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Electronic Explorer

Cyber-Schussers Land a Snowfall

November 12, 1995|LAURA BLY

From a photographer's perspective, the slightly blurry snapshot taken last Sunday morning from the base of Vail's Lionshead Gondola was nothing to write home about. But to an Internet powder hound dreaming of the season to come, it was worth a thousand bytes: blue skies, empty slopes and a tantalizing blanket of early snow.

The photo was recorded by a digital camera. Updated several times a day, the shots are then transmitted over the World Wide Web via a company called Resort Sports Network (http://www.rsn.com). A second camera at the Mid-Vail Restaurant, with shots updated every 10 minutes, is on-line at Vail's home page (http://www.vail.net).

About a dozen ski areas, from Mammoth Mountain to North Conway, N.H., have installed such "resort cams." They give virtual travelers an on-the-spot confirmation of weather conditions--and represent one of the newest ways skiers can use cyberspace to plan their winter expeditions. From Web sites featuring trail maps and menus from local apres-ski hot spots to "cyber-lodges," where skiers can exchange tips on equipment, the volume of ski-oriented information on the Internet has exploded.

"Last winter, Yahoo (a popular Internet directory and search program) listed 60 or 70 different ski sites," says Seth Masia, a Boulder, Colo.-based senior editor at Ski Magazine. "This year, there are about 140 . . . and they're six to eight weeks behind."

Among this season's newcomers: Ski's own impressive site, which includes an interactive program that lets skiers select an ideal resort based on information gathered in the magazine's annual readers poll (http://www.skinet.com).

Getting the inside skinny remains a primary motivation of Internet skiers, says Mark Bixby, who runs the Southland Ski Server (http://www.cccd.edu/ski.html) and provides e-mail updates of snow conditions at several Southern California resorts. Some of the most popular information forums: usenet newsgroups such as rec.skiing.alpine, rec.skiing.announce and rec.skiing.nordic. "The great strengths [of the newsgroups] are finding out about new on-line skiing resources and communicating time-critical information, such as snow conditions after a big dump," Bixby says.

But that growing popularity comes at a price: "The big, big weakness is the sometimes unmanageable flood of articles, averaging 100-200 per day lately," he adds. "There is simply not enough time to read it all."

The quality of ski-oriented Web sites sponsored by resorts, equipment manufacturers and magazines varies widely as well, Bixby says. At the low end, "You have volunteer sites that are little more than extended bookmark listings of links to other places with little locally originated content. At the middle level, you have ski industry sites with essentially the same look and feel as their paper brochures: pretty pictures mixed with smooth marketing-speak.

"But at the high end," he adds, "sites exploit the interactive nature of the Web, doing things that cannot be matched by paper brochures."

A case in point: Ski Utah's Virtual Lodging Locator, which identifies properties based on desired selection criteria (http://www.skiutah.com/).

For the most part, resort packages are still booked off-line, notes Masia of Ski Magazine. But because many skiers book trips at the last minute, depending on snow, the Internet's immediacy is a strong lure to resorts and tour operators. A few resorts already offer lists of last-minute lodging space and others are sure to follow, he says.

Small bytes: Using the same navigation technology available in selected rental cars, CompuServe subscribers can now get text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions between any two points in a geographic area. Introduced earlier this month, Way to Go contains dozens of categories, including restaurants, hotels, gas stations, tourist attractions and automated teller machines. The service covers California and Florida, plus New York and six other metropolitan areas in the United States.

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Bly welcomes reader comments; her e-mail address is Laura.Bly@latimes.com. Electronic Explorer appears monthly.

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