FOR SIX MONTHS every winter, the U.S. ski establishment has been able to go flying downhill with the economy blowing in its face, and come back up the lifts with a hot tan, a cool smile and cold cash.

Now it's ski season l980-81. Where the flippancy was always a sharp weapon ("you're out of it if you don't ski"), in some areas it's now more of a blunt instrument. Some of the best and the brightest resorts were humbled in '79-80 by record low snowfalls in the East and an underrated recession around the country. Those manicured mountains and valleys, dotted with lifts and slopes and havens of eager apres ski, are now cautiously upbeat. Their optimism lurches through unsettling memory pains before bursting out perhaps a bit too fast, considering the facts.

Some of the ski establishment is only visualizing graphs slaloming down the trails. The tables of leading economic indicators and annual snowfall are dressed in bindings and down vests. It's justifiable angst. Even the ski manufacturers are combining agressive marketing with crossed fingers.

In the East where the winter of '79-'80 was often recognized only by consulting a calendar, many ski officials have both the weather and the economy on their minds. And they're determined to knock out what they consider the most damaging misconception in skiing: no snowfall means no skiing. In the West, which had plenty of snow last season, prosperity and hot wax seem to flow together. They apparently have few worries about anything.

"There's a lot of poorly informed people out there," says Mill Moore, operations manager of the New England Ski Area Council. "Bad snow does not equal disaster season. A disastrous ski season is no snow and no cold. We had plenty of cold last year and snowmaking machinery was operating efficiently throughout the area. People don't realize how much man-made snow they've been skiing on even during the best of seasons."

Foster Chandler of Killington said, "We've added six miles of new ski-making equipment this year. The average skier doesn't understand snowmaking. He gets on the artificial snow and says, 'It's just like regular snow!' It is regular snow. It's cold and it melts. That's why we're able to open so early every year." Killington opened Oct. 14 and Chandler said recently the open slopes were under a l-foot blanket.

On the economic side, everyone knows skiing is an expensive hobby. It was expensive before double-digit inflation and the Gross National Product became conversation pieces.

Even though very few places in the East have made significant investments in their resorts, beyond new snowmaking machinery this year, the cost of a ski trip has risen. When the question of price is brought up in the East, they answer the question with another question: "What hasn't gone up in a year?" They answer on their heels, set for defense. In the West, they confidently say, "Yes, our prices have risen somewhat."

Despite a load of expensive factors in skiing, the litmus test is the weekend daily adult price of a lift ticket -- and nearly every place has gone up two dollars. A random sampling: Bretton Woods and Waterville Valley of New Hampshire are $16 and $17 dollars, respectively, both up $2. Killington is $18, up a dollar, while Mt. Mansfield in Stowe, Vt., is $19, up $3. Like almost all places in the West, Sun Valley is $18, up $2.

Moore of the New England Ski Council said, "An adult weekend lift ticket has gone up at something less than the rate of inflation but we're encouraging people to stay longer. Prices on multi-day packages are even going down in some places."

A quick survey of the East shows that weekend packages are an excellent way to save money this winter. Eastern resort owners insist these operations were something to be taken advantage of last year also but, like so many things last season, there seemed to be a communication problem.

Candace Moot, program director of Vermont Ski Areas association, said the problem stemmed from, "Negligence . . . people have been skiing on manmade manmade snow for years. A lady from Newsweek throught it was synthetic. That's what we're up against. Though the lack of snow closed some of the trails last year, most were open and had great skiing."

Chandler added, "When Time and Newsweek show bare slopes while other slopes at the same place have 3 feet, that's a problem. The biggest boost was the Olympic Skiing in Lake Placid -- it was all on manmade snow and the F.I.S. (Federation International du Ski) was so impressed they want to use snowmaking in all future Olympics because of the way such perfect conditions can be maintained."

Moot concluded, "People in New York or Washington will consult the weather services to see if there's any snow up here and if not they won't come up. They don't consider manmade snow and that's a failure of communication. This office should take part of the blame as should the media. cVermont was off 30 percent last year from the year before and, really, there was no reason for it."

Okay, it's established. Man has created a machine that gives nature a break on snowmaking. But a situation to consider with minimal alarm is the slightly low water levels in the Northeast.

Bob Foster, marketing director of Waterville Valley, N.H., said the lack of snow from last year cut down on natural runoff into lakes and streams. Coupled with a fairly dry summer, the situation has become "something we're watching but not overly worried about. We could use more water. We could always use more water." Like some other places, Waterville is drilling additional wells to conserve as much water as possible.

In contrast to all the problems in the East, is the fortunate West. The Rockies, in addition to claiming the country's best skiing, are now reeking chic. It's not just a ski area, it's a scene. It's attracting that 24-carat segment of America, and Europe, which is simply above the economy. These western resorts have sensed the kill. Colorado is a veritable geyser of hype.

Deborah Dix of Colorado Ski Country USA, said, "We're trying to change our posture. We are promoting ourselves as a travel destination, not just a place to go skiing. We're competing with Hawaii and Acapulco and the Caribbean and even the Alps."

Packing the slopes during the holiday season and the spring ski season is cake for the Rockies. But the best bet for an Easterner who wants to go all out and spend a Western ski week may be January.

"We're promoting January heavily this year," said Dix. "The skiing is great and generally less crowded. This year you'll be able to save money on lodging and most everything in January. We're hoping the airlines will jump on the bandwagon, but as yet we don't know of any particularly great deals."

Just to point out how prosperous things are in Colorado, Dix said Colorado Ski Country is "agressively seeking out the European market. It's getting very accessible for Europeans to spend their vacations here. At Vail they already have bilingual (Spanish-English) signs and foreigns instructors."

