Waiting for O's, NFL got you in deep freeze? Head out to slopes for some skiing

January 06, 1994|By BILL TANTON

The local sports public is more frozen than it may realize.

We don't spend our days and nights going to games, watching our teams, debating the merits and demerits of their players and coaches.

Instead, we are frozen into a position where our only activity is wondering.

Will the NFL ever come back here? Will we get the booby prize, the Canadian Football League? Will the Orioles get Bonilla . . . or Sabo?

A lot of wondering. Not much action.

There is, alas, at least one group of sportsmen enjoying action galore. I saw some of them the other day in Mercersburg, Pa., 90 miles from Baltimore, just beyond Hagerstown and across the Maryland line.

These were skiers.

Thousands of skiers.

There were so many of them -- this was at Whitetail, the only new ski resort built in America in the past decade -- that by 11 a.m. motorists arriving at the parking lot were turned away and handed a letter of apology with directions to other areas, such as Wisp, Round Top, or Ski Liberty.

That happened on two mornings last week, and it is a barometer of the business -- the action, if you will -- that's taking place on area ski slopes.

Wisp, Maryland's only ski area, situated at the western extremity of the state, just had the best December in its history.

Things also have been unusually lively at the other ski areas around here.

Mary Jo Tarallo, of McLean, Va.-based Ski Industries of America, has a ready explanation for all this -- and it may not be the answer you think.

"A greater determinant than the economy is snow," says Tarallo, a former skiing writer for The Evening Sun.

"If it's cold and there's lots of snow, natural and man-made, as there is now, business is great. When it's like this in the Northeast, where the people are, it's reflected in the national total for annual ski visits."

Last year there were 54 million ski visits in the United States. That was an all-time high.

It's not as if skiing is enjoying a boom period, however. Ten years ago the total was 47 million. There's been growth, but hardly an explosion.

Frankly, it's little short of amazing that so many millions participate in this expensive sport.

The average cost of skis, bindings and boots, according to Ski Industries of America, is $636.

At Whitetail, the cost of lift tickets on weekends and holidays is $38 for adults, $31 for children under 13. On weekdays it's $27 and $23.

And yet skiers by the thousands trek to remote mountains and happily spend the money. Why?

"There's nothing like it," WBAL-TV cameraman Larry Medoff told me at Whitetail. "Skiing is just great fun."

As for those who pack up the ski gear and the kids and drive 90 miles, only to be handed a letter of rejection, well . . .

"It's so disappointing," said Whitetail communications director Lisa Wolfe. "It's disappointing for us as well as for the skiers. Naturally, some of them are upset when it happens, but most of them are understanding.

"We admit 50 percent of our skiers on reservations, 50 percent on walk-up. Limiting lift-ticket sales is the only way we can provide quality skiing."

Whitetail, which is in its third season, is a top-of-the-line resort close enough to allow people to ski all day and still be home for dinner. When all 16 trails are open, it can accommodate 4,000 skiers. Sixty percent of the terrain is open and lit for night skiing.

The hottest new development in skiing is snowboarding, which was thought to be a fad when it arrived 10 years ago.

"Snowboarding is here to stay," said SIA's Tarallo. "Last year it accounted for 10 percent of the ski area visits."

The snowboard, which is 3-4 feet long and much wider than a ski, is similar to a surfboard or a skateboard. The outfit can be bought for less than $400. Whitetail has 100 snowboards for rent.

"People in the industry," says Tarallo, "expect snowboarding to become an Olympic sport, although it won't be included in next month's Winter Olympics in Norway."

"Snowboarding is more fun than skiing," said Millersville resident Steve MacKenzie, a 17-year-old student at Severna Park High School.

"Do you have to be a teen-ager to do it?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I saw a couple snowboarders out there who were pretty old."

How old?

"Oh, 30," he said. "Maybe 35."

Twenty-year-old Mike Witt, from Fauquier County in Virginia, said he prefers snowboarding because he "only has one thing to worry about -- the snowboard." Snowboarders don't use poles.

Witt also likes it for another reason one wouldn't expect.

"I'm better at snowboarding," he said. "I skied for five years and I was never very good."

Tarallo, who is even older than those 30- and 35-year-old ancients, snowboarded at Liberty last week. She liked it, but added, "It's like learning to ski all over again."

Whether snowboarding or skiing, these people are having fun. At least they don't just sit around and wonder.

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