THE SNOWS OF yesteryear have come to New England. And for skiers and operators alike, it wasn't a week too soon. A year ago, the New England ski industry was a disaster, with temperatures erratic and snow accumulations the worst since 1974. The anguish was compounded by the fact that Colorado had near-record snowfalls.
But this year, the balance of power has shifted from west to east. During the first week in January, as freak mild temperatures sogged the Rockies, New England resorts were booming and the hills were alive with the sound of money.
Sugarloaf in Maine was looking forward to its "best year ever," according to president Larry Warren, with 15-35 inches of mostly natural snow. Opening at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire was Nov. 14, its earliest ever, and vice president Bob Saltanstall said, "We're off to a very good start," Even with a small natural snowfall and 16 to 20 inch bases. Waterville Valley had a record volume in November.
Kilington is "back to normal," says vacation marketing manager John Rowan, which means about 8,000 skiers a day on weekends with bases of 20 to 40 inches. At Mt. Snow, business was brisk after the earliest opening ever on Nov. 12. And at Stowe, the first Friday in January set a 40-year record for ticket volume. "We're looking for a good year," said one Stowe executive. "We think we deserve it."
But if New England operators do have a good year, it will be less because they deserve it than because they made it. Most of the big Vermont areas surveyed early in January had average snow bases of around 20 inches -- almost all of it shot from guns.
With its harder crystals and longer slope life, man-made snow may mean an icier surface, but it's the flake of the future for New England skiing. Killington's Rowan says, "Without it, we virtually would not be in operation." Waterville Valley did good business on man-made snow alone from November to late December, and across Vermont much of the best skiing will be on the man-made trails until the major natural accumulations arrive.
Of course, there was plenty of the man-made stuff around last year -- spray-blasted from hoses into great mounds and then shoved into place by Caterpillar plows. But at $16 a lift ticket, many customers seemed reluctant to ski on tap water past acres of bare brown woods. Bruce McCloy, marketing manager at Mt. Snow, believes that, "It still boils down to this -- if it doesn't snow, people don't want to go skiing."
This year, however, skier resistance has dropped with the temperature, probably because there's a cosmetic layer of natural snow on the hillside even though most of the base is man-made. Both Sugar Loaf's Warren and Stowe's pulic-relations manager Polly Rollins agree that the 1980 Olympics coverage contributed to a new skier-acceptance of man-made snow. Rollins says, "It got the message out you can be on that stuff."
Warren believes that skiers now demand "state of the art" snowmaking, and Killington's Rowan says that "the general public cannot tell the difference -- the art of snowmaking has come so far."
That may explain why Colorado is doing as well as it is, despite high temperatures and poor snow falls early in the season. Although only 26 of 32 ski areas in the state were open at the end of the year -- with Steamboat and Breckinridge particularly hard hit -- a spokesman for Colorado Ski Country, which represents the state's 32 major areas could say both, "We're hurting for snow," and "We're real crowded right now."
For example, on Dec. 30, Snowmass had unpacked snow depths of only 8 to 30 inches and unseasonably high temperatures. But, said Tom Richardson, president of Aspen Skiing Corp., all lifts were open and ticket sales during the Christmas week were up 5 percent over last year. He attributes those figures to the fact that Aspen Skiing Corp. "didn't rush in opening like other areas did," and followed up with "extensive work" on its three mountain slopes during the late mid-December openings.
Colorado may yet finish the season well. CBS/WDVM meteorological Gordon Barnes' long-range forecast includes a good deal of snow for both the Rockies and New England between January 26 and February 10, with particularly cold temperatures in the Rockies. But in the ski business, there's no substitute for an early start.
Conventional wisdom says that an area has to do 20 percent of its volume during the Christmas-New Year period, and that's when New England skiing caught the edge. A mid-November storm caught up to 14 inches in some areas and intermittent flurries in December and January, coupled with consistent cold, kept snow levels -- and public interest -- up.
Stowe was a major beneficiary of that hyperborean largesse. On Jan. 2, it was 15 degrees on Mt. Mansfield, heavy clouds dumped five inches of new powder on the upturned faces of the grateful, and the six narrow miles of Mountain Road were bumper to bumper with out-of-state plates. Before the day was over, more than 8,000 bought tickets to one of Stowe's three ski areas -- the highest volume in the area's 40-year history.
The down-swaddled horde was well in excess of Stowe's "comfortable capacity" of 6,000. But despite 20-minute lift lines and a base lodge packed to group-grope density, no one seemed to mind. And Stowe's 35 trails, while busy, were scarcely overcrowded by Washington-area standards.
It was as close as it gets in New England to a perfect day, and therefore doomed. That night, a brutal Arctic air mass shuddered through, and by morning the temperature on the slopes had dropped to 22 below zero. (The wind chill was approaching triple digits.) There was no waiting at the lift lines. Under skis, the snow made a scrunching squeak like Styrofoam, and skiers' faces turned the color of cotto salami. Still, for the few hundred willing to brave it, there was the shocking clarity of the long valley view, with every pine needle in painfully sharp focus; the flash-freeze snap of the dry air hitting the nostrils; the tear-blinking speed of the drop on the fast snow.
Stowe has always been a challenge. The unforgiving rigor of Mt. Mansfield, the highest peak in Vermont, coupled with the no-nonsense austerity of the operation, have made it axiomatic that if you could ski Stowe in January, you could ski anywhere.
But this year, it is much easier to take the 2,150-foot plunge. And if lift tickets are now $19 -- up $3 in two years -- it's worth the tariff. A new double chairlift moves 1,200 skiers per hour some 5,000 feet into the piney fastness. The new lift is said to be "high speed," but in a half-dozen trips early this month it didn't seem to move any faster than the dreaded original chair. (The frigid crawl across 6,000 open feet, hanging above the tree-line with a northwest wind flaying your face into beef jerky, remains one of the paramount human miseries of our time.)
