Forget surfing, try skiing the net instead

Want to book a ski-break? Check snow conditions? Buy a woolly hat? Get online and prepare to wade through the cyber-snow

In May this year, the ski resort of Mammoth in California started selling season-long lift passes. For a limited period of six weeks - "or while supplies last" - the passes were offered at $375, a huge discount on the full price of $1,620. Supplies did not last long. The passes became available at midnight on the www.mammothmountain.com website on 1 May. By the time the resort office opened in the morning, more than 6,000 had been sold.

In May this year, the ski resort of Mammoth in California started selling season-long lift passes. For a limited period of six weeks - "or while supplies last" - the passes were offered at $375, a huge discount on the full price of $1,620. Supplies did not last long. The passes became available at midnight on the www.mammothmountain.com website on 1 May. By the time the resort office opened in the morning, more than 6,000 had been sold.

Anything that can generate $2.25m of revenue while the sales staff are asleep is bound to cause excitement among ski companies and resorts. Yet most of those who have embraced e-commerce have done so with lesser ambitions and for more prosaic reasons. One ski operator told me that his company's website has not only cut the cost of printing and distributing brochures - the print-run is down by 12 per cent this season because so many clients are now reading web-pages - but also reduces the production time from seven weeks (for a glossy paper brochure) to four days (for the electronic version).

Factor in other savings, and it's not surprising that when Crystal Holidays did a survey on Yahoo early in the summer it found a total of 4,500 skiing websites. This season every resort has its own site, even Lassing in Austria, which boasts just one drag-lift and 300m of piste (www.lassing.at, if you've nothing better to do). A vast network of sites promoting winter-sports products worldwide, 24 hours a day, is obviously good for business; but does it make life easier for skiers and snowboarders? That's not so obvious.

In the early season - particularly for skiers undecided where to go - it's worth browsing through the big, general sites such as www.Ifyouski.com, www.iglu.com, www.skisolutions.com and www.1ski.com provided you have the patience. Launched in the autumn, www.ifyouski.com grew out of www.complete-skier.com, which already made A la recherche du temps perdu seem like a novella: it boasted 40,000 pages of resort profiles, snow reports, webcams, holiday deals and so on. To all that the new site has added 360-degree panoramic images and interactive maps that show you around a resort, pointing out lifts, accommodation and sports facilities.

You can book holidays via these sites; but their ambition is so great that the technology struggles to keep up, even with simple operations. When I tried to access webcam images of Vail on each of the four big sites, only www.skisolutions.com could come up with the goods. In theory, it's possible to do a complete on-line transaction with, for example, www.rocketski.com, a site designed by Brighton-based Equity Total Ski to let users create their own packages by selecting individually priced items (flights, accommodation, lift passes) from an "electronic supermarket". Unfortunately when I tried to compare its lift-pass prices with those available in a sample resort, navigation difficulties led me to phone its helpline - to be told that an electronic glitch was preventing the company from accessing its own site.

In a normal season, websites really come into their own from Christmas onwards. The availability of snow reports and weather forecasts, combined with "real-time" cut-price holiday offers, makes them ideal for late-booking deals. A couple of years ago - before websites learned to sing and dance - www.thomsonski.com had the perfect late-bookers' site: just snow reports for those resorts with availability, bargain prices, and an e-mail address to initiate booking.

But having had a difficult time in 1999-2000 thanks to tricks of the calendar - including the millennium - most operators have cut capacity this year, and bargains should be harder to find. And Thomson's site is now as unwieldy as its competitors'.

Everybody believes that somewhere on the web there are great bargains to be had, if only because sites are littered with "special deals" and "superdeals". But it's almost impossible to know how good the savings are because ski websites don't quote "was" and "NOW!" prices. Only with the help of some insider information was I able to establish that www.crystalholidays.com was knocking at least £156 off the price (£545 in the brochure) of a week's skiing in Norway from 24 December. The Crystal site offers some priceless pleasures, too: click on the "Travel Agents only" icon and you can access a phonetic guide to ski resorts featuring "Sha-mon-ee", "Corsh-e-vell" and "Teen".

For snow reports and forecasts, www.skiclub.co.uk, the Ski Club of Great Britain site, is as good as any. It's worth bearing in mind, however, that most reports on snow depth and condition, however "independent", can ultimately be traced back to resort tourism offices; and no resort has ever seen much point in underestimating the quality and quantity of its snow.

It is possible to buy winter-sports equipment on-line, but not advisable: if you want something that fits and looks good - which you probably do - then flicking through web pages isn't going to help much. For window-shopping, however, www.snowandrock.com and www.ellis-brigham.com (but not the heavily promoted www.9feet.com e-tailer) are fine. No bargains here, though: prices are the same as in the retail outlets and by "shopping around" I found only a 90p saving on a £500 pair of skis.

Unfortunately, the eagerly awaited (by me) www.snow24.com site has been delayed until the New Year. When launched, probably in February, it will bring to the web the Snowhunter database, which for several years has supplied ski news and information to more than a dozen consumer websites in Europe and the USA. It was created by the estimable Patrick Thorne, a man who gives the anorak a good name: he once provided me with a list of the world's top ski resorts judged by the number of laundrettes. I forget why. His resort guide lists 6,000 places to ski, from Armenia to Zao (in Japan). It's worth the price of a lift pass at Mammoth but will soon be available free of charge.

Until it comes on stream, my favourite ski website - for its economy - will remain www.vailsucks.com. It was created, so the story goes, after the Dunkin' Donuts chain purchased the www.dunkindonutssucks.com site - created by a disaffected customer. So popular did the site become that the company bought it simply to close it down. The resort of Vail took pre-emptive action to ensure that it never suffered such an expensive embarrassment. Call up www.vailsucks.com and you get this simple message: "No it doesn't".

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