Snowless slopes leave resorts in a bind

Ski areas are rolling out bargains, but bad conditions are keeping lift

Skiers always hold out hope that the next snowstorm will dump 20 inches of fresh powder on the slopes. But if things don't change soon, this winter could go down as one of the worst ever for the schussers.

To be sure, it's still early, with the best snow months of the season yet to come. But warm weather and lack of snow have made for poor skiing conditions at one of the busiest times.

With many resorts nationwide below their average snowfall, officials have been left to ponder a disastrous season if snow doesn't come soon.

"It's obvious," says Stacy Gardner, spokeswoman of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo. "If we don't get more snow, it's going to be a disappointing season."

A flurry of storms in Colorado has helped ease problems at some resorts - albeit too late for the Christmas holiday - but problems in the West have been acute:

*Southern Colorado's Wolf Creek often has several feet of powder by the holidays. This year, it has 10 inches.

*At Squaw Valley in the Lake Tahoe area of California, only 40 percent of the runs are open.

*A lack of snow in Park City, Utah, meant that women's World Cup ski races had to be moved to Copper Mountain in Colorado in November.

"We're certainly looking forward to more snow," says Rose Abello, spokeswoman for Aspen, which still hasn't opened about 70 percent of its advanced runs because of lack of snow.

Conditions throughout Colorado are generally "not great," says Kristin Rust, spokeswoman of Colorado Ski Country USA. But she says that while some ski areas have been passed over, others have been more fortunate.

Desperately seeking snow

Back East, however, the snowless skies have nearly created a crisis. Boston still hasn't seen a trace of snow - the longest dry spell since 1891.

Farther north, New Hampshire's White Mountains remain decidedly brown and almost all the white stuff on local trails has come from snow guns.

"We haven't had a ton of natural snow," says Molly Mahar Kerr, marketing director of the Vermont Ski Areas Association.

American Skiing Co. promised discounts to skiers if 70 percent of the terrain was not open at any of its resorts in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. With some resorts falling short, the company said this week it has given skiers vouchers for 25 percent off their next trip

Ms. Kerr says a recent cold snap has helped resorts make "good strides" with snowmaking. In fact, half of ski trails statewide are now open, which is nearing normal levels.

But the psychology of a warm winter can still hurt ski resorts. "If it's 50 degrees in New York, people aren't thinking about skiing," Kerr adds.

The relatively poor ski season across the US may also be a reflection of other trends, though. Some scientists say climate change has driven up temperatures for 1998 and 1999 - the two warmest years on record for the United States.

That thought crossed the mind of Denver resident Fanny Cameron, who hit the slopes this week and got what she expected: poor conditions.

"I just wonder," says Ms. Cameron, who works at a sporting goods store.

Good deals

Even Y2K has seeped into the ski season. Many people, industry officials say, have to work on the New Year's holiday in anticipation of possible computer and public-safety problems. Others are just plain fearful of catastrophe, and are staying home.

The same concerns are affecting the carnival and airplane industries, says Ms. Rust. "It's a really bizarre year."

The ski industry may just need a good storm. But with no snow dances planned, Colorado boosters are rolling out old-fashioned bargains to lure skiers.

In Aspen, the Hearthstone House is offering rooms for $150 a night, down from $300. Just outside Aspen, the Snowmass Inn is $99 a night, down from $205.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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