Snowmaking a mountainous task; Redford on ski area mechanization

Does the average skier realize how dependent on mechanization the sport has become? We're not just talking high-capacity chairlifts; torsionally rigid skis; and rear-entry foam-injected high-tech boots. We're talking about the snow much of America is skiing on this winter. Almost all of it in the East and significant amounts in the West has been shot from guns. Getting it there in sufficient quantities to make it skiable can cost as much as $1,000 an hour. Then with thawing, freezing, and skier traffic, it must be plowed, harrowed, tilled, chewed up, spit out, and smoothed over by new $160,000 power-tilling grooming machines.

Many ski areas have insufficient experience, funds, commitment, or all of the above to do it right. Some have learned to, and these are the places in a bad snow year you'll find skiers lined up on a Saturday morning buying lift tickets.

But even there, most skiers have only a faint idea of what has gone into making a sizable mountain skiable when there haven't been sizable snowfalls. Last weekend at Sunday River, Maine, one of the East's most successful snowmaking areas, people were ooh-ing and ah-ing over the conditions. More than a few paid credit to a 12-inch storm the previous Tuesday (about the biggest storm of the winter to date in New England).

With all due respect to nature, those 12 inches would have been barely discernable by Saturday, let alone skiable, without a sizable base of dense, heavily groomed machine-made snow.

Even the best snowmaking, of course, doesn't produce snow that skis like the natural stuff. Some of the European racers, for instance, were complaining about the ``grabby'' quality of the machine-made snow at the World Cup races at Vail, Colo., earlier this month. In effect, they were saying the snow changed the way you had to edge and arc your turn through the gates. Of course, without sufficient snowmaking there can sometimes be no racing at all -- as we saw in Europe this winter when few World Cup races wound up being held at the site and date they were scheduled.

Because natural snow has been so undependable in the eastern United States for so long, there may be a new cross-country area in western Massachusetts covered by snowmaking. The idea is controversial. After all, many people took up cross-country skiing precisely because they wanted to get back to nature and away from all signs of machinery. It's a problem, and for some interesting observations on it, read the interview with Robert Redford in the April issue of Ski magazine. Redford was ``discovered'' in the film, ``Downhill Racer.'' A fine skier, he owns Sundance ski area in Utah.

``There's so much hype in skiing these days,'' he said. ``So much talk, so much promotion, so much mechanization -- and that's the single greatest change, in terms of megatrends, that has come about in skiing: overmechanization.''

Redford says it leads to ``burn-out.'' Ski areas now open in November (some in October), and by March, when the snow and skiing are at their best, the ``hype'' is already on the ``next season.''

The sensible answer is to be independent. Watch the weather and ski reports; take advantage of good late-season discounts and specials. And watch for areas that work at pleasing, not fleecing, skiers.

Diann Roffe, the 17-year-old American giant slalom gold medalist at the world championships last month, won her first World Cup race Wednesday. Roffe was 11/2 seconds behind after the first run in the giant slalom at Lake Placid, N.Y. and had to start the second run from 22nd position in an experimental new format, but still managed to edge Yugoslav teen-ager Mateja Svet by 16/100ths of a second. Switzerland's 18-year-old Michela Figini continues to lead the overall women's standings as the final week of competition begins with slalom and giant slalom races at Waterville Valley, N.H., this weekend. Marc Girardelli, the Austrian who skis for Luxembourg, appears to have locked up the men's overall World Cup with his fourth giant slalom victory of the season at Aspen last weekend.

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