Having a wonderful time skiing. Wish you were here." That slightly plaintive message echoes from the Mid-Atlantic ski areas as complaints come from managers that the reason they're doing so badly this year is that the skiers don't believe in snowmaking.
"The skiing has been good, but it's hard to get skiers up here," said one area operator. "People think there has to be a foot of snow in the cities before you can ski in the mountains."
The Mid-Atlantic region is not the only area hard-hit by the balmy weather. New England skiing is down drastically -- a combination of the skiers' belief that it has to snow before you can ski, and a lack of snowmaking facilities.
The Mid-Atlantic ski areas within easy driving distance of Washington are much better equipped for snowmaking than areas in any other part of the country.Many have had more skiing days than areas in Vermont. But that hasn't brought the skiers in.
Areas that draw from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have been harder hit than those farther south. Blue Knob, in southwestern Pennsylvania, has had a 30 percent drop in skiers over last year.
South of Washington, the picture is different. "Southern skiers are used to going skiing when the temperature at home is in the 50s. They've never known it any other way," an area manager said.
Snowshoe, in West Virginia, has had a 38 percent increase in skiers. Wintergreen, in Virginia, had to shut off lift ticket sales twice during the Christmas holiday because the area was at capacity.
The unusually warm winter we've had so far -- the warmest, least snowy winter this century, according to one local weather service -- may be nature's answer to Khomeini and the OPEC price-gougers, but it's squeezing the skiers and the ski areas, too. Even the expensive, sophisticated snowmaking machinery at many local areas cannot keep snow on the ground when the weather gets really warm.
"I make snow any time it falls below 34 degrees, but a fog, a warm rain or a series of warm sunny days wipe out any advances I make," one local operator said.
Where there is snow, it's corn snow -- spring conditions prevail in January. Corn snow, a granular, soft, very wet snow means slow skiing, and many people don't like it. "Beginners have a problem," said a ski school director. "It's really only the better skiers who like corn snow."
If uncrowded slopes and spring skiing appeal to you, you might want to try local areas. As of midweek, most areas were open on a limited basis, and are expected to stay open through the weekend and into next week. They are all hoping for colder weather.
Following are conditions at local ski areas and comments from spokesmen.
Wisp (McHenry, Md.) -- Spring-like skiing on five of 14 slopes and some bare spots. "We haven't tried to encourage skiers. If we were swamped, we'd really have a mess. But it could have been worse."
Big Boulder (Lake harmony, Pa.) -- Granular "corn" snow on eight of 10 slopes. "There are probably bare spots to be found, but not many."
Blue Knob (Bedford, Pa.) -- Plenty of cover on three of 14 slopes, but skiing is only fair. "It's a damned poor year, but last week we finally picked up."
Camelback (Tannersville, Pa.) -- Granular skiing on 15 of 17 slopes. "Skiers have been coming down from New England because we have more here than they have there."
Elk Mountain (Uniondale, Pa.) -- Granular snow with icy spots on four of 12 slopes. "It hasn't been super bad, but we haven't had conditions to warrant severe crowds. Fortunately, we have not gotten them."
Jack Frost (White Haven, Pa.) -- Wet granular snow on eight of 11 slopes. "We have snowmaking on 100 percent of the terrain; it's saving us."
Seven Springs (Somerset, Pa.) -- Granular corn snow on five of six slopes. "It's an endless spring, a solid season of spring skiing -- hard in the morning, soft in the afternoon."
Ski Liberty (Gettysburg, Pa.) -- All slopes open, granular surface. "People are surprised we've got snow."
Ski Roundtop (Lewisberry, Pa.) -- Granular surface on six of eight slopes. "Last Sunday, less than 15 of the 200 Vermont and New Hampshire areas were open. They don't have much snowmaking. But except for the temperatures, this is a normal season for us as far as making snow is concerned."
Bryce Mountain (Basye, Va.) -- Spring skiing on two of three slopes. "Our conditions are better than last year."
Massanutteen (Harrisonburg, Va.) -- Wet granular snow on five of 10 slopes. "So far it's been very good most days, but it has been tough getting the slopes open and keeping them open."
Wintergreen (Waynesboro, Va.) -- Wet corn surface on four of seven slopes. "We're up 27 percent over last year -- we skiied about 10,000 people over Christmas."
Canaan Valley (Davis, W. Va.) -- Some bare spots and some icy spots, but five of 20 slopes are open. "It doesn't look good, and may be marginal, but we can stay open."
Snowshoe (Slatyfork W. Va.) -- Spring conditions on 12 of 18 slopes. "By Jan. 13, we had 49 inches of natural snow, and made twice that with snowmaking."