The Best Is About To Begin

In My View 0302

Buster has a heavy date with a snowy blonde who has more curves than a terrain park. Ulla's her name. He plans to pick Ulla up at eight. Cocktails at Powder Stash. Dinner at Groomer's Heaven. On to Corn Snow Paradise for dancing.

Buster's anxious. He picks up Ulla much too early. She's not ready. Her makeup isn't on; her hair isn't done. Midway through the date, she turns cold. Buster fails to go to Corn Snow Paradise. Finished with Ulla, he has a date with another chick, Marina.

A familiar story? It describes many people's ski season. Impatient, they step into their bindings a month or more before winter's official arrival on Dec. 21, when not all the trails are open. They ski in January, when the days are cold and short. Seven weeks into winter, their season climaxes on President's weekend. By mid-March, skis are stowed in the garage. Sorry, got to prep the sailboat...or break out the golf clubs.

Why do skiers disappear from the slopes in late season? The well-known question is as difficult to answer as why socks are lost in washing machines. Why quit before April, when two or three feet of snow still lie on the slopes? When the mountain air has lost its harsh winter bite, the days lengthen, liftlines and shirt sleeves shorten. When pine and spruce trees, emerging from dormancy, emit a sweet tarry smell, like klister wax. When lunch is outdoors on the deck, and a fearless camp robber flutters down on the rail to snatch a hamburger crumb. When faces tan to a handsome, sexy bronze. When ski areas post Crazy Eddie prices for lift tickets, rooms and equipment. It's a bloody mystery.

This winter has been different in the Northeast. Warm weather before Christmas melted away what snow the ski areas made and what little fell from the sky. A month of early-season skiing was lost. But now Easterners can act sensibly. Rather than hang up the skis in order to play softball, tennis and golf, they can continue to ski, adding to the end of winter the month they lost at the beginning. Maybe it'll set a behavior pattern for future winters.

Unhappily, thousands of skiers have been laid off this winter. Many still have unemployment and severance pay. Here's my Marie Antoinette advice to you guys: Thumb your nose at the economy and plunge down a mountain. In any event, ski-area business historically is more affected by snow than by the economy. Research has shown that skiers are typically college-educated professionals, business owners and managers who have the money to ski during a recession.

Want to help the economy? Fill a chairlift seat that would otherwise go empty. Chairlifts are as underutilized as spring snow: They're like a football stadium with 100,000 seats used just a few days a year.

Ski late enough and you can also count yourself a conservationist and a patriot! Much of the snow cover at resorts is made to create skiing before air compressors and pumps, powered by oil from Saudi Arabia, Osama's homeland. By extending your weeks of skiing, you are utilizing the energy originally consumed in making the snow. Thus, April skiers are better conservationists than November skiers. (Excepted are drivers who fly American flags on gas-guzzling, Hummer-sized SUVs.)

In the late ski season, the noonday sun lofts high in the sky. The low-lit days of January are past. Around the March equinox, the days lengthen most rapidly.

It's the time when the sun cooks corn snow, the ideal surface for spring skiing. Corn snow is a result of overnight freezing, then warming. Like a sparkling carpet of diamonds, it lies one or two inches thick over a hard base. For a few magic hours, the kernel-like crystals act on the ski's running surface like a trillion ball bearings. The skis fly, your turns are effortless!

The skier's strategy is to reach this magic surface at the right time. Look high. Corn snow typically develops early on east-facing and upper-elevation slopes, where the sun hits first.

Follow the sun as tthe day progresses. Quit south-facing slopes before they soften to slush. Make tracks for west-facing terrain where the last corn snow of the day can be found. You may even find a stash of powder in a shaded, north-facing glade or on a narrow trail.

My recollections of wonderful places for spring skiing would fill a Fodor's guidebook. For corn snow, you can't do better than the perfectly pitched slopes of Colorado's A-Basin, at a lung-bursting 12,000 feet. Last winter at Vail, I encountered a nearly perfect film of corn on the north- and west-facing exposures of the new Blue Sky terrain. Mont Tremblant, Quebec, where I've skied off and on for 50 years, is a place to go in March, not arctic January. On a spring morning, ski McCulloch's Run first thing, the North Side later.

For lift-less skiing, climb the historic walls of Tuckerman Ravine in spring, or the cirques of the Chic Choc Mountains on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. You can find deep powder in April by going helicopter skiing, as I did last year in British Columbia.

For spring ambience, treat yourself to a bowl of pasta and a glass of red wine on the upper terminal deck of the cable car at Heavenly in California. You will be looking down 2,000 feet at blue Lake Tahoe. Another idyllic alfresco lunch place is Ragnar's Deck, known as "the beach," atop Steamboat Springs. At 10,000 feet, surrounded by snow and facing south, it can only be reached on skis.

For scenic spring and summer skiing, it's hard to do better than the piste descending from the Kleine Matterhorn at Zermatt, Switzerland. Stop after a couple of turns. Look straight across. Looming before you is the monstrous, craggy, curved profile of the world's most famous mountain, the big Matterhorn, as it soars 15,000 feet into the sky.

Months ago, I booked my April ski trip to Vail. Why April? Because you can ask for the best room and get it at the price of the least desirable room in mid-season. Last April, Colorado resorts were selling day passes for less than $35.

In late season, previously unapproachable, bronzed instructors and ski repairmen have the time to talk with you. You can park near the day lodge, and there are no long walks to the lifts. Spring is the perfect time to introduce young children to the sport. Freed from the discomfort of cold weather, a youngster's attention and enthusiasm will focus on the fun of skiing, instead of just trying to stay warm.

More than half the people on the slopes in April now are snowboarders. Ten years ago, these gnarly teenagers were said to be deficient in intelligence. Now they're smarter than skiers.

Come to think of it, late-season skiing can transform you into a whole new you-smarter, tanned and good-looking, more patriotic and environmentally aware, an astute traveler and superior parent. My own deteriorating fiscal situation doesn't permit me to make a money-back guarantee, but I've no doubt: Ski late and you will be a superior human being!