Snowboarders, 'free riders' heat up winter sports

Youthful accent gives a big boost to ski resorts across the country


December 21, 2003|By Meg Lukens | Meg Lukens,New York Times News Service

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.

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