- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

DENVER

David Ballou revels in powder on the slopes at Aspen, the kind so deep that a skier can fall into 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 that 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,” Mr. Ballou said. “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. 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 who’s given it up yet,” National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) 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 snow making,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Berry expects the season to finish with about 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, despite a devastating drought and travel cutback that kept many home after the September 11 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 2002-03 season.

Analyst Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine Associates, who monitors Vail Resorts Inc., said the warm weather in the Northeast likely will prompt more skiers to travel to the West or Canada, where the snow has been plentiful.

“What happens is a skier loses his interest. He starts thinking about trees and grass,” he said.

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 north of Portland, Maine.

Noting that March is the resort’s snowiest month, Mr. 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 record amounts.

At California’s Mammoth Mountain, about 300 inches have fallen since November, just shy of the seasonal 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.

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 is the best they have seen, said Aspen Skiing Co. spokeswoman Kristen Rust.

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