Drifting Snow, Limited Fuel

Off the Cuff

AFTER SUFFERING through several exasperatingly mild winters, New England skiers may be heartened to learn that Mother Nature has boldly predicted a return to the traditional Nor'easter style for this year: The wooly caterpillar, whose razor thin rings have so accurately forecasted the balmy winters which have plagued New England in the early seventies, checked in this fall with the largest and thickest rings in memory. Northeastern chipmunks and other small furry creatures are reported to have grown especially thick coats in preparation for this winter. And Clark's Trained Bears in Lincoln, N.H. has said that the New England black bear showed signs of drowsiness at a very early date this fall. Nature skeptics need only consult this year's Farmer's Almanac to become convinced that a reversal of the recent warming trend is in store.

The weather supposedly runs in cycles and those who study these cyclical patterns have already found evidence that a new one is in the offing for this winter. During the past two winters, the heavy snows have struck northern New England very early in the season and have made Thanksgiving and pre-Christmas ski conditions the best and most reliable of the season. Yet, many of the areas which were able to open up with full operation at Thanksgiving were forced into limited roles by Christmas-time and even through much of the rest of the season. The characteristically late February and March blizzards did not appear and areas were forced into early closings.

BUT THIS YEAR New England has yet to be hit with anything even resembling a heavy snow storm. The only skiing over the Thanksgiving weekend was done on thin strips of artificial snow which greedy ski operators managed to sneak in on the few nights of below freezing temperatures. Even much of this effort went for naught because Saturday and Sunday's rain wiped out all but the heartiest snow strips. The rationale of the weather-cycle freaks is that this year the snow won't all be dumped at the beginning of the season and then left to melt or turn to ice. Instead, they predict a "normal" winter with increasingly severe weather through December and January and periodic late- season storms to revitalize the slopes.

IRONICALLY--EVEN IF this winter produces the expected heavy snowfalls--it could be one of the most disasterous and harrowing winters which ski areas have yet encountered. This year they must deal with another problem which could even be worse than the weather has been in the past: The energy shortage may be a saving grace for President Nixon, but it has already put ski resort operators in a state of panic. They recognize that even though Nixon made no mention of fuel cutbacks to the ski industry in either of his two energy messages, they may be among the non-essential users who will be severely hampered by the shortage. The first casualty in the industry would probably be the massive fuel-eating snow- making units which have become a trademark of eastern ski slopes. Still operators aren't all that upset by this prospect, especially if the heavy snows materialize. But they are very worried that the government may move to cut back the large supplies of fuel which are required to run the lifts that carry skiers up the slopes.

The national association of ski area operators last week called on Congress to assure them that they will receive the necessary amounts of fuel to operate throughout the season. They will spend a large sum of money and much effort to lobby for this assurance in coming weeks. Even if their efforts are successful, the shortage may still affect them. The newly-announced plan for the prohibition of Sunday gas sales will probably significantly reduce the number of Sunday and weekend skiers--the bread and butter of the ski industry. The areas will try to compensate by enticing more mid-week skiers--something they have been only mildly successful in doing in the past--and by chartering special buses for skiers hit by the fuel shortage. Despite any compensations they may devise, the ski areas may have to cope with a dilemma just the opposite of the one of the past few seasons: Instead of plenty of skiers, ample lift capacity and no snow, they may be up against drifting snow with severely limited lift operation and/or fewer than desirable $10 a day weekend customers.