Other skiers and snowboarders save big bucks by buying season passes, some of which pay for themselves in as few as five or six visits. Traditionally offered by individual resorts and pegged toward locals, newer passes such as Vail Resorts' Epic Pass (unlimited skiing at 12 resorts for $729) and the Mountain Collective pass (12 days at six destinations for $379) extend the concept to those who don't live at the base of the hill.

"If you look at the season pass deals out there, by some definitions skiing has never been more affordable for our core participants," said Michael Berry, the ski association's president.

And therein lies the proverbial rub. That core audience is getting older and they're not being replaced by enough new participants to grow the sport. Last year, the median age on the slopes was 38, compared with 34 a decade ago, a worrisome shift for the industry.

The overall result is little or no growth in participation and the potential for future declines as baby boomers "age out" of the sport. Last year, skier visits hit 56.9 million, an increase of 11 percent over 2011 -- which was the worst season in 20 years -- but still below the sport's 10-year average of 57.4 million.

The challenges are only expected to grow. As the major resorts spend millions on new lifts and posh lodges, smaller areas -- so-called "feeder and breeder" resorts -- can't afford to offer competitive amenities. In 1978, there were approximately 700 ski areas in the U.S.; last year, there were only 477.

The future of the ski industry, Quinby said, looks increasingly like the travel industry at large: a two-tiered market in which wealthier participants are more optimistic, more able to travel and more willing to accept higher costs. The rest, by contrast, are less optimistic and less likely to spend -- with one major caveat.

Regardless of their economic status, skiers and snowboarders are nothing if not passionate about the sport, and most will find a way to satisfy their passion.

They're people like Elizabeth Rodgers, a lifelong skier who lives in Boise, Idaho. She can hit the local slopes at Bogus Basin, where season passes sold for $229 earlier this year, or drive 2.5 hours to Sun Valley, where day tickets during peak periods are $105.

For Rodgers, a mother of two who skis about 20 times a year, the economics are simple: "Bogus is much smaller but it's accessible, it's affordable and you can still ski a lot."

And Sun Valley? "It's just heaven -- it's only gotten more beautiful and more fancy -- but only the one percent can afford to have a real family vacation there."

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