Spring skiing calls for a changed state of mind. After the long chill of winter, spring is the signal for skiers to lighten up. Instead of serious slalom races, serious sunning prevails, along with costume parades, pond-skimming contests, and other outbreaks of vernal craziness. The outward signs of the season are cold nights, warm days, and ``corn'' snow. Spring is when ``the beach''comes to the mountains - when a wind shirt is more comfortable than a parka, and ski suits sometimes give way to bathing suits. Some vacationers endure winter just to get to the spring skiing - and the sun deck. In the higher elevations in the West it doesn't usually begin until April. In the low-lying, mid-Atlantic states, early to mid-March can be the kickoff. As for when it ends, the snow - turning slushy - often outlasts the skiers.
Here's a look at six meccas around the United States:
Mammoth Mountain, Calif. With its 11,000-foot summit, Mammoth is to spring snow what Utah is to powder. Its reputation for great skiing until the Fourth of July (July 28, 1983, remains the record closing date) is unsurpassed. Two prime reasons are the High Sierra's ideal conditions for spring snow and Mammoth's commitment to grooming, even salting its slopes deep into June and beyond. The result is snow good enough to attract many race training camps and ski testing programs.
As cool nights yield to ever warmer days, people start skiing at 7:30 a.m. and quit by 2 p.m., so as to enjoy the snow before it becomes too heavy. By 1 p.m. the regulars are on the sun deck enjoying a barbecue, which, of course, is a main reason for spring skiing in the first place. From May 1 on, a $20 lift ticket buys a lot of spring skiing at Mammoth.
Mt. Bachelor, Ore. Here's another premier spring training site for racing camps and national teams. With frequent April snows, the lifts usually operate through June. The ``summit season'' begins May 1, when lift tickets drop from $23 to $16. Eventually, everybody is skiing off the new detachable summit quad chair. By afternoon, vacationers can mimic the racing teams doing dry-land training below, or they can be sensible and soak in their hotel pool or hot tub. The nearest lodging is 17 miles from the mountain, and Bend is 22 miles, but shuttle buses run regularly.
Like all of these spring skiing centers, Bachelor has become a major snowboarding mountain. But among the hordes of young new devotees, so far there's been only one girl, according to a resort spokesman. Clinics and ``demo days'' take place almost every other spring Saturday. Then on May 14, there's a ``pole, pedal, and paddle'' triathlon (skiing, biking, and canoeing). And in June there may be an ``on-snow bicycle race.''
Timberline Lodge, Ore. Mt. Hood, east of Portland, has the only true summer skiing in the United States. After the winter and spring season ($18 lift ticket), the famous Timberline Lodge opens its summer Palmer chair at the 8,500-foot level ($16 lift ticket). From the middle of May to Labor Day, there's skiing on ``permanent snow fields'' that can run as deep as 70 feet. Usually you can ski down to the 6,000-foot level, says spokesman Bill Connerly.
Although 60 percent of summer skiers are in training for something, there are people who don't ski at any other time of the year who come to enjoy the scenic above-timberline ``cruiser,'' Magic Mile. And if you want to learn to snowboard, Timberline has eight instructors who can teach it.
Keystone/Arapahoe Basin, Colo. Summer tans come fast at Arapahoe Basin, where the 12,450-foot summit provides North America's highest lift-serviced skiing. Riding up the first lift, skiers almost pass over the ever-smoldering barbecue at the Alpen hut; one whiff and most of them ski directly to the sun deck. Here you'll find ``the surf club'' with deck chairs and Beach Boys music adding to spring skiing's special camaraderie - in this case on the Continental Divide.
From late April to the usual closing in mid-June, every weekend is a ``spring fling.'' Take your pick of various weekend themes, from ``Hawaiian luau'' and ``Cajun'' to ``Miami Vice.'' Reduced lift tickets are lowest ($17) when bought at Colorado King Sooper markets. Snowboarders at Arapahoe have what is called a ``half-pipe'' carved out of the snow for a sort of bobsled run.
Killington, Vt. The famous ``beast of the East'' is unchallenged in staying open until the last skier cries ``uncle.'' Killington ran almost eight months last year before closing June 3. What allows the East's biggest ski resort such durability is awesome snowmaking power. The result is 30-foot-high machine-made mini-glaciers, which massive snow grooming machines claw over, retrieve from the woods and shove back into the paths of tireless hordes of skiers.
Such reconstituted snow is not easy to ski when it reaches Slush-Puppy consistency. Therefore, the smart skiers hit Killington as the sun does on spring mornings - experts bombing the moguls on the steep black diamond trails on Killington peak, mere mortals searching out the good ``corn'' snow elsewhere.
Entry in this year's 27th annual May Day slalom or in the seventh annual June 1 Fun Slalom and on-slope barbecue (which last year had 240 celebrants) is good for a free lift ticket next season.
Tuckerman Ravine, N.H. Just below New England's highest mountain, Mt. Washington, lies a natural snow basin that is as renowned as any in the country. Starting every April, when the Forest Service says it's safe and lasting, some years, into July, skiers come from distant points to climb the 2 miles into this giant bowl.
So many come - particularly on traditional reunion days like Memorial Day weekend and Queen Elizabeth's birthday (for Canadians) - that only the first 86 on a given morning can stay overnight in a designated shelter. For everyone else - and a busy weekend can see 8,000 skiers - it's ski and hike down the same day.
In February, Tuckerman loyalists were cheered by the National Forest Service's refusal to let the privately owned Mt. Washington Cog Railway (which transports tourists in the summer) haul skiers in the spring so they can ski down to the ravine. Still, the railway indicates it will bring skiers up this spring anyway, leaving the Forest Service to decide how it will keep them out.