Parts of the United States may be suffering from drought, but there's no lack of precipitation in the mountains of the West, good news for the nation's skiers.
The white stuff has been coming down in such quantity in the Colorado mountains that Arapahoe Basin opened on Oct. 10 this year, the earliest ever, and Loveland was not far behind.
So ski buffs are happily breaking out their ski gear, ready once again to challenge the slopes -- and they'll have plenty of challenges and new facilities this season.
Arapahoe Basin is almost doubling in size, opening 400 acres of intermediate and expert terrain this December in Montezuma Bowl, serviced by the new Zuma lift. It's the nation's largest terrain expansion this year.
Snowmass' new $17-million Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center, the largest capital project in Aspen Skiing Co.'s history, opens this month with three new lifts on Fanny Hill. The center will have ski and snowboard check-in and programs, a climbing gym, teen activities, and seven interactive nature-themed rooms for children.
Deer Valley is adding 200 skiable acres and eight new ski runs, serviced by a new high-speed quad chairlift, Lady Morgan Express.
Telluride gained approval for skiing more than 200 acres of hike-to-terrain on Palmyra Peak.
In the East, Sugar Mountain in North Carolina opens a new 10,000-square-foot outdoor ice skating rink Nov. 15.
Beaver Creek and Breckenridge both have new gondolas to take skiers from town to mountain, moves that will cut down on traffic and save on fuel and fuel emissions. Breckenridge, which opened its BreckConnect gondola from town to Peaks 7 and 8 last December, estimates that the project saves more than 20,375 gallons of fuel each season by reducing shuttle usage. Beaver Creek expects to open its new Riverfront Express gondola from the town of Avon to Beaver Creek Landing later this season.
Ecological and environmental advances such as these are major concerns for many resorts this year.
One big movement is toward subsidizing wind power for electricity. ''Eleven of the 26 member resorts in Colorado Ski Country are buying [wind power] credits to offset coal-fire electricity,'' said the association's Nick Bohnenkamp.
In addition, Aspen and many other resorts are increasingly using biodiesel fuels for their snowcats. Park City is retro-fitting lighting with energy-efficient CFLs and fluorescent bulbs, reducing lighting energy usage by 50 percent.
Vail is taking many eco-sensitve measures in the ongoing construction of its $1 billion Ever Vail project at the base of Vail Mountain. Among them are using water from snowmelt rather than potable water for toilets, covering roofs with soil and grasses to reduce solar heat accumulation and installing small turbines in Gore Creek to power street lighting.
Another trend at winter resorts is a gravitation to upscale.
''Luxury is booming, and it often the first to sell out,'' said Dan Sherman of ski.com, which says it is the largest seller of ski packages in America.
Opening in January will be Vail's first new luxury resort in 25 years, The Arrabelle at Vail Square. It will have 36 luxury hotel rooms, 50 condos, 67 residences and penthouses and a spa. Snowbird has a new residence club with private condos. Crested Butte has spent $25 million to turn the Elevation Hotel into a four-star luxury ski-in, ski-out property. In Mammoth, the 230-condo Westin Monache Resort opens this month, becoming what the company says is the first upper-upscale resort at that venue.
But luxury isn't just about new lodgings. Vail and Beaver Creek rent out part of the mountain before opening hours to well-heeled skiers. Steamboat offers private sleigh rides. Keystone serves gourmet meals prepared by award-winning chefs in a new yurt miles from any lifts or restaurants. And SnoDaisy Snowboarding offers four-night luxury snowboarding trips for women at Park City starting at $3,500 per person.
Technology is invading the slopes as well. This season, Alta is implementing a new radio-frequency identification ticketing system. No more showing a pass at every lift, no more stopping at the ticket office every morning. Skiers get an Alta Card loaded electronically with all necessary information, put it in a pocket and leave it there the whole day. Antennas do the rest.
And then there's ski fashion. What's in this year, what's not?
''You won't believe this, but snowboarders are wearing one-piece suits. That used to be a real faux pas for them,'' said Joan Christensen, who represents Specialty Sports Venture, operator of a number of ski shops.
Fabrics are moving toward lighter and warmer, she said, but the most prevailing trend, she said, is technology. ''New outfits are wired to MP3 and cell phones, in jackets and helmets,'' said Christensen.
How times have changed. Now a skier can hurtle down a slope listening to the Beatles or Beethoven, or chat with a friend a thousand miles away. All, as Christensen puts it, because they're ``wireless wired.''