they have been raised a bit this year - top price now is $24 - and an average one-day ticket is roughly $20. Utah
Fifteen years ago the only skiers whooping it up in Utah's Wasatch Range were local powderhounds who knew a good thing when they saw it. But times have changed and word about the superb ''champagne snow,'' which averages 500 inches a year, has gotten out. The state last year snared a record-breaking 2.48 million skier visits - more than half of which were by out-of-staters - a fact that is giving Colorado ski areas a run for their money. Improved air service, including nonstop flights from New York and Washington, and steady resort development have only added to Utah's appeal.
''We're getting lots of new destination skiers,'' says Dan Richardson, president of Ski Utah Inc., '' - people who have been to Colorado for several years and are looking for an alternative.''
What Utah skiers are likely to find this year is a 10 percent increase in chairlift capacity and a flurry of new lodges and hotels at the state's 16 resorts.
Although Utah's powder conditions are likely to appeal to skiers expert enough to carve those rooster tails down the slopes, most areas also cater to intermediate and beginning skiers as well as vacationing families.
Lift fees, with the exception of Park City and Deer Valley prices, are $18 or less - substantially lower than some Colorado and Vermont prices. And unlike many mountain resorts, Utah's top five ski areas - Park City, Alta, Solitude, Brighton, and Snowbird - are within 30 miles of Salt Lake City and a wide range of accommodation options.
Other Utah options include:
* Off-lift skiing: Catering to those expert skiers with a taste and the pocketbook for slicing down ungroomed trails, Snowbird offers helicopter skiing at roughly $200 per person per day. Park City provides similar thrills, but at a lower rate. For about $75 per person per day, Wolf Creek Ski Adventures hauls skiers to virgin snow via Snocat tractors.
* Interconnect adventure: For those intermediate and advanced skiers eager to replicate the village-to-village skiing so popular in Europe, Utah's interconnect ski program is considered the only one of its kind in North America. Prices range from $35 to $75 per person per day and guided tours begin at either Park City, Solitude, or Snowbird.
* Deluxe skiing: For the truly ''self-indulgent skier,'' a new package sponsored by Western Airlines called ''Ski Luxe Services'' provides butlers, chefs, chauffeurs, and ski guides to any skier staying in a Park City or Deer Valley condominium - who can afford it. A similar package, ''Ski Luxe-De Luxe Ski Tour,'' includes the butler, chef, and chauffeur services as well as 10 days of helicopter and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in Utah and western Colorado. The price includes transportation by private jet - and for $8,000 a person it should. Northeast
Those intrepid skiers who spurn the powder conditions of the Rockies for a Currier and Ives-like New England ski vacation will also find new options on and off the slopes. Despite record numbers of skier visits last year - due to a heavier than usual snowfall - the region as a whole still battles a reputation for damp- cold winters and frequently icy slopes. As a result, many New England ski areas are broadening their appeal by continually upgrading snowmaking and expanding into full-fledged ''destination resorts.''
By offering skiers more than a lift ticket and a warming hut, the resorts are hoping to lure more than day or weekend skiers from Boston, New York, and Montreal. With the addition of elaborate slopeside sports complexes, conference facilities, and retail shops, New England ski areas, including Vermont's Sugarbush and Bolton Valley, are increasingly catering to families as well as those skiers seeking skiing alternatives.
''People expect more now,'' says Candy Moot of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. ''With more and more families skiing, chances are that people want to do other things during a vacation week.''
While some ski areas have responded to the changing market with massive development - Vermont's Mt. Ascutney alone spent $12 million in expansion this year - others are pushing new ski packages and options, many of which will appeal to the so-called baby-boom skier who is returning to the slopes with a couple of tots in tow.
For instance, Bolton Valley ski area offers a five-day package for $239 per person, including lifts, lodging, and cross-country skiing; the kicker is that children under six ski and stay free. Over at Mad River Glen ski area, children under five ski free, while Stowe and Mt. Snow cater to families with their week-long vacation packages that begin on any day of the week. Stowe also permits its five-day lift ticket to be used on any five days out of seven, an option that gives skiers a couple of grace days for bad weather.
Ski areas that really keep the kids in mind include Vermont's Okemo, which provides free day care during nonholiday weeks, and Smuggler's Notch, whose five-day, $295-a-person family package permits children up to age 6 to ski and stay free. Smuggler's Notch is publishing a 60-page guide, ''The Book on Family Ski Vacations'' which helps the skiing family pinpoint the resort that best fits its needs.
Those savoring the good life at the Woodstock Inn - a plush Rockresort in quaint Woodstock, Vt. - ski free on groomed cross-country trails as well as at a nearby downhill skiing area, Suicide Six. More typical of New England ski packages is Sugarbush's ''Sugarpass.'' The all-inclusive five-day package is roughly $430 per person and includes 51/2 days of lift tickets, lodging, some lessons, sports club membership, and dining vouchers. A less comprehensive package costs $238 for five days.
At Killington ski area, the largest in New England with 60 miles of trails - more than half of which are equipped with snowmaking - a seven-day learn-to-ski package runs $238 for adults during non-holiday periods and includes rental equipment. Killington is also offering a new series of three-hour specialty workshops - learn-to-race, advanced skier, and family.
And if all that won't get the skiers to the slopes, some areas are not adverse to firing a price comparison salvo. According to one New England ski association, a week schussing down Vermont's Green Mountains (travel originating in New York) can cost one-half to two-thirds of the price of a Rocky Mountain trip.