Kathy Hoy of Sun Valley said, "Bookings are up because we had a great season last year. A lot of people went home very happy and this is a big word-of-mouth business."

Hoy said Sun Valley is having no difficulty competing with the glut of chic emanating from Colorado resorts such as Aspen and Vail. "Sun Valley is more of a low-key place. The rich people who come here have been rich for a long time, they're not nouveau. If you want to get into People magazine, go to Aspen. When Clint Eastwood is here, he doesn't get into People magazine. He has a great time skiing. This is not a disco-'til-dawn place." m

Dix says she foresees the January promotion drawing a lot of Easterners to Colorado. Hoy says, "A skiing family bundles up once a year to go skiing. In the East, they might have planned to go to, say, Killington last year but the bad weather burned them and they didn't go. Now they have a little extra money and I don't think they'll want to take a chance on the East again so they'll take off a week and fly out West."

But the West is actually quite low-key about competing with the East. They want their business but as Dix says, "If there's another season in the East like last year, it would be terrible. We're secure enough over here in our clientele that we don't root for a collapse of eastern skiing. Though I've heard weather forecasts predicting another mild winter out there."

The climate of competition in the East has been affected by last winter. There is little resort versus resort competition. The major resorts have bled onto each other and taken on more of a regional identity. The talk is of keeping Easterners in the East. While the West talks of seeding the clouds to get more out of every snowstorm, the East pushes its snowmaking machinery. While the West pushes its glamour, the East pushes its practicality.

Tom Corcoran at Waterville Valley says, "For a couple to drive here and ski for a week or weekend, it's a tremendous deal. The price of the trip to the West is incredible. If a guy has a lot of skiing ability and a lot of money, there's no way we can convince him to come here over the West. The attractiveness of the remote is enough for him to go out there. But for someone with less money, the skiing is great here and there's no reason for him to financially strap himself for a week in Colorado."

Moore, of the New England Ski Council said, "The most costly item is lodging. Lodging is vastly more expensive in the Rockies where everything is condominiums. Here there's hotels, dorms, etc. Even for someone in Cincinnati or Cleveland who would have to fly to the East or West, it would be vastly less expensive to come to the East."

Whatever the reasons for last year's downturn, the entire industry was aware of it in one way or another. Perhaps the best barometer was ski manufacturers, for whom the effect is being felt now in decreased orders. Retail outlets bought full inventories before last season, but they either had to sell at vastly reduced prices or carry over their inventory into this season.

"Lots of places just don't have the money to buy new equipment because they got stuck with a lot last year," said Dick Crum of Olin.

Most firms declined to reveal how far their profits dropped last year but Rossignol, one of the stronger companies, was down 30 percent. The ski manufacturers are looking at the overall problem just like the resort owners and trying to alter strategy accordingly.

Bob Mignonoe of Raichley-molitor, who markets such ski equipment as Head and Tyrolia, said, "We anticipated all this and developed a strategy on a 'what if' basis. Well the 'what if' came true last year. We decided that we'd have to make exciting products that retailers will have reason to buy. For instance, the new Flexon 5 Ski boot, the newest concept in plastic molding. We have to make the product and the sport continue to be exciting."

Many companies are trying to lure new skiers to hit the slopes. Bud Raymer of K2 said, "There's a lot fewer new skiers because of the cost of the sport and shrinking discretionary income. If there's not much snow on top of that, it's hard to get people skiing."

John Douglas of Rossignol gave the most enlightening look into the situation. "The bad ski season affected the potential and beginning skier. Our higher performance equipment sold fairly well last year but the less expensive equipment didn't. This is basically a racing ski company. But for the first time ever, we did some advertising this year on our lower-end skis. We just have to be more aggressive in marketing that part of our line." s

Rossignol is in the state of Washington. When asked if the company could deal with another bad season like last year, the strain of the situation could be felt through the 3,000 miles of phone wire static.

"No. Well, yes. We're not dependent on the U.S. as much as other companies. We're international. But it hasn't been a real rosy scene around here as far as maintaining our commitment to racing. Racing is our ideal. And as advertising director, I'd just as soon not have to go through another year like last year."

The ski companies are seemingly pulling at straws to sound optimistic.

Dick Crumb of Olin said, There's never really been more than two bad snow years in the East. The year before last wasn't so hot either. Hopefully that trend will hold true for this year with some strong snowfalls." hOn the economic front, Mignone said, "We're noticed that Chrysler and Ford showed improvement in recent months and that tells us that people are spending their money again. If they spend for cars they'll spend for skis."

Tom Corcoran, president of Waterville Valley resort in New Hampshire, agreed with Mignone's analysis, saying, "If you want to go skiing, it's affordable to middle income people. We definately haven't priced ourselves out of the market. We're certainly comparable to any other sports vacation."

What the American ski establishment is offering is no excuses. That goes for them and you.

If you've always been a devout skier, there's little reason for last year's season to make you a non-believer this winter. Go beyond checking snowfall tables if you plan to ski the east. Machines make snow. Like the man said, manmade snow is cold and it melts. And if all this becomes a moot point due to weekly blizzards in the East, plan a multi-day trip for the best deal.

If you blew the top off all income tax brackets this year, or you just happen to like putting your money into something other than a bank, a week out West is pure euphoria. The choice is between the Colorado scene or the array of other western resorts. It's all according to what you're into -- and if you're into expressions like, "you're into," do the Colorado scene.

If you're not thrilled by the strobe lights of an Aspen or the soft lights of a Sun Valley, then something's very wrong and you should go directly to Waikiki.