Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP file
Skiers take a lift at Alta ski resort in Utah on Dec. 14 during what's been an excellent winter for resorts across the state.
updated 2/23/2006 4:07:09 PM ET 2006-02-23T21:07:09

David Ballou revels in powder on the slopes at Aspen, the kind so deep that a skier can fall in the fluffy white stuff and not quite touch the ground.

The University of Michigan biochemistry professor spent eight days carving tracks last month during one of the best seasons the upscale resort has seen in years. "I just put the skis on edge and just scream from one side to the other side of the runs," said Ballou, of Ann Arbor. "It's just terrific."

Despite a record warm January, the winter has been generous with record or near-record snowfall across much of the West, yet stingy in other regions such as the Northeast. And one Arizona resort has yet to open.

"Some ski areas have had to close for a day or two. That's not unusual; it happens from time to time. But there's nobody who's closed for the season or nobody whose given it up yet," National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry said.

Some areas have remained open by relying on machine-made snow. It isn't considered as "soft" as the real stuff and it doesn't drift into the contours of the slopes quite as nicely, but it can be groomed and shaped.

"If you look at the areas east of the Mississippi, they've gotten much more sophisticated in their snowmaking," Berry said. "They can make more snow now in a shorter period of time than ever before. If this had happened 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, it could have been disastrous for the industry."

Berry expects the season to finish with an average of about 56.9 million to 57 million skier visits, an industry measure equal to one person buying a lift ticket for at least half a day.

Since the autumn of 2001, the U.S. ski industry has posted five of its six best seasons ever, despite a devastating drought and travel cutback that kept many home after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to NSAA statistics.

Skier visits last year totaled 56.9 million, down 0.3 percent from the previous year. The record of 57.6 million skier visits was set in the 2002-2003 season.

East Coast warm in January
The warm January was particularly troublesome for East Coast resorts where rain fell, snow melted and days were balmy. It was the second-warmest January on record in Maine and the fourth-warmest in New York City.

"The weather has been unusual to say the least," said spokesman Bill Swain of Sugarloaf USA in western Maine.

Noting that March is the resort's snowiest month, Swain said he expects the season to end on a positive note. "Would I prefer to ski on a foot of fresh powder?" he asked. "Sure, but the majority of skiers appreciate the groomed trails."

The West's resorts have fared better, with those in the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies boasting snowfall at or near a record.

At California's Mammoth Mountain, about 300 inches have fallen since November, just shy of the season average of 400. Last year, the snow totaled a record 617 inches, resort spokeswoman Dana Vander Houwen said.

Utah is poised to set its third consecutive record by exceeding last season's 3.9 million skier visits, Ski Utah spokeswoman Hilary Reiter said.

Snowfall along the Wasatch Range — home to 11 resorts including Snowbird, Park City and Alta — has been about 157 percent more than the total in an average season.

Most resorts are hoping the Olympics will give them an extra boost next year from skiers whose interest is piqued by watching televised events.

Four years after Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Games, Utah officials say they are continuing to see year-round benefits in both numbers of tourists and how much they spend.

21 feet in Aspen
In Colorado, so much snow has fallen that many mountain towns have piled it high on street corners and in parking lots. Aspen has had more than 21 feet of snow, with many longtime residents saying it's the best they have ever seen, Aspen Skiing Co. spokeswoman Kristen Rust said.

Colorado resort managers are hopeful they will set a record for skier visits this year. The previous record of 11.98 million was set in the 1997-98 season; last year, the total was 11.81 million. From October to December, the resorts reported 3.1 million skier visits, said Rob Perlman, president of the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA.

"We have clear momentum," he said. "It will come down to March whether we set a record or not."

Meanwhile, folks at the Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff — in the midst of a drought — continue to wait for enough snow to open, a year after posting a season record 460 inches. Since October, they have seen about 20 inches of snow, resort spokesman David Smith said.

The delay has cost millions of dollars in revenue, "and you can put that in capital letters if you want," he said.

"It's extremely frustrating to sit around and look at the slopes and see dry grass where typically they should be covered in white," he said. "The hope is still there that we'll still be able to have a good season, at least the latter half."

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