Every winter hundreds of Washington-area skiers jet to Europe to ski there for the first time, and the often bewildering differences between skiing in the United States (even in the Rockies) and the Alps are apparent immediately. Unless they have been briefed by veterans of European skiing, the newcomers seldom are prepared for their first experience. Major surprises:
*What, no base lodge? Offhand it's hard to think of an American ski area without a base lodge that contains, usually, lockers, a cafeteria, bars, rental and repair shops and a ski shop.
Just try to find a "base lodge" in any European ski area. Oh, they may have a large concrete building, the terminus of a cable car, where tickets are sold. But most locate their amenities halfway up the mountain, often above timberline, including the restaurants with huge sun decks for dining, drinking and relaxing.
Except for the coldest days of January, European skiers take a leisurely lunch outside, faces covered by suntan cream.
American skiers who have never walked much in their ski boots -- usually putting them on in the base lodge and tucking apre s-ski boots into a corner -- soon realize it's necessary to wear them a great deal, walking or riding shuttle buses to ski lifts.
*"Le Ski Est Strictement Interdit": While a few ski areas are somewhat multilingual, especially those catering to British skiers, most European signs, warnings, instructions, maps, and ski-lift tariffs are in one language only.
On my first ski trip to Europe, I learned the hard way by ignoring a sign in German announcing that a poma lift closed for lunch from "12:30 -- 14:00" (even the international clock takes some getting used to). After skiing down a huge snowfield, I was ready to ride up the slope again but found out that lunchtime is serious business in Europe, even with poma lift attendants.
*Where are the snow cats?: On a winter's night it is a common sight in the East to see headlights of snow-grooming machinery crossing ski slopes, preparing trails for the morning. If it snows throughout the night, "snow cats" work all night, packing the new powder down to a smooth surface. In the morning, the area ski report will claim, "Nine inches of new packed powder."
Some European ski areas still don't pack overnight snow. To unaccustomed skiers, this powder can be disquieting. A few hot-shot American skiers have acquired sudden humility in a foot of new powder in the snowfields above Chamonix in France.
*Where is the ski patrol?: Ski patrollers "sweeping" the mountain at day's end, a common sight on U.S. slopes, is not yet common in Europe.
*Ski lifts: A wide variety of lifts exists in Europe, even funiculars. Huge 60-person cable cars are common. (Fortunately smoking is now prohibited in most of these jam-packed cars.) In a few areas, skiers begin the day taking a train up to the ski fields.
Poma lifts have disappeared from most American resorts, but they are very common in Europe, even in the posh places. Sometimes called platter lifts, networks of these tricky, uncomfortable people-movers (they can trip you up easily) cover vast snowfields above the tree line.
*Tickets: What a variety of lift tickets! Most popular with transatlantic skiers are weekly tickets. Take passport-sized photographs of yourself to Europe because a photo becomes part of your laminated ticket. These tickets -- one price for low season, another for high -- are sometimes good on village shuttle buses, as well as at municipal swimming pool, sauna and exercise complexes. Occasionally they're valid at adjoining ski areas.
Many ski areas have a point system for ski lift tickets. You buy a book of points (or a ticket that's punched). Each ride up a chairlift, platter lift, cable car or T-bar is worth so many points. This is a fine system for leisurely skiers who want to do a little skiing and a lot of noontime sunning. (In contrast, most U.S. tickets are sold on a daily-use basis; you pay the full price whether you ride the lifts once or a dozen times.)
Increasingly French ski areas are using magnetic tickets issued for a certain period of time and checked by a machine that emits the French equivalent of "TILT" if the ticket presented is not valid.
*Equipment: Rental skis are generally first-class and new at the start of each ski season in Europe, but it costs $40 to $50 a week for skis and poles. Skiers who take their own boots to Europe and rent skis do save themselves the effort of carrying skis around, but during European school vacations, ski rental shops may not have all ski lengths in stock.
Many American skiers (I'm among them) prefer the hassle of toting their own skis not only to save rental charges, but to ski on familiar skis with a safety-release binding that's understood and well adjusted. Most Americans buy European-made ski bindings -- a great advantage in Europe if a small part is missing or the binding is damaged in transit.