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Alpine Skiing Going To Extremes To Lure The Hot Dogs Back

You'd think that at 55, Carole L. Brownson would be skiing gentler runs. But not this former New York City chef: She rides to the end of a ski lift at Breckenridge, Colo., then heads up the mountain for a 20-minute trek she likens to climbing to the top of the Empire State Building. After pausing at the summit of Peak 7 to admire the view, she's off through deep powder, flying down an ungroomed mountain bowl with a 1,200-foot, 35-degree drop. "It's like free-falling. I laugh all the way down the hill. Yes! Yes!" says Brownson, owner of a bed-and-breakfast in town. "If this is as close to heaven as I get, that's O.K. It's pretty close."

TUBE FARE. Brownson isn't the only one seeking nirvana in the backcountry. Searching for ever-greater thrills, expert skiers are schussing macho, or "extreme," slopes at winter resorts all over America. Using standard downhill equipment, they are pressing the hunt for what Telluride ski patrol director Norman H. Gray calls "the ultimate challenge." If TV is any gauge, then extreme skiing is hot: A new ABC series, Extreme, began a weekly run on Mar. 2. It's about a crack rescue team that saves extreme skiers and others in danger--sort of Baywatch meets Downhill Racer.

Extreme's biggest enthusiasts, however, may be ski resorts, which have been battling a decade of stagnant growth. U.S. resorts booked 54.6 million skier days in the 1993-94 season, just 8% more than the 50.6 million in 1983-84, according to the National Ski Areas Assn. (NSAA) in Lakewood, Colo. In that state, where growth averaged less than 3% per year over the past decade, skier days were up just 0.5% last winter, says Colorado Ski Country USA, a resort association.

Resorts must now market to specific niches: kids, oldsters, Europeans. Snowboarders accounted for 11% of resort visits last year, a 17% increase over the previous season. Extreme skiing may not see that pace of growth, but it's part of an overall strategy to "offer a range of activities for the destination visitor--snowshoeing, dogsledding, extreme skiing," says Michael Berry, NSAA president. It's also a good way to shanghai skiers from rivals and lure hot dogs who are bored with groomed slopes.

There are no hard numbers on extreme skiers, since they buy the same tickets and ride the same lifts as downhillers and tyros, but enrollment in Ski Schools of Aspen's extreme clinics is up 50% over a year ago. The clinics charge $52 (plus a lift ticket of up to $49) to take skiers on daylong backcountry expeditions. Across the mountains at Telluride, extreme skiing is up 100%, "if you count by the number of rescues," says patrol director Gray: They have doubled in each of the last three years.

Eastern ski areas are pushing what they call "woods skiing." "Two or three years ago, you'd get your ticket lifted for skiing into the woods," says Betsy Pratt, president of Vermont's Mad River Glen. Yet Sugarbush, Vt., this year introduced $30 guided tours into the woods, and Stowe opened up an ungroomed slope to extreme skiers.

CHEAP THRILLS. Extreme slopes are popular with resorts because they're cheap. Readying Peak 7 cost less than 10% of what Breckenridge would have spent to cut runs and build a ski lift for a traditional downhill slope. And since the terrain is left in its natural state, there's little grooming cost.

Still, extreme skiing isn't for everybody. Wyoming's Jackson Hole doesn't promote it much for fear of scaring off skiers who think they're not good enough. It's a dangerous game--a steep skier was killed two years ago near Kirkwood, a California ski area. At Bridger Bowl in Montana, where 25% of season pass holders are steep skiers, the ski patrol checks their experience and equipment before letting them into the backcountry. Skiers there carry locator beacons in case of avalanches.

The danger, however, is just what some folks hanker for. Who are these hotshots? They're mostly Generation-X thrill-seekers, men and women, plus baby boomers out to prove they haven't lost it. After a run down Peak 7, says 44-year-old Breckenridge dentist John G. Warner, "I'm 33 and sneering at everybody."

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