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Snow report: The winter sports season begins

It's crunch time – the white stuff is already covering the slopes of Europe's mountains. Patrick Thorne welcomes the winter sports season with a new fortnightly column

You may not have noticed it yet, but the 2009-10 ski and snowboard season is already under way. Glacier resorts in the Alps began opening last month and have been boosted by huge snowfalls in recent weeks. They've been joined by half a dozen US resorts, including Mammoth on the west coast and Sunday River on the east, which are all promising signs for the ski season to come.

But what's the mood in the ski industry, battered first by climate change stories and then by the economic slowdown? "Cautiously optimistic" sums it up. The early snow put smiles on the faces of troubled tour operators because, in the end, it's always the snow, not the world economic situation, that determines whether a season is a financial success or not.

"Bookings right now are picking up. We're up on last year, although we aren't close to the levels of autumn 2007 – the last time we saw the usual September/ October surge in trade," says Craig Burton of specialist agency IfYouSki (0844 371 7733; ifyouski .com). "Last year, autumn was very flat as the credit crunch bit hard and the market for ski holidays collapsed. This year's better."

The tour operators are insisting that there is to be no repeat of last year's two-for-one ski holidays and other super discounts, when pre-crunch flight and property allocations met post-crunch reality. This time, the big operators, for example TUI which runs Crystal, First Choice and Thomson, have announced cuts of 40 per cent on chalet accommodation. Nervous budget airlines are quietly axing ski routes, too. bmibaby's flights to Grenoble are the latest to fall victim.

"Looking forward, I think it is inevitable that we will see a very busy 'lates' period once again, though there will not be the same level of discounting and choice as last year," adds Burton.

The weak pound is an extra problem for skiers and boarders, with fixed costs in-resort – such as lift passes, rental and ski school – often adding up to as much as the holiday package and traditionally having to be paid for in dollars or euros in-resort. So this year all operators have come up with variants on "all inclusive" ski holidays, incorporating some or all of these costs.

They are proving so popular (Craig Burton thinks they'll run out soon) that market-leader Crystal (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has expanded its range to include resorts in Austrian, French, Swiss, Slovenian and North American resorts, with prices from £469 including lift pass and rentals.

You might think it's the luxury end of the market that is being hardest hit – and the demise of luxury ski-tour operator Descent International has added to that impression – but there is evidence that the money is still out there.

Richard Branson's luxurious Lodge in Verbier (left) can only be booked as an entire building (sleeping 18) for much of the winter, complete with an in-house team that includes two private chefs, masseuse and 24-hour driver. New Year's week would come in at £98,900, but operator Virgin Limited Edition (0800 716 919; virgin limitededition.com) reports that that particular week is already sold, along with most of the rest of the winter.

In another Swiss resort, Arosa, the five-star Tschuggen Grand Hotel (right) has unveiled its new private funicular for guests, whisking them up 500 metres to the slopes in two-and-a-half minutes in the sort of hi-tech, six-person capsules that would even make a Bond villain blush.

New ski tour operators for the slightly less well heeled are also still appearing. Zenith Holidays (01737 852242; zenithholidays .co.uk) is bringing a refreshing list of new destination choices to the market, as well as extending the ski season right back to, well, now. Zenith has five-night half-board stays in Pitztal, Austria, where skiing on the glacier began last month, for £499, including lift pass and four spa treatments.

And although the choice of destination in the mainstream brochures may have contracted overall this winter, new opportunities for skiers in search of the exotic are still appearing. Skiing in Iran is an option now available through London-based Kootch Adventure Travel (020-7193 3344; kootch-adventure.com).

The 10-day holidays will include the country's leading resorts at Shemshak and Dizin (right), close to Tehran. There are massive free-riding opportunities, with accommodation in slope-side lodges that were built for the last Shah, himself a keen skier.

Iran has an 80-year history as a venue for skiing with some of the world's highest ski areas and great powder, as well as a very lively party scene. The package price is yet to be fixed but it is expected to be around £1,500, excluding flights, but with everything else included.

The big news of this season is the 2010 Winter Olympics, now just months away. It seems the British Columbian resorts in Canada that are not involved in hosting the Games are now competing for a slice of world attention.

So, this is the chance for the "world's ultimate ski bum" to shine, as both Sun Peaks and the Kootenay Rockies region – home to the world's greatest concentration of cat and heli-skiing operations (right) – have launched separate contests to find individuals who can face up to three months of luxury lodging and limitless snow sports if they win. Entries, in the form of 60- to 90-second videos, need to be posted in the next few weeks at snowbumcanada.com or powderhighway .com, where full details are available. A third contest, organised by Nonstop Adventure (0845 365 1525; nonstopadventure.com) offers the chance to win a place on an 11-week ski instructor training course at Fernie, BC; value £7,500. Go to nonstopadventure.com.

Closer to home, Scottish mountains saw their first healthy snowfall since last winter at the start of the month, whetting the appetites of local optimists for a repeat of last year's Hallowe'en opening of the slopes at The Lecht (01975 651440; lecht.co.uk).

After two good snow years, the strong euro is making Scottish snow look ever more appealing to Britons and foreigners with a six-day lift pass for Nevis Range weighing in at £105 for the coming winter. That's less than half the cost of an equivalent Three Valleys pass at the current exchange rates, and considerably cheaper than such oft-mentioned budget ski destinations as Bulgaria. It's closer too, with Aviemore and Fort William still accessible by sleeper trains if you want to wake up in the mountains ready to ski. Maybe this is the winter to ski Scotland? Just remember to check the weather conditions before you leave home.