Ask almost any skier what they don't like about the sport, and they'll shoot back a ready answer: "Lift lines." Or, more acurately: "Those [bleep] lines."

They have no one to blame but themselves: They skied off the slopes and told everybody what a great day they'd had. Before long, everbody they knew was standing in line in front of them.

On weekends or holidays it's almost impossible to avoid these lines.At some of our area slopes they may stretch for 20 to 30 minutes on a busy day. That's a lot of standing-around time in sub-freezing weather, even when you're zipped tightly in a down-filled parka.

To escape the masses, some enthusiasts fly off to the Colorado Rockies, a skier's paradise, except for the thousands of other skiers who've flown in to share the lifts.

The Alps, you suggest? Often crowded, too, says a McLean physical therapist who owns a ski condominium in Switzerland.

The problem in Europe, she says, isn't so much the length of the lines, but their disorder. Europeans tend to be assertive in line and think nothing of barging ahead. Naive Americans, accustomed to the "first-come, first-served" rule that usually prevails here, are left standing outside the cable-car door.

Not that lift-line rudeness doesn't show up here -- it does. Take this scene witnessed by a Bryce Resort vacationer and his wife:

They had just lined up behind 50 or more pairs of skiers inching toward the chairlift. Down the mountain slid more skiers, most heading for the end of the line. But one boy, about 10, joined his father at mid-line. Well, all right so far.

Then, moments later, Big Sis skied up and also joined the pair. Then Little Sis. And Mother. And then -- who knows? -- it could have been Grandma and Grandpa. The line was growing faster at the middle than at the end.

As you might expect, the skiers at the rear protested. "Line forms at the rear!" they shouted. And more pointedly, "Stop crowding in!" But only Mother seemed a trifle upset by the commotion. Nodding toward her husband, she explained as if in defense: "He was saving our place."

Because the lift line moves faster if both seats in a double-chair are filled, skiers alone in line usually yell out "Single!" to draw lift partners. fIn some resorts, you can't ride up a chair alone when the line is long.

It's a good policy, and one way for the lone skier to meet new friends. And if you're lucky, you can sometimes connect with a single skier who's already at the front.

But even the singles bit can be abused. There's the couple who zipped down the trails faster than their two friends. At the bottom, they lined up together. Minutes later, though, when their friends showed up, the first pair began shouting, "Single!" pretending they didn't know each other. Whereupon the second couple -- also advertising themselves as singles -- slipped to the head of the line to join them. Dozens of other skiers behind could only grumble their outrage.

Sometimes you wait your turn patiently only to get to the front of the line as the ski-school classes show up. In some places, they go ahead of other skiers.

And the fact that most of our local slopes are so short adds to the problem. You wait in line, say 15 minutes. The chairlift ride (with occasional stops when novices tumble getting off) eats up another 10. At last you're at the top. If you're any good at all, it's zoom-zoom-zoom-check. lBack down to the lift line in 90 seconds.

Some ski areas, such as Massanutten and Wintergreen in Virginia, say they shut down ticket booths when crowds get so heavy that lines are from 12 to 15 minutes.

How many skiers a mountain can handle is sometimes a question of what the weather is. On a bitter day, the crowd is in the lounge and you've got the lift to yourself.

Because it's the closest resort to Washington, Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, gets its share of the weekend and holday jams. But, says mountain manager Hans Geier, the policy there is not to limit ticket sales. A late-rising skier who drives an hour and a half to reach Liberty "has no other place to go" if he were to close the ticket booth.

To make the best of the situation, Liberty sets up barriers to cut down on lift-line hoppers, and ticket checkers see that skiers take their proper places. "Nothing's so aggravating," says assistant manger Richard Whitney, "than to see people sneaking in."

To avoid lift lines, resort managers advise that you ski Monday through Friday or at night. Early in the season, before Christmas, or late in the season, after the first week in March, it's less crowded, too.

But most of us continue to show up on weekends in mid-season, so you try to get the most out of a busy day. Lines are shortest from 8 to 11 in the morning, says Whitney.

Another good time to ski, he says, is from noon to 1, when the clock sends many skiers in to lunch. Instead, "Hold off your lunch until 2."

The longest lines all day, he thinks, are from 2 to 3.

Take your coffee or restroom break while the morning and afternoon ski-school classes are making their way up the mountain at the beginning of each session.

After 4 o'clock again, says Whitney, "things really thin out" until the day ticket expires at 5.

One thing to beware: While you're waiting, you stand a good chance of dozing off. You can see it happening up and down the line. Your skis slip, you tumble and take a bunch of strangers with you.