Are you ready for some downhill? While you were busy designing your Halloween costume, you probably missed the weather news: Snow to the west and southwest of Washington. Six inches at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia, more than three at Hidden Valley in Pennsylvania. And if you still think it's too early to think about skiing, wake up: Snowshoe opens today.

So to get you ready for the season, we offer the latest in news on what it will cost you to ski (and ways to reduce those fees) and some alternative winter adventures: snowmobiling and sleigh rides.

Mountain High, Prices Low

Ski lift ticket prices continue to rise, with weekend and holiday rates often above $40, and one resort -- Snowshoe Mountain -- raising its prime-time rates to $49. But there are ways to get around the increases in ticket prices, if you are a die-hard skier or even if you are a mere novice. Here is a look at some cost-saving moves:

Season passes. Many ski resorts offer season passes, but they are a savings only if you ski at the resort more than 10 to 15 times a season. That has changed at two resorts, Hidden Valley near Somerset, Pa., and Wintergreen in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Charlottesville, which have dramatically slashed their season pass rates.

Hidden Valley's deal is the best in the region. For $200 ($150 for children age 12 and younger), skiers can buy a season pass that allows unlimited skiing and snowboarding at the 2,000-acre, 25-slope resort. That compares to the single weekend and holiday lift-ticket rates of $40, $32 for ages 6 through 12 (younger are free any time with paying adult). The new rates are about a 60 percent discount off last year's season pass prices of $530 for adults, $365 for juniors. Hidden Valley also offers a season tubing pass for $59; the regular single-use fee is $9 weekdays, $12 weekends. For more information, call 800/458-0175.

Wintergreen, an 11,000-acre resort, offers a $99 midweek season pass for skiers and snowboarders that is good from twilight Sunday through Friday night. Regular single lift-ticket rates during those periods range from $18 nights to $33 weekdays. Wintergreen also offers a family package with up to four of the midweek passes for $299, with an option of adding additional family passes for just $59.

An equipment rental season pass, for skis or snowboards, is offered for $50 if purchased with a season pass. The rental pass also includes a 50 percent discount on group ski lessons. Call 800/325-2200.

For cross-country devotees, White Grass Touring in West Virginia's Canaan Valley offers a season pass of $75, $140 for a couple and $25 for children. Regular single-day fees are $10, $5 children. Call 304/866-4114 for details.

Another form of a season discount is the Advantage Cards offered by Ski Liberty in Fairfield, Pa., and its sister resorts, Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry, Pa., and Whitetail Ski Area in Mercersburg, Pa. The Advantage Cards cost $89, $149 for a family, and give the cardholder(s) a 40 percent discount off lift tickets and class lessons at Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop, 40 percent off rentals if the cardholder also purchased the rental option ($49 additional) plus special rates at the Liberty Hotel at Ski Liberty. Ski Liberty is also celebrating its 35th anniversary by offering a Night Season Pass for $269 that gives the passholder unlimited skiing after 5 p.m. all season. For more information, call Ski Liberty at 717/642-8282; for Ski Roundtop, call 717/432-9631; and for Whitetail Ski Area, call 717/328-9400.

(Snow Time Inc., owners of Ski Roundtop and Ski Liberty in Pennsylvania and Ski Windham in New York, recently purchased Whitetail Ski Area in Mercersburg, Pa.)

And whatever form of season pass you buy, you can save even more by buying it next year in September or October, when prices are 10 percent to 15 percent lower than they are after November arrives.

Ski packages. One of the better savings plans offered at many resorts is one that includes a lift ticket, rental skis and a lesson. Bryce Mountain in Basye, Va., for example, offers first-time skiers a package that includes a lift ticket, rental skis and a lesson for $35 weekdays, $45 weekends and holidays. Bryce's lift tickets alone sell for $27 weekdays and $37 weekends and holidays, so novices will get rental skis and a lesson for only $8 additional. For more information about Bryce's package, call 540/856-2121, or check with your favorite resort about its lift ticket/lessons/rentals packages.

Buy a multi-day ticket. This works best if you are taking a week off to ski. Snowshoe Mountain in Slatyfork, W. Va., offers five-day (Monday through Friday) lift tickets for $170 adults, $110 juniors and $136 seniors and students. That's a savings of $40 for adults, $50 juniors and $34 seniors and students. Call 304/572-1000.

Don't buy more ski time than you need. In years past, you usually had two options: a daytime lift ticket or nighttime ticket. Many resorts now have a variety of ski lift tickets: half-day, twilight, flex time in four- and eight-hour segments, for example. So before you buy, consider just how long you really want to ski and buy accordingly. (The rates in the ski charts accompanying this article focus on daytime and nightly rates and do not include all of the many variations offered by some resorts.)

Join a ski club or organize your own group. Ski resorts offer lift-ticket discounts to organized groups. The discount, of course, depends on the size of your group and how often you will visit.

"As long as you have 15 or more members you can get a Night Club Card that gives you unlimited skiing after 4 p.m. for $125 all season," said Eric Flynn, vice president of Snow Time's Pennsylvania's ski areas. Other Night Club Card options include adding unlimited skiing lessons and the use of rental equipment after 4 p.m. for only $20 per option. Participants 18 and younger can add the lessons or rental option for only $10 per option.

Check the ski resorts for details of their group discount plans. A list of area ski clubs that welcome new members is on Page 43.

Flexible Flyers

Skiing and snowboarding are great, but there are times when you want to find other ways to enjoy the winter. And at Snowshoe Mountain, visitors can take a serene sleigh ride through the woods or roar around the mountain on a high-powered snowmobile.

Snowmobiling, an activity far more popular in the North and the West than it is in this region because of the unpredictability of natural snow in the Mid-Atlantic, is now offered at the West Virginia resort."We use the Skidoo 550s, a two-seat snowmobile," said Michael Valach, director of Snowshoe's outdoor programs. "It's a guided tour. We have three separate areas for snowmobiling. One we call the Airport Area, a big open area where we can do riding and loops."

Another trail goes over a mountain and a third goes to the Sunrise Back Country Hut, Valach said. "The hut sleeps 12 to 14 people and it has a caretaker who cooks breakfast and dinner."

Snowmobile riders can stay at the hut for $78 per person per night, which includes breakfast and dinner. "We will take you out there on snowmobiles, but we encourage people to use snowshoes or cross-country skis to get to the hut. You can also go just for dinner. That costs $150 per couple for the dinner and use of the snowmobile."

The rates for riding the snowmobile are $50, $20 for the second person. You have to be 18 to drive the snowmobile. Children age 8 and older can ride as passengers.

For those who prefer a quieter adventure, take a sleigh ride pulled by a pair of Morgan horses. Valach said two different rides are offered: a 10 - to 15-minute introductory sleigh ride and a longer one-hour tour. Fees are $5 for the short ride, $60 for two, plus $10 for each additional rider for the longer trips. Valach recommends reservations for the snowmobile tours and the longer sleigh rides, particularly on weekends. For more information, call 304/572-1000.