The 1,000 or so oil executives,reporters and bureaucrats who crammed into the international banquet house here for the sale of lucrative oil drilling rights off Alaska's north coast were greeted with a six-inch snowfall that turned the parking lot outside into a sludge pit and professional decorum into helpless frustration.

"I'll just hope I can get it out later," sighed one sale-goer as he plowed his new Buick into a drift and rushed in to the auction.

Inside the banquet house, an unpretentious auditorium known more for wide-screen TV presentations of heavyweight title bouts than as a center of petroleum industry finance, the temperature, humidity, and smoke levels all rose as the 10 a.m. Alaska sale time drew near.

"This won't do me any good at all," fretted one man as he nervously munched a doughnut while waiting for the auction to begin. Footwear told the tale of the state of the oil industry in Alaska, a mix of bankers' wingtips, cowboy boots bespeaking petroleum's Texas nexus and a smattering of the insulated boots that Alaskans call shoepacs.

As the sale wore on, with an Interior Department official in a blinding red blazer calling out the bids in a metallic southern drawl, the crowd was silent, furiously scribbling down the multimillion-dollar numbers in an effort to keep up.

"Slow down, slow down, you're going too fast," several notetakers cried as the pace increased with the amounting size of the bids, over $200 million per tract in some areas.

Two hours later, the room sagged almost visibly with relief as the last bid was read and the sale officials disappeared into a back room to total them.

"At least I can stop sleeping with this thing under my pillow," said one oil company executive as he opened his previously top-secret briefcase to share its contents with reporters.