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The changing snow business

New breed of snow mobility hits the slopes

By Jenna Milly

Snowboarders enjoy the "Valdez Rose," Alaska's glowing springtime sunset.
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(CNN) -- Once a skier's standard mode of transportation, the traditional incline lift faces competition in 2005, as alternative ski options emerge from beyond the backcountry.

New methods of snow mobility -- helicopters, tractors, snowmobiles, kites and even your own feet -- take snow lovers to greater heights in search of the ultimate untouched powder.

"The idea is you get better snow and you're away from the crowds," said Jason Shugg, resident ski expert from the Lonely Planet company, publisher of more than 650 travel guide books focusing on destinations around the globe.

For die-hard adventure-lovers, Shugg recommends heli-skiing, a sport in which skiers hire private helicopters to transport them to untamed runs. Only a handful of companies in the United States and Canada operate such services, but the adventurous thrills and panoramic views, Shugg says, make it "the most amazing skiing in the world."

But heli-skiing, like most specialty sports, doesn't come cheap.

The average price for ski equipment rental and a one-day standard lift ticket at a traditional mountain resort costs $65-$85, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), a trade association that tracks industry figures.

Heli-skiing, without ski or safety equipment rental, starts around $500 and can go up to as much as $1,200 a day.

Alaska Backcountry Adventures, the longest running of four heli-skiing companies in Valdez, Alaska, provides a one-day pass, which includes six runs for $595 (add an extra $100 if you need safety gear and skis).

A typical day starts with a 30-minute lesson on avalanche safety, rescue scenarios, tips on traveling on a glacier, ways to avoid crevices and helicopter safety. Then, a five-minute copter ride zips groups of five to their own personal mountaintop.

Afterward, guide and part owner Dave Rintala says, "Everyone hangs out and eats a barbecue lunch, sees the glacier and the whole world turns pink."

While enchanting and thrilling, heli-skiing as a sport plays to only a minority of skiers, says Michael Berry, president of the NSAA.

Although helicopter skiing companies do a fair amount of business within their niche, he says. But in light of the 57 million lift tickets sold annually at traditional resorts, they are not a major part of the industry.

"It's an absolute elite group of people who end up going on helicopter ski vacation," Berry says.

Cats and kites

But there are ways, Shugg says, to find other, less obscure alternatives if you do your homework.

Maybe skyscraping terrain isn't your ball of snow, but you still want to try something different this winter. Trade the helicopter for a heavy-duty, snow-plowing tractor, or "cat," which hauls skiers up untouched peaks so they can zip back down in what's called "cat skiing."

North American cat skiing areas, among others, include Colorado (specifically Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat Springs and Vail) and British Columbia (Fernie and Revelstoke).

Kite snowboarding -- a ski hybrid that combines snowboarding and hang gliding -- allows you to guide yourself to fresh runs by using the wind force of a kite to move along the snow.

"Not much of that goes on in the United States," says Berry, who notes that kite skiing is easier to find in European resorts.

Telemarking and a skidoo

If you're looking for something stateside that's more readily available, and you're still avoiding the traditional lift pull, try a snowmobile or "skidoo," a mark of snowmobile synonymous with the motorized snow motorcycle in some areas.

Shugg recommends Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for its multitude of skidoo tracks. "People do it just for the adventure themselves and they can also enhance their ski skills."

For the not so adventurous types, he recommends snowmobiling over heli-skiing. "Unless you skidoo yourself off a cliff, it's much less daring," Shugg says.

While snowmobiles kick up powder in the United States, skiers in Sweden use their feet to make a dent in the slopes.

Telemarking, a form of skiing that combines the open-heel guiding of cross country skiing and the downhill fun of traditional skiing, is growing in popularity in Scandinavia, Shugg says.

"When you ski down the slope, you drop one knee to turn. It's really a quite graceful form of skiing," Shugg said.

Berry notes a trend in the United States as well.

"Four or five years ago, you might see at a big place four or five people telemarking. Now the number on a busy day, it could be in the hundreds," he said.

Search for fresh snow

One thing consistent with these alternative ski sports, whether extreme or leisure, is the skier's quest for fresh snow.

Lambert, 75, stands at 5,800 feet with his son Richard at Cerro Catedral, in Bariloche, Argentina, on a recent trip.

Richard Lambert, president of the 70+ Ski Club for senior citizens from Schenectady, New York, contends with hundreds of members requesting the very same thing.

Most of his members, besides one 82-year-old who frequents the heli-ski haven at Bugaboos in Alberta, Canada, will forgo the extreme in search of nice runs at quality resorts so friends and family can join them.

The 70+ Ski Club travels large, in groups of 80 to 90, with grandchildren and children. So they, like you, might need to ease onto a bunny slope before diving off an icy cliff.

Some of their favorite resorts include Steamboat, Colorado; Hunter Mountain, New York; Lake Louise, Canada; Mammoth Mountain, California; and Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. For summer they hit South America and New Zealand.

Of the 490 resorts in the United States, Berry says there is no end to the choices.

"At the vast majority of resorts, the approach is fairly classic: skiing and snowboarding."

The resorts in Cortina, Italy, are personal favorites of Lambert, 75, who has visited eight times. "It has all types of skiing and the surroundings are absolutely beautiful," he says.

Shugg agrees that luxurious surroundings attract skiers even if a traditional lift is the mode of transportation they must use. He cites Austria's Zurs and Lach (former ski destinations of Princess Di) as among the most expensive in the world. For those with smaller budgets and big families, he points to Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia.

And when asked for his pick of this year's traditional lift destination, Shugg gives up what he calls "the hottest place at the moment, the hidden gem."

Niseko, a ski town in Japan, has "lots of fresh and dry powder," Shugg boasts.

Experts say powder's the most relevant condition every die-hard skier -- whether helicopter passenger or lift rider -- desires.

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