The season has drifted in early for Southern Oregon skiers and snowboarders: the Mount Ashland ski area opens Friday, the earliest opening since 2002 when the ski lifts started up Nov. 30.

The season has drifted in early for Southern Oregon skiers and snowboarders: the Mount Ashland ski area opens Friday, the earliest opening since 2002 when the ski lifts started up Nov. 30.

Adding to the attraction of gliding lifts and powdery snow are discounted lift tickets, a move that General Manager Kim Clark hopes will make the ski area more accessible for those struggling in the current economy.

"We would much prefer more people and less dollars (per person)," Clark said.

Weekend tickets are reduced this season from $43 to $39, and midweek tickets are $33 instead of $36.

At least three of the park's four lifts will start their merry-go-round Friday, Clark said. All four could open if the forecast for more snow crystallizes later this week, he said.

On Monday, about 20 of Mount Ashland's 140 paid employees prepared for the arrival of what is expected to be 500 to 700 visitors Friday and perhaps as many as 1,000 each day Saturday and Sunday, Clark said.

Joy Spillan stocked her retail shop inside the lodge, warmed by a flickering fire in the lodge's central fireplace.

Spillan said she was pleasantly surprised to return to work earlier than expected.

"It's always nice," said Spillan, who works in her family's piano shop during the summer when the ski area is shuttered.

Outside, other employees shoveled the decks or packed blinding white snow with lumbering winch cats.

It wasn't clear whether lead lift operator Leif Luebkert was playing snow taxi or snow pirate as he zoomed over the slopes in a snowmobile with a black skull-and-crossbones flag. Wearing nothing to shelter his bald head, he stopped the snowmobile to drop off a fellow employee at the ski rental shop, and one of them let out a joyous "yahoo!"

The ski area's average opening date is Dec. 13, though last year it was Dec. 17. Nevertheless, the date is always dictated by the whims of nature.

If you haven't waxed your skis or snowboard yet, you're not the only one who is unprepared.

In an unusual sequence of events, Southern Oregon University's annual ski swap will follow instead of precede the ski area's lift-off, noted Kevin McNally, manager of Ashland's Aedion snowboarding shop.

The Ashland university's ski swap is set for Saturday and Sunday at the campus' McNeal Pavilion, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd.

On Monday, shoppers browsed Aedion's aisles for snowboarding bags and coats.

"It's been pretty busy," McNally said. "It started picking up about a week ago with the heavy snowfall."

Ashland resident Geoff Davis said he was looking for a new ski jacket.

"I'm going skiing Sunday," Davis said. "I'm excited. I would go Friday, but I have to work until Sunday."

For more information, visit mtashland.com.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.