Snowboarders, 'free riders' heat up winter sports

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ski resort operators have their fingers crossed for another winter like the 2002-2003 season, when a series of huge snowstorms, surging interest among young skiers and snowboarders, and enticing lift ticket and lodging discounts helped them post their third consecutive record year.

Industry analysts say last year's strong showing -- measured in "skier visits" -- demonstrates the remarkable resilience of mountain resorts.

Ski areas are showing vitality despite long-held fears that the sport's aging core market and lack of new participants would eventually be its downfall. Resorts recorded nearly 57.6 million visits last winter, up from 54.4 million the previous season, according to the National Ski Areas Association.

While the number of skiers has remained about the same for the last several years, the number of snowboarders has swelled. Last winter, riders of snowboards accounted for nearly 30 percent of all lift ticket sales nationwide, according to the association, and nearly half in the Pacific Northwest.

At the same time, there has been an influx of younger skiers who have been drawn to a new style of skiing called "free riding": skiing or boarding the whole mountain, through the trees and on backcountry-type slopes, rather than on the easy-on-the-knees groomed trails so favored by their parents.

Free riders are also drawn to skiing or boarding freestyle in terrain parks -- something like giant alpine skateboard parks -- where the snow is shaped over humps and ramps to send skiers and boarders airborne. Rails allow skimming a narrow metal rail, like a sliding on a banister. Half-pipes, long, U-shaped chutes, demand turns, usually in the air, as a freestyler criss- crosses down the chute, zooming up one side, turning horizontally in the air, then zooming back down and up the other side. (Many resorts have "no inversion" rules: spinning horizontally is OK, but flips are out.)

"The greatest concern for resorts was that skiing was traditionally a sport for baby boomers, and there was uncertainty as to whether or not their children would attach themselves to it," said Ford Frick, managing director of BBC Research and Consulting in Denver and the author of a 2003 ski resort study commissioned by the ski areas association. "What happened is that kids found their own way to interpret skiing; they reinvented it for themselves."

The impact has been felt at areas large and small. In fact, the ski hills with the least amount of vertical drop -- like Mountain High in Southern California and Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts -- saw their market share increase last winter, while the largest areas' share slipped slightly, according to the ski areas association.

"Specialized snowboard facilities and terrain parks do not require large-scale mountains," said Frick. Alternative activities, like tubing (sliding down the mountain in a giant inflated tube) -- which need no skill and can be done by the whole family -- have also given smaller ski areas a boost.

Attracting the young

It seems that nearly every ski area in North America has taken steps this winter to lure the youth market. New terrain parks with booming sound systems and clubhouses, national-level competitions, an easing of restrictions about off-trail skiing, lessons specifically for park-and-pipe riders and direct marketing through flashy Web sites and e-zines are all aimed at drawing in the free-riding youngsters -- and, the resorts hope, their free-spending families.

Daily lift tickets range from $39 at Alpine Meadows in California -- reduced this season from last year's $56 -- to Aspen's $72, with better deals by buying passes for multiple days.

"Children are playing a bigger part in the decision-making process for vacations," said Molly Cuffe, director of communications for Heavenly Mountain Resort in California, where terrain park construction and expansion has been a priority for the past two seasons. "If you get the kids, you'll get the parents too."

It's not just the children who have taken to snowboarding, however. More than a third of boarders are older than 25, according to the ski association figures for 2002-2003. Only a handful of resorts in the United States still prohibit boards: Deer Valley and Alta in Utah, Taos in New Mexico and Mad River Glen in Vermont.

Among the many areas with new or expanded terrain parks is Copper Mountain in Colorado, which has built a children's park and a snowboarding learning center aimed at 3- to 12-year-olds. Also in Colorado: Winter Park has added features to its existing parks and built a 420-foot "superpipe."

Vail has two new small-scale terrain parks and will offer half-day park-and-pipe snowboard lessons for intermediate and advanced riders; Beaver Creek is introducing park skills instruction for beginners to experts, and Telluride has tripled the size of its Air Garden terrain park and added "pocket" parks throughout the area for beginning skiers and riders.

In the Aspen area, Buttermilk, home of the 2004 Winter X Games, Jan. 24-27, has expanded its Crazy T'rain park and built a new in-ground half-pipe close to the mountain's base.

New terrain parks

In Utah, Solitude Mountain Resort has a new family-friendly terrain park. Snowbird has expanded its three parks, each designated for a specific ability level, and is offering a new camp for children to learn to free ride Feb. 18-20, as well as daily private and group lessons that focus on park skills.

Stratton Mountain in Vermont, one of the early hotbeds of the free-riding movement, has constructed a new park and superpipe, both designed and built by Ross Powers, a local Olympic medalist.

Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire also has a new superpipe, as well as an expansive new children's learning center. Waterville Valley, also in New Hampshire, opened a beginners' terrain park. Snowshoe in West Virginia has expanded its parks and added 150 acres of skiable terrain. Shawnee Peak, in Maine, has expanded its half-pipe and will light it for night skiing. Tremblant, in Quebec, added a second park.

In the Pacific Northwest, the only region that did not break attendance records or have abundant snow last season, Mission Ridge, in Washington, and Mount Bachelor and Mount Hood Meadows, in Oregon, among others, have expanded their terrain parks and pipe facilities. In British Columbia, Whistler-Blackcomb has added beginners' terrain gardens, expanded parks and significantly increased its snowmaking and grooming capability.

