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Eastern ski areas trying to cope with a mostly snowless winter

The northeaster that dumped from one to two feet of snow on the Eastern seaboard's brown countryside last weekend appeared just in the nick of time as far as the ski industry was concerned. Now, the resorts hope to bring skiers out in large numbers for the rest of the winter, and they will need to to salvage the season.

One storm does not a winter make, and taken as a whole this season still looks like a tough one for many Eastern areas. Before last weekend, in fact, people had already started comparing the winter of 1982-83 with that of three years ago, when the region suffered through the greatest snow drought in memory.

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Thus even as lift operators and innkeepers welcomed the fresh snowfalls and hopefully a major shift in weather patterns, they knew they had a lot of catching up to do after so many weeks of virtually no snow, balmy temperatures, and one ''monsoon'' rainstorm after another.

A sampling of resorts from Maine to West Virginia finds skier visits off from around 25 to 75 percent compared to last season, one of the best in snow and skiers in recent memory.

''All in all, it's been like a lousy day in Florida,'' cracked one area operator at a recent meeting of the National Ski Areas Association at Stratton Mountain, Vt. Even at massive Killington, which claims the world's largest computerized snowmaking system (spraying 37 miles of ski terrain), marketing director Foster Chandler joked just last week that, ''I'm taking up swimming.''

Keeping the morale of both skiers and workers from sinking during the long unseasonably warm spell was a major challenge. Substantial numbers of layoffs were necessary, and this in rural pockets that depend significantly on the winter tourist trade.

Even so, the mood never seemed as dismal as in some past bad snow years. Ski area operators have now gone through enough ''snow disasters'' that many apparently have decided survival is actually possible.

One reason is that the survivors have become more productive and efficient. More areas can now operate with relatively fewer lifts serving more trails with snowmaking, which in turn is more productive than a few years ago. New power tillers costing over $100,000 each can now bring frozen snow after a rainstorm back to a skiable surface in the way a rototiller chops up your garden after winter's freeze.

How to make and preserve snow to survive roller-coaster temperatures and rainstorms is just ''something that has to be learned'' through experience, says Phil Gravink, general manager of Loon Mountain, N. H. Areas that make the mistake of ''whitewashing'' several trails with a few inches of machine-made snow instead of building a sizable base on one or two trails can be wiped out after a rainstorm.

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Jay Peak in northern Vermont has lost 1,100 hours of snowmaking ''down the brook'' this season, according to a spokesman. At approximately $150 an hour, Jay's snowmaking system is inexpensive to run compared with many.

But talk of snowmaking and grooming often only heightens the problem, which has been the weather. People want to ski - but only if it looks and feels like winter.

''It's tough for people to think skiing if you look out the window and see grass you almost have to cut again,'' said Greg Confer of 680-foot Mt. Tom in Holyoke, Mass. ''You need some natural snow where the people are, to help them think skiing.'' Thus, the new storms mean more than just covered slopes.

But is the season still salvageable? ''It's going to be a miracle to come out ahead this season,'' said Greg Tucker of Pico in central Vermont. If the latest snows signal a return to near normal weather patterns, many in ski country see the possibility of a late season, and consequently not irreparable damage done. Without more snow, however, some areas could be in serious financial trouble. After last summer's surprising investment in improvements and expansion at many Eastern ski areas, Tucker says, ''A lot of little areas may have overextended themselves.''

Here is a brief rundown of pre-snow developments at a smattering of Eastern resorts:

Jay Peak, like other areas, had to so trim the payroll that at one point marketing director Conrad Klefos conducted a telephone interview with a Montreal radio station while he was selling lift tickets.

Before the weekend, New York, with more ski areas (70) than any other state, had less than half operating. But with more areas boasting better and new snowmaking, things seem ''not quite as bad as in 1979-80,'' according to Frank Schneider, executive director of Ski Areas of New York. With a decent break in the weather allowing for a longer season, some areas could break even, he said.

Loon Mountain, N. H. was down 42 percent going into the weekend but still had sold out lift tickets on four days since Christmas. Mt. Snow, Vt., down also about 40 percent, has had to come back from nearly bare ground three times. But with its new snowmaking it is still in much better shape than in 1979-80, according to spokesman Tom Meyers.

With greatly expanded facilities but only 20 inches of snowfall, Snowshoe (W. Va.) was down about 24 percent in overall business but ahead of last year during the limited weeks the resort has been able to operate. Killington was down about 20 percent in overall revenue, but with 7,500 skiers a day on the second weekend in January, the East's biggest ski resort continued to increase its market share of what business existed.

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