Maurine Bachman starts watching the wind-swept peaks of the Wasatch Mountains in October. A devoted early-season skier, the Salt Lake City resident also monitors Alta's webcams. But that gusting wind is often the best sign that a big dump has blessed Alta. "If you love it, you want to be out there as soon as you can," says Bachman, a land consultant who has skied Alta as early as Halloween.
By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, Bachman already has some of her 60-plus days a year under her belt. But she still doesn't consider herself one of the local diehards. "When the first six inches falls, they're out there," she observes. "But I like the rocks to be covered."
Then there's Barb Marshall, a swimming coach from Pittsfield, Vt., who lives to ski at Killington. Marshall's season starts when she hikes up Killington in her alpine boots and skis the September snow that Killington's snow guns deposit in their annual autumn push. "I love it so much I wish I could ski every day of the year," says Marshall, who nails an astounding average of 245 days per year. That's a lot of walking, considering that the mountain is "officially" open for only about 202 of those days. Marshall says that the early season is her reward after "two months of anxious waiting for the mountain to be open."
From the Green Mountains to the Rockies, early ski season really constitutes those quiet days between Thanksgiving and Dec. 21, before the holiday season kicks in. This period traditionally offers some of the best values of the year, with discounts on everything from lodging and lift tickets to airfare and dining. If the early snowfall is generous and cool temperatures allow for snowmaking, so much the better.
An early look at the 2002-03 season shows that it could serve up some of the best deals in recent history. The unsteady travel climate and the lingering taste of recession, coupled with last season's meager snow accumulations, have made some resorts eager to offer deep discounts during what is already their most deeply discounted period.
Ah, the joy of early season. In Colorado, zealots may take their first runs at Keystone or Loveland in October, but most resorts earmark Thanksgiving as opening day.
Why ski early season? The crowds are nonexistent, the cold weather has yet to settle in, and the cost of lodging can be half of what it is in March. You can stay at tony hotels for a fraction of what you'd pay in high season.
As for lift tickets, they're usually discounted so much that many resorts give them as "free" additions to anyone who buys a lodging package. The deal of the season may well be at Grand Targhee, Wyo. Pony up $287 per person, based on double occupancy, and you get three nights' lodging, three days of lift tickets and a full day of snowcat skiing. In high season, that day of catskiing alone costs $289.
When Winter Park, Colo., opens the weekend before Thanksgiving, about 1,500 skiers and riders show up, says Jack Mason, the resort's mountain manager. "They're mostly locals and Denver diehards. After Thanksgiving, crowds die off until around Dec. 21."
Many skiers use early season to get a jump-start on their technique. Chris Heidebrecht, ski and ride school director for Keystone, Colo., says that "early season is great for people who want to change their skiing, or who have lost their muscle memory from the previous season. The early season is the time to get rid of bad habits-before you put them in practice all season long."
While the price of a lesson may not be any lower during early season, you'll likely have fewer people in your group lesson, meaning more attention from the ski pro and more elbow room on the slopes.
Last-minute planning is a sound strategy at this time of year. Scan resort websites to stay abreast of snow accumulations and then book your trip. In Colorado, some of the best early-season skiing can be found at Keystone, Loveland, Copper and Vail, while Utah skiers flock tto Alta and Snowbird. When early-season Pacific storms blow in, Squaw Valley, Calif., and Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C., can benefit. And Killington has long been the meeting spot for Northeastern early birds.
Of course, snowfall statistics can be useful, but in areas where heavy dumps are not uncommon, statistics don't tell the whole story. For example, Dave Fields, director of public relations at Snowbird, says "Snowbird averages 68 inches in November, but last Thanksgiving we received 100 inches in 100 hours."
The statistics also work another way. Take New Hampshire's Attitash Bear Peak. Katherine Gadman, the mountain's communications director, says that "at that time of year, we don't rely on natural snowfall. We rely on cold temps to make snow. The really important numbers are what we are able to blow as a base."
Indeed, snowmaking enables many resorts to open regardless of what Mother Nature throws at them. Loveland, Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper start making snow in September, while mountains such as Winter Park start in mid-October and are pretty much finished making snow by December. "We crank it out as fast as we can," Mason of Winter Park says. "Everything that falls on top of it is gravy." This year, maybe you should spend the week before the holidays in the mountains. That way, you can save a bundle, own the powder and miss the crowds. After all, there's no place like home for the holidays.
We asked dozens of resorts to give SKI readers a deal they couldn't pass up. We also asked them for their average November snowfall and the average snowfall by Dec. 21. As for machine-made snow, many resorts calculate those totals in electricity and water used, not inches, and couldn't give us statistics, so we only gave totals when available. Here we present 16 of the best bargains. Click on the related link to the right to see if your favorite resort is listed.