Not all the construction has been aimed at the free riders. Many long-term projects were completed over the summer. Among them, the huge Jackson Gore development at Okemo in Vermont includes a new base lodge, a 117-unit inn, 14 new trails and two lifts.

Also in Vermont, Jay Peak and Killington have expanded their learning areas and added lifts. Smugglers Notch has added 40 gladed acres. Bretton Woods, in New Hampshire, has a new high-speed quad chairlift, 12 new intermediate and advanced trails, and Bode Miller, Olympic and world champion ski racer, as its new director of skiing. Also in New Hampshire, Cannon Mountain has seven trails, two expert glades and a quad chair.

Two new ski areas are set to open this winter. Crotched Mountain, in New Hampshire, which has been dormant since 1989, has been resurrected with a $3 million base lodge, a terrain park and night skiing. In Big Sky, Mont., Moonlight Basin, on the north face of Lone Mountain, will cut the ribbon on its four lifts -- including Montana's only high-speed six-passenger chairlift -- and nearly 1,500 acres of skiable terrain.

Expanding in the East

There's more construction to come. Several long-awaited expansion permits have been issued to Eastern ski areas. After 10 years of often contentious environmental reviews, Wachusett Mountain, in Massachusetts, won the right to cut its new Vickery Bowl.

Stowe, in Vermont, received permission to begin major development at Spruce Peak, which over the next decade will come to include lodging, homes, retail shops, a skating rink, a performing arts center, new base lodges and a lift to connect the resort's two mountains.

Also in Vermont, Sugarbush got the go-ahead to build the Lodge at Lincoln Peak, which will include 141 luxury vacation residences, an underground parking garage, year-round outdoor heated pool, a spa facility, fitness center, two restaurants, a wine cellar and conference facilities.

In the end, though, it is not lavish spas or impressive wine lists that draw most visitors to the slopes. It is the impression that the resort is offering its guests good value.

To help with budgets, many ski areas have come up with creative, discounted package deals and other incentives.

In Utah, for example, you can turn in your same-day airplane boarding pass for a free lift ticket at Park City, Deer Valley or the Canyons. Also in Utah, Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton are offering reduced-rate $40 single-day lift tickets and transit to the resorts when you stay at participating Salt Lake City lodging.

For deeply committed skiers, the Ultimate Season Pass, $2,999, gets you as many round-trip flights on Frontier Airlines and as much skiing at Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Beaver Creek and Heavenly as you can fit in one winter. A $999 version of the pass gets you three round-trip flights and unlimited skiing at Breckenridge, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin.

Smugglers Notch in Vermont is giving a free, unrestricted season pass, good to Dec. 19, 2004, to each family member staying five days or longer in resort lodging with the Club Smugglers package, which also includes lifts and lessons.

There are also VIP services and club facilities designed to make ski vacations less of a headache -- for a price. Mount Snow in Vermont will offer valet parking for $15 a day, which allows you to leave your car at the curb, and have it waiting for you, warmed up, at the end of the day.

The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek, Colo., has introduced a service in which "ski nannies" will come to your room in the morning, pick up your children, take them to their ski lessons, then retrieve them and deliver them back to you. No word on whether they will get them to brush their teeth, too.

SURF, THEN SKI

Skiing Web sites have progressed in the past few years, as mountain operators and ski publishers have realized that there is perhaps no better way to satiate the skier's need for up-to-date and comprehensive snow information than by presenting it online.

Skiers who engage in even a little surfing before they choose a resort, book a flight or drive to the mountain can save money and avoid the frustration that poor ski conditions can bring.

These Web sites are worth a look:

* SkiCentral.com is a comprehensive directory site, where you choose a region and a resort, then click through categories related to that resort area.

For instance, when you click on the Aspen Snowmass resort area, the site includes, among other things, area museums, events, cross-country trails and a list of several snowcams, where you can find up-to-the-minute online photos of various ski areas.

While the photos aren't visually exciting, they can convey at a glance the ski conditions and congestion on a mountain.

* The three most popular online travel agencies -- Expedia (www.expedia.com), Travelocity (www.traveloc ity.com) and Orbitz (www. orbitz.com) -- also deserve a visit. Of the three, Orbitz has the most ski-friendly site, with an exhaustive listing of resorts in North America, Europe and South America.

Orbitz also has links to ski reports and lodging descriptions, but that information is displayed on another site, www.SkiMoguls.com. Each of the e-travel agencies uses its resort listings as little more than a gateway for hotel and airfare sales -- which can be useful in turning up deals once you've decided on a destination, but less than useful for narrowing your resort choices.

* For skiers who are still deciding where to go, Skimag.com is a good start. The site, an online offshoot of Ski magazine, prompts users to select a region on its travel page, then features a generous archive of articles related to that region. In late October, for example, the Pacific section of the site featured a review of the Northstar-at-Tahoe resort, as well as a list of the top 100 ski instructors in the West.

* OnTheSnow.com runs reviews of resorts, and includes an array of international destinations. Like other Web sites, including Snowlink.com and GoSki. com, it frequently includes links to the mountains' Web sites, where travelers can buy lift tickets or register for ski school before getting there.

OnTheSnow also tells you whether those resort Web sites offer e-mail snow updates -- a handy feature for those who don't want to click around for powder reports before heading for the trail.

-- New York Times News Service

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