|LINDSEY VONN Favorite, then 4th|
No matter where you are in ski country, the early-season snowfall has been pretty decent. The Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, and the Northeast have all received at least one good wallop from Mother Nature.
But the wintry conditions have not been limited to the continental United States. A blizzard alert, with winds up to 70 miles per hour, was issued for the highest points on the Big Island of Hawaii late last week, dumping a foot of snow atop the volcano summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.
Mauna Loa (Hawaiian for "long mountain," elevation 13,680 feet) makes up half the Big Island and is the world's largest volcano. It hasn't erupted since 1984, but is still considered active. Mauna Kea ("white mountain," 13,796 feet) is dormant, and its peak is often mentioned by the few local adventure companies that offer snow sports tours.
Skiing and snowboarding barely registers in sun-soaked Hawaii, but when the rainy season arrives on the Big Island in December, some locals take to the backcountry volcano slopes, which can accumulate "pineapple powder" that resembles what we call "corn snow" in New England. This pastime is largely a renegade endeavor because there are no ski resorts, no lifts, and no marked trails. A four-wheel-drive vehicle or a long, hard hike are the only means up the volcano.
"Typically, I'm not even supposed to talk about skiing to reporters," said Jessica Ferracane, a public relations staffer for the Big Island Visitors Bureau, who estimates she gets one press inquiry a year about volcano skiing. "The tourism office does not condone skiing on Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa."'
But, she added, "That's not to say it doesn't happen."
Miller missing outBode Miller is still seeking a podium finish in his first season as a World Cup independent, apart from the US Ski Team. After failing to repeat his Beaver Creek successes two weeks ago, Miller failed to qualify for the slalom at Bad Kleinkirchheim, Austria, last Sunday after a seventh-place finish in Saturday's GS.
The slalom was won by Austria's Benny Raich, who finished second overall in the World Cup last season behind Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, who has been sidelined after a horrendous high-speed crash in downhill training at Beaver Creek.
Following the crash on the Birds of Prey course at the Golden Eagle jump - on which racers travel as much as 200 feet - Svindal underwent emergency abdominal surgery and was treated for broken facial bones. Doctors deemed it doubtful that he would return to the race course this season.
But last weekend, Svindal was flown home to Norway in a private jet donated by a Norwegian businessman, where he told a Swiss reporter that he was beginning to walk around.
"I'm only 24," said Svindal. "Hopefully I'll compete for many more years, so it's not hard to miss a few months of racing . . . The doctors are pleased with the way I'm recovering and this is most important to me. There's no reason for me to hurry and return too early [to the World Cup tour] if I don't feel able to win."
Too soft a stance?Last Saturday, heavy fog, warm weather, and soft snow combined to slow down US favorite Lindsey Vonn in a World Cup race on the Aspen Winternational downhill course. Vonn (formerly Kildow, before marrying former US Team racer Thomas Vonn last year) had won both training runs, but finished fourth.
"It's just too bad I couldn't show my stuff in front of hometown fans," Vonn told Ski Racing magazine.
Two racers suffered serious injuries when they crashed in the soft snow at high speeds. French skier Anne-Sophie Barthet was taken down on a sled with a blown knee and two leg fractures. Austrian champion Alexandra Meissnitzer suffered a knee injury.
The winner, Canada's Britt Janyk, agreed that the course was soft, but said her time training on Whistler in British Columbia prepared her for the conditions.
In 1993, and again two years later, US downhiller A.J. Kitt was leading Aspen downhill races in similar soft conditions when the international jury canceled the races on controversial claims that the course had become too dangerous.
Just the opposite was the case last weekend, with some women claiming the race should have been canceled because of dangerous conditions. US Olympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso, who finished 16th, told reporters, "[The race course] wasn't necessarily unsafe because the speeds weren't very high. It was just bumpy with lots of soft snow."
Teammate Resi Stiegler, who finished 24th, said she trusted her coaches to make the right decision, but added, "I was skiing like a 2-year-old."
New look for LoonLoon Mountain's South Peak is finally set to open. One of the three new trails is expected to be ready for skiers and snowboarders this weekend.
South Peak, with its 1,475-foot vertical drop, will also have two new lifts as part of a $10 million upgrade at the Lincoln, N.H., ski area. The project also includes the Pemigewasset Base Camp, which contains a cafeteria.
Snowmaking covers the new intermediate trails - Cruiser and Boom Run - while the third run, Uppercut, is gladed. Cruiser is expected to get the green light Saturday.
South Peak will be serviced by the high-speed detachable quad Lincoln Express, which travels to the summit in close to five minutes. The fixed-grip Tote Road Connector lift will shuttle skiers and riders between the Loon and South Peak summits.
"Future plans call for three more trails next season and more in years after that," said Loon spokesperson Stacey Lopes.
The mountain is planning an official ribbon-cutting Dec. 20 at 10 a.m.
Up for the ChallengeNext month, eight skiers and snowboarders will try to ski all of Ski Maine Association's 17-member mountains over the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Team members of the Maine Peak to Peak Challenge include Carey Kish of Portland, Maine, Heather Atwell of Keene, N.H., and Bruce and Joanne Mason of Auburn, Maine.
"We will travel nearly 1,000 miles over 3 1/2 days, sampling a mere 85 of the 560 trails at Maine mountains. We hit the road Friday, Jan. 18, at Spruce Mountain in Jay, and wrap up on the 21st at the Camden Snow Bowl," said Ski Maine executive director and team member Greg Sweetser.
Skiers and riders can take their own peak challenge this season. Pick up a Ski Maine Peak to Peak Challenge card through skimaine.com to be eligible for season pass prizes for visiting six to 17 Maine areas.
Can-do attitudeSnow flurries excite skiers and riders, while the Food Flurry at Attitash in Bartlett, N.H., keeps some money in their wallets and aids a good cause. Show up at the ticket window Sunday with three cans of food and purchase a lift ticket for $35.
Bring five cans of food for a local food pantry to Cannon's Peabody Lodge in Franconia Notch, N.H., Saturday and get a lift ticket for $30.
Globe correspondents Tony Chamberlain and Marty Basch contributed to this report.