Could be you've met a pilot for Air Vail. Maybe you like the singsong sound of "Annemarie Moser-Proell." Or maybe you've finally shucked your prejudice against all those people with ruddy tans, fleecy hair and black Porsches and decided it's high time to find out what's so great about riding a chairlift up the side of a frozen mountain through a razor-cold wind while all sensation seeps out of your limbs.

Whatever. You want to start skiing. You're not alone. Although the ski wave crested about 10 years ago, the definitive Me sport remains, quietly, a thriving winter industry. Pennsylvania, not synonymous with the Winter Games, has 42 areas. iVirginia and Maryland have another 30. The facilities exist. The temperatures have been appropriate. All you're lacking are a few skills that can be acquired in a day or so.

The fact that you're living in Washington is a pretty good indication that you're not going to be a fanatic about it, that you don't need 11,000-foot peaks to satisfy your powderlust. Good thing. The areas that are accessible to the District for a day's outing -- Ski Liberty and Ski Roundtop, in Pennsylvania -- would be termed mountains only by the most senile of topographers, but they are convenient, and they have enough trails to serve the purpose. They may not be steep, but who wants to look down through his tips and see open space?

But if the weather has been accommodating, the economy hasn't. And the first thing to know about skiing is that it doesn't come cheap. Shedding on a Flexible Flyer may be a winter sport more suited to fiscal 1980. Or bowling.

First off, equipment. You can buy a set of used skis, bindings and boots for around $200 if you're lucky enough to find a ski shop holding a used equipment sale, usually somewhere near the start of a season. Or you can rent. If you ski with any frequency, renting can cost.

If you want to buy good equipment, put aside at least $500. Or keep a eye on sale notices at ski equipment stores. A recent sale at a larger metropolitan D.C. store resembled the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade moments after the bottom had dropped out of pork belly futures.

Once outfitted, you have to drive to get to the mountain. If you're really serious about learning, find three friends who want to learn, too, and quarter your gasoline costs.

Once at the mountain, you must ascend. If you're a marathon runner with exceptional stamina and astounding patience, you can walk up. Most people take lifts. At Liberty, a pleasant knoll in Fairfield, Pa., and the closest possible day trip, it's $14 a day. At Stratton it's $20. That's about $3 a run.

Then there are lessons. No one will tell you they're absolutely necessary, but they might save you a couple of years in the learning process by letting you know how to do it before you try it, as opposed to the common starting method, taking a lift to the top of a mountain and shooting straight back down, terrorizing hundreds of skiers as you aim at the base lodge.

Traditionally, lift prices have seemed steep, considering that the customer is being charged to go up a mountain. The rates seem a little less outrageous when you discover that Liberty, which has to cover only seven or eight trails, spends almost half a million dollars on artificial snow per season.

Ski areas in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia rely no more on real snow than Formula 1 drivers rely on a tailwind or the National League on grass. In case you've wondered, a snowmaking machine looks something like a mortar, squirting a combination of frozen water, chemicals and compressed air in a quiet arc. The esthetic equivalent of nondairy creamer, fake snow is almost interchangeable for real snow in certain conditions, especially at night, peak time for any area close to a large city.

Throw in health insurance and the whole thing is somewhat more expensive than, say, running. A written estimate? A family of four, looking for morning lessons, equipment, lift tickets and a couple of runs in the afternoon at Ski Liberty can expect to spend around $130.

Figured another way, you could take a week off to ski at some point during the winter, and manage to get in five other days during the season. Total of 10 days skiing. Equipment, $300. Lift tickets, $300. That's $600 for 100 runs, or six dollars a run.

That's only your first year, though. If you retain your interest in the sport, and both legs, you can use the equipment again next winter. Of course, rates will go up. So will the price of gasoline. All for a chance to descend in 10 minutes a mountain it took you an hour to ascend.

"And the freedom," says Liberty instructor Dick Whitney, eyes acrystal with the skier's peculiar form of adrenaline. "It's unlike any other sport. You don't depend on anything or anyone. You're not being pulled, you're not motorized. Everything is the result of gravity. You can go down as fast as you want, as slow as you want, whatever route you want. Total freedom.

And a view into the next state enjoyed in the unique quiet you find only on a mountain covered in powder.

And before you pack the Honda and head for Killington, here are a few last things you might want to know about the United States' most lucrative winter industry.

Poles bend easily. A bent pole brands you immediately as an impostor, like a guy showing up for a pickup game with an ABA basketball.

Ski boots, although worn on the feet, are not of the shoe family. They are descendants of suits of armor. Wearing ski boots without skis affords you the agility of a figure skater wearing taps.

Goggles: In theory, goggles are for when you reach the bottom of the trail, come to a postcard stop, spray out an arc of power, jam in your poles into the snow next to you and then, finally, using both thumbs and forefingers, lift the goggles off your eyes and slide them up onto your ski hat and squint into the rust-colored late-afternoon sun. That's what they were designed for. In practice, however, goggles fog up halfway down the trail, get lost on your first hard fall or fall off the chairlift.

Wet. Snow looks dry when it's falling. Don't believe it. Snow is cold rain in a cute costume.

Waiting. An hour in a life line at a good New England mountain is not uncommon. It's a tough hour to kill. You can't sit. You can't read. You can't pay bills or crochet or practice an instrument. Instead, you engage in skiing's equivalent of running in place, where you slide your skis back and forth, digging grooves for the guy behind you to fall over.

Considering the price you're paying for the privilege of waiting, you'd expect at least a few hors d'oeuvres.