TRAVEL HITTING THE SLOPES

What to know before you go skiing.

WE DID three things right the first time we went skiing. We found some snow. We had a fine time. And we came home without any casts on our arms or legs.

Everything else we did was so wrong that we probably created a new category of skier from the Texas flatlands: sub-beginners, also known as the compleat yahoos.

Certainly, we heaped little avalanches of disgrace upon the good terms “novice” and “common sense” -until we figured out how to get from Dallas to the slopes at the best rates and in the shortest travel time.

Now that we know better, our sins of ignorance are almost too embarrassing to recount. But they are blunders that any first-time skier could make-and easily avoid.

Our first mistake, for instance, was waiting until January to seek a place to ski – and not understanding the basic tricks of getting a peak-season reservation.

If Charles Dickens had been a Texas ski bum instead of an English novelist, he might have told you that January to March is the best of times-and the worst of times – to decide to go skiing. The snow conditions are becoming more stable; the days are starting to get longer and a bit warmer. And ski freaks and novices from everywhere, but especially from Texas, are swarming over the mountains like ants.

Even in the high season, you can get onto the snow at virtually any slope you wish. Your problem -unless you served in the Norwegian army and enjoy camping in subzero cold – is finding accommodations within a convenient walk or drive to the lifts.

To us, calling ski lodges seemed the best and most logical approach. “Good luck,” replied the first dozen we dialed in Colorado and New Mexico. “We’re booked up. Try us again -next summer. Early next summer.” We felt immensely lucky when we finally latched onto a last-minute cancellation.

What we didn’t know was that ski clubs and promoters of packaged ski tours start snapping up many of the available rooms and condominiums as early as June for the season that runs from Thanksgiving to Easter. The lodges are sold-out, but others now are doling out the rooms. So we could have found a place to stay and ski much more easily if we had simply joined a local ski club, called a local travel agent or dialed some of the central reservation numbers maintained by many ski areas popular with Dallasites.

Another blunder: We thought we would have a more leisurely vacation and save a little money if we didn’t fly and hassle with airports and car-rental counters. So we took the family clunker on the 700-mile “scenic” route to Taos and Angel Fire, two of the ski areas closest to Dallas. In other words, we droned for two days across stretches of Texas and New Mexico as barren and unsettled as the far side of the moon.

Also, impatient to get going, we had priced ski clothes at only one store in Dallas, then left town without buying a stitch. “We can get it when we get there,” we told each other. We got it, all right, off the racks in the shops at the base of the slopes. Ski pants, jackets and accessories on sale: One for the price of two back in Dallas.

Foolishly, we also took no ski equipment with us. “We’ll rent it when we get there,” we declared. “Let’s travel light.” The skis and poles we rented -again at roughly twice the price of getting them in Dallas -looked as though they had been used first by The Man Who Skied Down Everest, then tromped on for a few seasons by his supporting cast of Sherpas. But our boots were the killers. Hell hath few pains worse than ski boots that don’t fit. We didn’t understand that for maximum comfort, they should be specially fitted by ski experts or that good boots can be fitted and rented in Dallas and lugged across the state line. At the slopes, they ask you your shoe size, then check out the all-important footwear as if you were getting bowling sneakers.

And finally, we didn’t do any conditioning and stretching exercises before we went. We just got up from our desks, drove off, hit the slopes (literally) and woke up the next day as stiff as two stacks of two-by-fours. The normal labor of tromping around on skis is made worse by the lower oxygen content of the thin mountain air. Ideally, says Sara Draper, a physical therapy instructor at Tarrant County Junior College, one should start getting into shape four to six months before going. But if there simply isn’t time to get your muscles ready, try to get a reservation at a ski lodge that has a heated indoor pool or some Jacuzzis. Take it from two experts: It’s amazing how much life a little hot water can restore after you’ve spent a day tumbling down the steep sides of a mountain.

So much for wrong ways to go skiing. Here are some more right things to do if you’re feeling ready to embark on your first try at powder plowing.



THE SKI-CLUB ADVANTAGE



“If you wait until January or later to decide to go skiing, probably the first thing you should do is join a ski club,” says Robyn Reno, vice president of Alpine Ski and Sports Club in Garland (3310 Country Club, metro 461-6436), one of the biggest clubs in Texas with more than 1,000 members. “A ski area that someone wants to go to may be sold-out for the weekend or week that they hope to go, but clubs often still have openings,” Reno says. “One good thing about a ski club is that we make lodging reservations in advance, and we take care of all of the transportation arrangements.”

Dallas/Fort Worth area ski clubs organize a number of fall, winter and spring trips to slopes in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Canada and Europe. Some of the excursions are for as short as a weekend; others last a week or more.

