hite Lightning was as electrifying as a summer brownout. Sneaky Pete was totally exposed and growing soggy in the rain. Except for two narrow ribbons of snow, the entire mountain was bare enough to embarrass a burlesque queen.
So why were so many people lined up at the lift-ticket window at Ski Liberty last week, waiting to pay money to dodge mud puddles on a few slushy slopes.
"It's better than nothing," said David Bender, a 17-year-old high school student from Annandale, Va., who drove with his father and a high school friend to Pennsylvania a few days after Christmas. "It beats sitting at home."
For downhill racers, cross-country skiers and resort owners who profit from their snow lust, this has been a humbug Christmas. All over the East, from the Carolinas to New England, there has been barely enough free-falling snow to cover a kiddie run.
In Stowe, Vt., Scott Van Pelt of the Mount Mansfield Co., which operates all the slopes there, said business was down. There were 4,000 skiers on the slopes on the last day of 1982, compared with 5,600 on the previous New Year's Eve, so "it would be a mistake to generalize in terms of a total wipeout," said Van Pelt.
Nevertheless, the Vermont Snowline Report was listing a half-dozen resorts with reduced rates during the traditionally heaviest ski season of the year.
So while the rest of the nation has watched evening news reports of blizzards in Colorado with compassion, skiers in the East have watched with pure envy. In Vail, Colo., Paul Palmateer of the Vail Resort Association said the town was "almost totally booked" and there were 14,000 skiers on the slopes.
Locally, abnormally high temperatures have prevented expensive snow machines from improving the situation.
Last week, Ski Liberty was the only one of about 20 ski resorts within a five-hour drive of Washington that was open to the public. Snowshoe in West Virginia, which enjoys a higher altitude and consequently colder temperatures, was operating, but only for residents and season-ticket holders.
"I'm too embarrassed to call what we have good skiing," said Wally Shank, general manager at Ski Liberty, which is about a 90-minute drive from Washington. "On our ski reports, we make it sound as dismal as possible. We tell them everything but don't come. But people are still coming. I think they're just happy to have something white to ski on."
If the skiers are unhappy, the owners of slopes in this area are close to despondent. Christmas week is normally one of the busiest times of the season. High school and college students are on vacation and everyone is eager to show off new sweaters and other Christmas goodies against a background of snowy slopes.
Last Christmas, when snow came thick and early to the area, Ski Liberty averaged between 3,000 and 3,500 skiers per day. Last week, the average dropped to 100. And what little snow there is has been disappearing fast.
"Ordinarily, we'd probably be closed down, but I think we'd have a riot on our hands if we tried," said Shank, who claims Ski Liberty is losing money but earning brownie points by staying open. "What we're losing in profit I think we are making up for in spades in good will."
Operating a ski resort has always been a gamble in this area, euphemistically called the Banana Belt by resort owners for its often mild winters. The introduction of sophisticated snow-making machines has done much to even the odds. In 1980, for example, only 14 inches of snow fell on Ski Liberty's slopes. But cold temperatures and the snow machines kept the resort open for 106 days.
But those machines are useless once the temperature gets above 36 degrees. And night-time temperatures have been averaging 40 degrees for much of December.
Still the skiers have been coming to Ski Liberty. The good ones, like Sherwood Duffy of Emmitsburg, made a few runs down a short hill with minimoguls, then retired to the cafeteria to drink wine and eat cheese with Liz Nystron of Virginia Beach.
"It's boring," said Duffy, who risked his new Rossignol skis on the slope. "Skiing in mud doesn't hurt the skis, just the ego."
At the same time, beginners at Ski Liberty were saying nice things about the temperature and the absence of ice and lift lines. Two of them, Anya Payne, 9, and her 7-year-old brother, Erik, finished the day with wet, glowing faces.
"It's scary at first because it's really steep and has a lot of turns," said Anya. "But then you get used to it."
Erik, who had skied only the gentle slopes of golf course fairways before coming to Ski Liberty, summed up both the thrill and chill of the sport in one sentence.
"Once you get started," said Erik, "you can't stop."