Skiing: Taking It To the Top

Pacific Northwest ski resorts suffered a disastrous season last winter as rain and warm temperatures melted slopes down to dirt. And though ski areas on lower-elevation mountains can no longer count on bountiful natural powder (with snowpack shrinking in the Cascades, Sierra Nevada and parts of the Rockies), industry executives are still looking up.

Not content with the same old trails, modern skiers want to challenge themselves above the treeline in deep, untracked snow. So ski resorts are expanding higher into mountains, running lifts to summits. Skiers get what they want and resorts get some insurance against poor snowpack farther down the mountain. The new Imperial Express chairlift in Breckenridge, Colo., North America's highest, tops out at 12,840 feet. Copper Mountain and Arapahoe Basin, both in Colorado, are negotiating with the Forest Service to build lifts that will open a combined 600 acres of alpine terrain. The state's Telluride and Aspen resorts also have new lifts that let skiers access areas previously available only to those willing to hike. In Utah, Snowbird is boring a tunnel through a mountain to get to deeper powder. Crystal Mountain in Washington is opening 239 acres of terrain.

Critics say resorts are engaged in an arms race, and they accuse the Forest Service (which oversees more than 130 ski areas in national forests) of sacrificing public lands for corporate profit. The Forest Service's position: skiing and recreation are important uses of public land and aid local economies.