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ON SKIING

A few rough spots on slopes

Sport isn't always such an easy cruise

Some midwinter musings: From high atop a chairlift at nearly 4 p.m., it was very apparent the other day. The sun is coming our way again. Sure, it might be 8 degrees Saturday, and we may have some more of those cold snaps, but still we are one-third of the way through winter, 30 days past the solstice, and that means the world is getting brighter.

Which takes away one of our major gripes about skiing: getting up in the dark for that first run. And another gripe that begins to disappear: shady trails. By midwinter, as the sun's arc climbs, the shade recedes, leading to those days in late March when we would like a bit more shade.

And while we're on the subject of ski gripes, here are a few more, along with some things we can do about them.

* Gripe 1: Long drives that start and finish the weekend with Boston traffic. Time to organize your life a little more around skiing. Try a few midweek ski trips -- either vacation or hooky. If you've been skiing for a while, you know how important it is for the health of your soul. Skip work. Go skiing next Monday and stay till Thursday. I have a splendid college transcript to show for that kind of thinking.

As for beguiling those long hours in the car with kids, there are several after-market car video systems with earphones so you don't have to listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger's voice.

For mom and dad -- since there is absolutely nothing on radio worth listening to these days, with the exception of Carter Allen's "Sunday Morning Blues" on WZLX (which broadcasts during hours you'd be skiing) -- books on tape are a terrific alternative. I went through the entire body of work of Carl Hiaasen between Boston and northern New England, and can highly recommend "The Da Vinci Code."

* Gripe 2: The high cost of skiing. OK, you need to have a talk with yourself. For starters, skiing is not expensive, relatively speaking, especially considering there's a lot more skiing these days than ever before. High-speed lifts give you almost twice the potential skiing and riding as the old fixed grippers. Two weeks ago, I was leaving Sunday River at mid-morning. After packing up the car, I was able to get in 10 runs -- more than 20 miles of skiing -- in a couple of hours. That used to be a full day of skiing.

These days, a full day for someone in reasonable shape is closer to 20 runs. If one paid the $56 for a weekend single-day ticket at Sunday River, that would come out to $2.80 per run, or $1.40 per mile. How much does it cost to walk a mile on a golf course?

Looking at the time value, that $56 ticket covers you for an eight-hour day of recreation, or $7 per hour. Compare that with anything else you do, from dining to movies to Celtics and Bruins games. For the smart shopper -- and single-day weekend tickets are a ridiculous way to buy your skiing -- skiing just isn't that bad.

But, speaking of price, how do you reconcile this difference: A one-day lift ticket at Sugarloaf, one of the two or three best mountains in New England, is $57, while at Stratton, which doesn't quite make that list, it is $72. Guess that's New York bucks for you.

* Gripe 3: Tight boots. Taking off your boots at the end of the day is a great feeling. If your boots are properly fitted and you have footbeds, the only way they become uncomfortable is by overtightening.

With the new shaped skis and groomed terrain where presumably you'll take your warmup runs, there's no need to have super-tight boots, and if you stay on groomed packed powder, you'll never really need to crank them down.

Also, the bad news for those of us in our, ah, middle years is that our feet change. They get wider by such a factor that you may go up an entire size. So if you're finding those old boots giving you the squeeze, it may be time to spend money like a grown-up and get a new pair. Make sure to have them fitted by a dealer who has been certified. Most important.

* Gripe 4: Crowds (see midweek skiing advice, above). Also consider: Saddleback, Mt. Abrams, Burke, Jay Peak, Haystack, Dartmouth Skiway, Crotched, Ragged, Crested Butte, Mary Jane, Rose Bowl, Snow Basin, Big Sky, Lake Louise, and Norguay.

* Gripe 5: Getting too old to do it. I'm not really sure why skiing is one of those sports that returns us to a very youthful time, the ultimate example of living in the moment for the moment. It's not just the simulation of flight, the kind of soaring that can pluck your stomach out and leave it at the top of a steep drop-off such as the Narrow Gauge Headwall.

If it were only this flight aspect of skiing, we could reproduce the sensations in an amusement park. But skiing is a mastery sport, and the part that just plain feels beautiful is making good turns at high speeds. I've seen people well into their 80s who can still do it and make it look, well, beautiful.

The late Dev Jennings from Waterville Valley was in his late 70s the morning he picked me up at 7:30 sharp to take some runs. On the seat of his old Volvo was a roll of paper towels he kept with him at all times to staunch the nosebleeds caused by his blood-thinning medicine.

"I don't ski all day anymore," Jennings told me. "But I try to get all the mornings I can."

With that, he ripped on down Bobby's Run with the perfect GS form that took him to the 1948 Winter Olympics.

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