Surprise! The cost of a lift ticket hasn't gone down. Nor has the price of gas to get to the slopes. Nor the cost of a room at the inn. Skiing is the same pricey sport it's always been.
Skiers don't resent cost half as much as they do crowds. If a lift ticket is $23 and you ski 20 runs, you're satisfied: You've gotten your money's worth. If the lift-line waits cut you down to seven runs, you're turned off: You might abandon the area or even the sport.
To improve the ratio of lift-to run-time, several local ski resorts have expanded their facilities.
"There'll be lift-line surprises to make things more pleasant for our skiers this year," says Anders Rosen of Pennsylvania's Ski Liberty, which has an unfortunate history of 40- to 50-minute lift-line waits. With several runs a mere 500 to 600 feet long, that's a lot of waiting for a little skiing.
Last year the area cut those waits in half by adding four new slopes and a quadruple chair lift to the back side of the mountain. This year, prime-time lift tickets are $17 and the owners have improved the new slopes and access to the new lifts. Rosen now predicts waits of no more than 10 to 15 minutes on the busiest of days. He hints that the surprises he has in store for skiers are atmospheric -- perhaps some entertainment for skiers on line?
At Jack Frost, where a prime-time $16 lift ticket is good at its sister slope, Big Boulder, as well, skiers will find five new trails with their own new chair lift. The vertical drop on the new trails is 100 feet steeper than the rest.
Wintergreen, near Charlottesville in the Blue Ridge, has also added three expert slopes and a chair lift. A 1,003-foot drop comes with the new territory, making Wintergreen, where a prime-time lift ticket is $22, one of four ski resorts south of New York to offer a drop of more than 1,000 feet. The new slope and lift will affect lift-line waits for advanced skiers: With an area of their own, they won't have to share lifts with novices, who outnumber them.
Snowshoe, in West Virginia, where a lift ticket can be as high as $24, has been plagued with lift-line waits of 30 to 40 minutes on busy weekends and holidays. Two new triple chair lifts and several new trails -- including one cut in a style similar to the long and challenging Cupp Run -- should help keep skiers on the slopes rather than on line.
The crowding at Snowshoe and nearby Canaan Valley may also be alleviated by the opening of a new ski resort in the area. Mount Timberline, one mile from Canaan Valley in Davis, West Virginia, opens this season with a 400-foot vertical drop and three trails serviced by a 2,000-foot-long T-bar. The lift-ticket price, a bargain at $7, is priced "to entice people to come," says manager Fred Soltow. Next year the price will go up as Timberline puts in a 3,600-foot-long chair lift to serve a 1,000-foot vertical drop with six trails, one of which will be about a mile long.
Ski areas can also help people ski more for their money by limiting the numbers on the slopes. Waterville Valley on Mount Tecumseh in New Hampshire is trying reservations, just as you would make for dinner. To make a reservation, you must buy a $20 reservation card or stay at a lodge in the valley, under the policy that coverd weekends and major holiday periods. Management claims that the plan will assure lift lines of 15 minutes or less.
Wintergreen keeps its lift-line waits in check by closing the ticket office when a certain number of skiers have bought tickets. The number varies with weather conditions -- the meaner the weather, the more skiers they let in, because in bad weather skiers spend more time in the lodge than on the slopes.
Last year the cut-off point was between 1,800 and 2,300 skiers, and the gates were often closed by 8 on a weekend morning. With the new trails and chair lift, Wintergreen will increase its capacity figures to 2,800 to 3,200 skiers. Jim Rankin, who manages the mountain, says he aims for average lift-line waits of 10 to 12 minutes and an end to the 8 a.m. rush hour.
Several ski areas use a less-refined means of limiting access: their parking lots.
"When we get to a point where the parking lot is full, we close the access road," says Ken Knize, general manager of Big Boulder. The system effectively keeps the number of skiers down. Since Big Boulder and Jack Frost offer half- day (8 to noon) and twilight (noon to 10) tickets, many skiers wait on the access road for an early bird to clear out.
Night skiing is another way to get more runs for your money. The 5-to-10 session is cheaper (often half the price of a day ticket) and less crowded than the 8-to-4 slot. You have to enjoy dodging teen-age skiers to like night skiing, but the lift lines are shorter.
When night skiing first started, only the tamest slopes were lit. Today, many local resorts have illuminated between 50 and 90 percent of their runs. Among the areas less than two hours away are Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop in Pennsylvania, and Bryce and Massanutten in Virginia.
If you can't beat the crowds, you can try to beat the cost.
During the Christmas-New Year rush, 99.9 percent of the ski slopes pull in big bucks by charging prime rates every day of the holiday week: no week-long packages or other discounts. One of the few to give holiday and weekend skiers a break is Sugarbush in the Green Mountains of Vermont. A prime-time lift ticket is a top-of-the-line $23, but if you buy a ticket for more than one day, you enjoy a discount of $2 to $3 per day, depending on the number of days you buy.
If you're fairly new to skiing and aren't ready to take on the heady pitch of the front four at Stowe or slopes with such names as Shincracker, why pay for the time, effort and expense of chair lifts strung across deep ravines and up majestic mountain peaks? Ski something more modest where the prices are more moderate. Sunday River in Maine and Bolton Valley in Vermont, for instance, offer, respectively, 11/2- and two-mile-long runs with vertical drops of a respectable 1,600 and 1,100 feet. The lift-ticket prices are $3 to $4 less than their imposing neighbors.
While $22 is the going rate at many local and major ski resorts, there are some out-of-the-way but very respectable and challenging slopes where tickets are under $20. For a family of four, those $2 or $3 savings per ticket add up. Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, prices its lift ticket way below Stowe or Killington but still offers a 2,600-foot vertical drop, 36 miles of trails and the only above-timberline lift in the East. Since the nearest big cities are Kingfield (16 miles away) and Waterville (56 miles away), there tends to be little crowding on the slopes at Sugarloaf.
Steamboat Springs has an even better offer for families with children under 12. The kids can ski free if their parents buy a five-day ticket and stay five nights at a participating lodge. The lodge won't charge for occupancy if the child stays in the same room; and if parents rent equipment, kids get their equipment free.
If you like to ski the West, the price of getting to the slopes is more of an issue than the lift ticket. Keystone in the Arapahoe Basin outside Denver has worked out an arrangement with Continental Airlines that can save Washington skiers $100 off the super-saver round-trip airfare to Denver: If you purchase a Keystone Ski Tour package (reserve lodging there), the round-trip airfare from Dulles to Denver via Continental is $125. And, if you stop at a supermarket, sporting-goods store or ski shop on your way to the slopes from the airport, you can buy the $20 lift ticket for $16.