Joining a ski club usually costs $25 to $30 a year for single memberships and $35 to $40 for family memberships. Most clubs can be joined by calling and filling out a simple application blank, and the benefits typically include group-rate discounts on ski trips, equipment purchases and rentals, plus guidance and ski classes for beginners, monthly club meetings and newsletters or club magazines.

“We try to do everything at cost for our members, so they can go skiing and get a better deal,” says John F. Skelton III, president of the nonprofit Dallas Ski Club (3 NorthPark East, 361-7175), which schedules eight trips a year to such slopes as Snowbird, Vail, Steamboat Springs, Lake Tahoe and Aspen. “You can join at any time, but you must be a member to go on any of the trips.”

Many of the groups also stage non-ski social events – such as parties, tennis tournaments and summer outings -for their members.

“We have the reputation among local ski clubs of being the most socially oriented,” says Rick Williamson, president of the Heart of Texas Skiers Inc. (HOTS, 1100 Lamar, metro 461-4000), which is headquartered in Arlington. Many of the club’s members are beginning skiers, and about half of the passengers on its ski trips are trying the sport for the first time, Williamson says. “We are a year-round club. We have monthly parties. We take trips, such as to the horse races or canoeing on the Guadalupe. And we have local outings, such as bicycle picnics and lake parties,” he says. “We also are an adult club. About two-thirds of our membership is singles, and the rest are couples. And they like to get together and do things. But our primary purpose is to sponsor economical ski trips for our members. We have 10 trips by air and 20 by special sleeper bus. The sleeper buses can carry 40 people. They have face-to-face seating, with a table between them, and the booths make up into bunks so you can sleep and arrive at the slopes fully rested.”



RENTING VS. BUYING



The beginner’s first law of skiing is, rent or borrow everything you can the first time you go. That way, if you decide the sport is more agony than ecstasy, you won’t have to unload a few hundred dollars’ worth of skis, poles, boots and clothes at your next garage sale.

And rent the gear here before you go, not at the base of the slopes. “It’s cheaper to rent in Dallas,” says a spokesman for The Ski Doctor and The Warming Hut, “because once you’re at the slopes, you’re stuck. And you can get a better-fitting pair of boots [in Dallas], because we have more time to work with you. There, they’ll just ask your shoe size, and that’s it. We also take better care of our equipment. At the slopes, they just rent it out again the next day.”

The cheapest rental prices for an outfit of boots, skis and poles range from $8 to $10 a day. Better-quality ski gear for more experienced skiers runs $15 to $16 a day and up.

But you can’t rent ski clothing, so be prepared to spend $175 and up on an outfit that includes a hat, gloves, ski pants, a ski sweater and a ski jacket. And January usually is not the best of times to go looking for these items in Dallas, says a spokeswoman for Plaeco Skier’s World. “It’s better to come before Christmas and New Year’s. But we get in a new supply in January, so we have ski clothing all through the season.”

You’ll also need some sunglasses or ski goggles. They do more than just keep the snow out of your eyes. Ironically, two of the greatest hazards of skiing are facial sunburns and eye damage. Good goggles protect your eyes from both the glare of sunlight off the snow and the greater concentration of ultraviolet rays in the high elevations.

FINDING ACCOMMODATIONS



Even at the busiest time of the season, you can -if you’re persistent and don’t like clubs or group tours -arrange your own ski trip. “A great many people do wait until late in the season to decide to go,” says Reese Johnson, director of marketing for the Aspen, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce. And many of them, he says, rely on centralized reservation offices for help in finding places to stay.

Most major ski areas popular with Dal-lasites maintain central reservation numbers. These include Angel Fire (505) 377-2301, Aspen (303) 925-9000, Breckenridge (800) 525-9189, Crested Butte (800) 525-4220, Jackson Hole (307) 733-4005, Keystone (303) 468-4173, Lake Tahoe (702) 832-7179, Purgatory (303) 247-9000, Red River (505) 754-2313, Steamboat Springs (303) 879-0740, Vail (303) 476-1234 and Winter Park (303) 726-5587.

If you can round up a few friends to go with you, a travel agent often can help you find a ski-resort condominium to share. By splitting the rental fee, you can save money over the cost of reserving individual rooms. And when all share in the cooking, the cost for meals is substantially reduced.

If you can find at least 19 friends to go with you, you can organize your own group ski trip, go by bus or plane from Dallas and get discount rates on lodging, lift tickets, ski equipment rental and meals, says Anne Porter, a group reserva-tionist for Mountain Haus Tours. “Prices vary, but it is generally cheaper to go by bus,” she says. “And we do long weekend trips.”

Because of the high price of individual skiing, “more people now are traveling in groups to the ski areas,” says Jasper Welch of the Durango, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce.

If you decide to go skiing this winter,hang in there and have fun, but whenyou’re making your plans, sign up for nextyear. You can always cancel, but chancesare you won’t want to.

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