Good snow year brought skiers out in droves - especially in the East

This winter has confirmed an old suspicion of mine: There's nothing wrong with the ski business that ``a good snow winter'' can't help. You can talk about your $30 lift tickets, about the crowded slopes on weekends, about an aging population, about imported skis costing $300 to $400 as the dollar slips ever lower, or about the relentless competition from sunny beaches, forever luring people away from even the thought of snow and mountains.

Any one of the above challenges - let alone all of them - means a major problem for the sport and business of skiing. Still, more than an estimated 16,000 new skiers responded to last January's free National Learn-to-Ski Day. Certainly, the price was right, but a lot of those newcomers appear to have come back and paid for more.

In the East, where it's been the best snow winter in many years, skiers of every stripe have turned out - beginners, ``drop-outs'' who hadn't skied for years, women, families, singles - a lot of people.

Sugarloaf, Maine, a resort which last year asked for bankruptcy protection after several disastrous snow years, expects between 6,500 and 8,000 new skiers will have taken learn-to-ski programs by the time the lifts shut down after this snowy season.

Out West, snowfalls were late and spotty, badly hurting the all-important holiday business. But where and when the snows did come, so did the skiers.

Colorado reported a record February in skier visits; so did Park City, Utah.

When all the numbers have been counted, the West's slow start will probably cancel out the East's great year, and we'll see skiing remaining in a no-growth or very low growth phase. What does that mean to skiers, who continually demonstrate that escalating prices will not deter them from their winter pastime and passion? And what does it mean to would-be skiers who so often ask: ``How can you afford to ski?''

Well, it probably means that competition between ski areas and skiing regions for the hard-core skier's dollar will continue at its fierce pace. And because hard-core skiers show by their patronage that they are willing to pay for the newest and the best, it undoubtedly means more new high-capacity chairlifts, more new snowmaking, and more new trails.

Yet there is this nagging question that few seem ready to answer. If skiing is not growing all that much, but seems most affected by good and bad snow years, why is there such a relentless push by many areas to expand?

Frank Heald, general manager of nearly 50-year-old Pico in central Vermont, which is projecting a long-term $25 million expansion, replies this way: ``We need more capacity to bring in more people on those peak days to pay for the days when there aren't so many.''

Putting it another way, ski areas feel they need to expand just to hold - and certainly to increase - their market share.

In a way, it's a vicious circle: Keep expanding onto new mountains, building new lifts so that you can sell more appreciated land for lodging and base amenities, which pays for the expansion and rewards the developers. If it doesn't make sense when you look at the pool of skiers, it does so on a crowded Saturday afternoon when you're waiting 40 minutes in a line for a slow double chairlift - and you hear that next year there will be a new quad chair ... and four new trails on the next peak ... and the year after next a new base village.

But every expansion has its impact and its environmental price. Before leaving office last January, Colorado's controversial ex-Gov. Richard Lamm gave a wide-ranging interview to the Vail Trail newspaper. In it he sharply criticized what he called ``the Los Angelization of the valleys'' in Colorado's Front Range. Referring to the tight control of expansion of resorts in the Alps compared to Colorado, he said, ``You can't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. ... I don't think you have to be Zermatt and bring them in by horse, but I do think you must pay attention to the long-term implications of filling your valleys with low-density development.''

Besides being a time for announcing next season's new lifts (like the $3 million, 2,800-skiers-per-hour, 7,000-foot ``super express'' quad planned for Mt. Bachelor, Ore.), spring is a time for bargain skiing. Like the Magic Mountains (Vermont) $14 lift ticket ... or the $20 lift ticket at Breckenridge (Colorado) as of March 30, which drops to $15 April 6. Or how about the 3,000 free lift tickets to be dispensed at Whiteface (New York) Wednesday in ``appreciation'' of the record season?

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