Sacrifice, however, pays off on the way down, where the results of Stowe's $3.5 million dollar snow-making system are wonderfully apparent. In the old days, a principal amusement of skiing Stowe in January was the opportunity to encounter an occasional rock or interesting root on the narrow, twisting trails. Those of less than goat-like agility found the discovery literally arresting. Often they were abruptly pitched forward -- and, if still conscious -- were able to study the protruding flora at close range.
No more: On the seven miles of trails covered by snowmaking, the base was from 10 to 34 inches deep -- with at least 40 more inches of natural snow expected this year. As a result, those 100 acres of trails are easily negotiable top to bottom -- thanks also to careful grooming. Unfortunately, only one of the snowmaking trails is serviced by Stowe's 7,000-foot gondola: a marvel of comfort and convenience.
There are few drawbacks to skiing Stowe and most of them are being remedied in a six-phase expansion. Plans are under way to increase the number of trails, improve the limited parking, add snowmaking to more gondola trails, and increase lodging nearer to trhe mountain -- sometime in the next four years. "We're a company that's not in a hurry," says Rollins. But meanwhile, things are better than ever.
That's also the story at Killington. The small conglomerate of four base lodges and five mountains -- with Vermont's longest season and highest vertical drop -- at first appears more like a national park than a ski area. Its 13 lifts cover eight separate areas and 75 runs, all artfully interconnected with linking trails. On Jan. 6, with moderate winds and temperatures around 10 degrees, Killington was a virtual archetype of early-season Vermont skiing. The snowmaking trails were generally fast and well-groomed, with only occasional high-traffic areas skied down to the ice base. (Hitting those spots at 25 miles an hour is like clattering across five yards of empty Coke bottles.)
The area added six more miles of snowmaking last summer -- bringing to 43 the number of trails covered -- and every foot is welcome. The natural trails in early January often degenerated into a ghastly rock-strewn ice pack -- roughly the equivalent of skiing a wet Safeway parking lot. Another benefit of the man-made surface: Even the most ice-wary skier can afford to look up from his tips now and then -- and the view into Killington basin is one of the handsomest in New England, especially seen through the snow-cocooned pines in Killington's wooded Glades area.
Less inviting in early January, but already boasting firm bases, are two of Killington's premier attractions. One is the four-mile, gently graded run serviced by the 18,000-foot gondola line. The splendid view (after a panicked sprint to jump into the fast-moving cars) and the length of the trail make it a comfortable and anxiety-free invitation to the novice. The other is Bear Mountain, a 2,800 foot acrophobe's nightmare of moguls and miasma which is the steepest lift-service skiing in New England.
These two features, coupled with Killington's capacious conventional skiing, make the $17 lift ticket one of the best bargains of the year.
Another best bet this year was Mt. Snow on Jan. 7. The night before, the gravid and obliging heavens had dropped a foot of new snow on the wide, gentle slopes of southern Vermont's largest area. Powder skiing at Mt. Snow? It came as a soft surprise to the area's mostly intermediate skiers, who arrived expecting to grapple with hardpack.
As it was, there was nothing to do but sit back, keep the tips up and go for it. The small crowds of mid-week skiers did just that, finding no lift lines at the chairs and only brief waits at the gondola. On the way up, they observed a peculiar sight: With a foot of new powder on the ground, and more pelting down from clouds the color of old motor oil, the snowmaking guns were blasting away.
"We make snow every chance we get," says marketing manager McCloy. It's part of the area's determination to give customers their money's worth. Sixty-five percent of Mr. Snow's skiers, McCloy says, are drawn there by word of mouth -- and "this year, our message is value." With lift tickets at $16, the second-highest lift capacity in the region (two gondolas and 10 chairs), the best novice skiing in New England, and easy access by car, you might think they already had done enough.
But McCloy, like Rowan at Killington (which owns Mt. Snow), is worried about the recession's effect on the occasional skier. "We're shooting for the discretionary guy, the one at the bottom" of the income scale, says McCloy. The Killington/Mt. Snow effort to reach that market includes not only new discount packages and television ads, but technological innovations like the "snow tiller," a whirling behemoth with blades spinning at 1,000 rpms, which is said to turn the iciest crust into six inches of fluffy surface.
Mt. Snow is also working hard on ski clubs and recreation associations ("It's like selling suits in South Philadelphia," McCloy says) to build up the non-weekend trade. "Ski patterns are different this year," he says, "all the areas in the East are hurting for mid-week business." One obvious reason is the reservation policy at both lodges: Hefty deposits are required well in advance, but are not refunded if cancellations are less than 30 days before the reservation date. Given New England's notoriously volatile climate, where conditions vary drastically from week to week, who can blame the consumer for not risking a couple of hundred dollars on hypothetical weather several weeks down the line?
Lift-ticket policy is also a disincentive. Large signs at ticket windows warn that customers will receive no refunds for weather conditions. This means that a mid-week skier who buys a five- or seven-day ticket, and finds a warm rain falling on four of those days will just have to bite the meterorological bullet. Sking is a high-risk sport in more ways than one.
On the other hand, the occasional spectacular day costs no more than the odd disappointment. And on Jan. 7, there were plenty of skiers who would have paid $25 a ticket to blast down Mt. Snow's short but lively expert trails, springing from bump to bump, thigh muscles burning, powder flying into the Kodachrome blue, slap-crunch rhythm of the skis building, sensation pushing out thought till there's nothing left but pure animal joy in the snows of yesterday.