IT'S NOT exactly a bum rap -- calling skiing the iceman's sport of kings. When you start with $25 for a lift ticket and move up to a down-lined parka, high-tech designer skis, rear-entry plastic boots and some well- deserved apres-ski life, you're looking at a $100-a-day sport.
Still, there's nothing quite like those breathtaking plunges down mountain sides. And, yes, there are ways to get your skiing thrills cheaper.
The first pocketbook challenge is the high and mighty lift ticket. Ski resorts from Maine to California report the price of this season's ski lift ticket is up by as much as $3 a day, due in part to soaring insurance costs and, in some cases, to expanded snowmaking and chairlift capacity.
Colorado highs are $27 a day at such major ski peaks as Aspen and Vail. For weekend skiers, Saturday, Sunday and holiday prices at major Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland ski resorts range from $20 to $28, with Wintergreen in Virginia at the top end and Canaan Valley in West Virginia lying low. Popular, close-by ski hills such as Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania are a more average $24, while the challenging Blue Knob, also in Pennsylvania, is only $21.
There isn't much you can do about these fees if you want to ski on a Saturday or Sunday. Nearby resorts have more skiers on weekends than they can handle. But the slopes are more price-competitive during the week. If you have a job or life style that lets you skip town on a weekday, you'll find lift ticket rates bottoming out at $16 to $20 a day.
And there are weekday specials: Ski Liberty features Ladies' Day on Tuesdays and Men's Day on Thursday, when the appropriate gender pays $22 for an all-day lift ticket and a 11/2- hour ski lesson. Beginners who appear at Liberty any non-holiday Monday through Friday can learn to ski (11/2-hour lesson) and use a lift ticket for $22 all day, or $11 half-day.
If your entrepreneurial blood is up, you can organize a group of friends for a Saturday or Sunday ski outing and save on lift ticket prices by qualifying for group rates. Not all slopes offer group rates on weekends (Liberty, for one, does not), but at Blue Knob, for instance, groups of 30 or more can buy lift tickets for $17 each, plus a complimentary ticket for the organizer. Massanutten in Virginia defines a group as 20 or more -- that's four or five families -- whereupon, rates drop from $25 to $20 each plus a complimentary ticket for the organizer. For all group rate programs, you must call in advance and make reservations.
For those who don't want to do it themselves, ski clubs and others into group dynamics (county recreation departments, travel agencies) put together packages of bus transportation and lift ticket for a Saturday or Sunday day trip. Those who sign on not only save on lift ticket prices but, usually, on transportation as well. It's cheaper to leave the driving to them.
For information, check with ski shops (they usually have bulletin board postings of trips), county recreation departments and such ski clubs as Fagowees (441-8585) and Ski Club of Washington (536-8273). A Fagowee Saturday trek to Roundtop, for instance, runs $25, and that covers lift ticket, carpool ride and a chili- and-beer party afterward. (You don't have to be a Fagowee member, which costs $20, but members get preference.) The Ski Club of Washington offers a Wintergreen trip for $39 for members, $42.50 for non-members, and that includes lift tickets, roundtrip bus, dinner and juice breaks. (Membership in the Washington Ski Club is $20).
If you can hold off skiing until March, has Snowshoe got a deal for you. The West Virginia resort with dazzling Cupp Run and other challenging trails is having its financial problems and so is trying to lure skiers. Part of that push is a 50 percent discount on lift tickets (currently $25 a day on weekends) and lodging plus discounts on rental equipment during its "Almost Heaven" season. That season begins March 8.
Wisp in Maryland has a here-and-now semi- bargain for weekend skiers. If you pay for your lift tickets in cash, you earn a 5 percent discount off the $20.95 ticket.
But lift tickets can be only the beginning of the cash flow problem. For beginners there are lessons. It's unsafe, unwise and unfair to others for a beginner to be out on the slopes without professional pointers on how to control skis and skier. A basic 1- beginner group lesson runs $10 to $15.
Wintergreen, a ski hill not known for bargains, offers beginners a free first lesson -- if you rent your equipment from Wintergreen. Rentals run $14 a day on weekends for skis, boots and poles. Massanutten in Virginia has a weekday (Monday through Friday) Guarantee to Ski plan for beginners. For $25, the resort will provide a lift ticket, rental equipment and a lesson and guarantee that by the end of the day you can turn left, turn right and stop, or else you get your money back.
When it comes to suiting up for skiing, forget the wide-stripe, form-fitting parka and matching stretch pants. If you're a beginner, you don't need a $400 outfit. Jeans, treated with waterproofing spray, worn over long underwear will do in all but the coldest and wettest conditions. For an extra measure of protection in bleak weather, pick up a pair of wind pants, slip-on overpants that cost about $35. You won't look like a fashion-plate, but neither cold nor wet nor wind will get you.
For upper-body warmth, pile on layers from your existing wardrobe. Start with a turtleneck, topped by a sweater, topped by a jacket that leaves your arms able to swing freely. Since beginners rarely get to the top of the highest, coldest mountains, there's no need to worry about down and Thinsulate linings. But do put a hat on your head. If it's really cold, you'll also find a bandana for the face and goggles for the eyes help keep you warm.
Gear for beginners is best rented. Skis appropriate on the learning curve aren't what you'll want when you progress. The cost of skis, boots and poles at nearby mountain resorts ranges from $11 to $16 a day. If your car is equipped to tote skis, you may find it more relaxing to rent from a local ski shop. Prices are about the same, but renting at home will save you ski time -- weekend waiting lines at slopeside rental shops can be formidable.
For those ready to make a commitment to skiing, the cheapest way to buy gear is second-hand. Check out local ski shops. They often buy used gear on trade-ins and resell to novices. At the Ski Center, for instance, manager Stuart Kahane reports you can buy used ski boots for $40 to $70, skis with bindings for $60 to $80 and poles, when available, for $6 to $10.
The other second-hand ploy is to shop the ski swaps. The swaps are a 12-year-old Washington tradition. They take place in September and October in the parking lots of almost all local ski shops. (Each shop designates its own day for the swap.) Skiers bring gear they've outgrown (physically or skill-wise), put a price on it and leave it there for buyers to touch, feel and try on.
Members of local ski patrols are on hand to help buyers with questions about safety of the bindings, conditions of the skis and fit of the boots. (The ski patrols earn a percentage of the sales in exchange for their free advice.)
It's not unusual to pick up a pair of unscathed three-year-old boots for $50 and two- year-old skis for $80. There's also clothing available, although for adults the quality and variety are not on a par with the skis. The selection of kids' clothing is much better, and for families with little skiers, swaps are the most economical way to keep pace with growth.
As for keeping the body stoked while you ski, hamburgers and fries at base lodges tend to be both bad and expensive. You won't like the long lunch-hour lines, either, so BYOBB -- bring your own brown bag and store it with your shoes and extra mittens. No one will think you're a cheapskate if you bring your own thermos of hot chocolate or coffee, either.
And, if you've paid full price for that lift ticket, you'll want to get your money's worth. Arrive early when the slopes are least crowded; break for lunch at 11 a.m. when the greatest number of skiers are out on the trails, and then ski from noon to two o'clock while the rest of the ski world is in the base lodge fighting for a place on the hamburger line.
Penelope Lemov is a Washington writer.