Utah skiing is experiencing a banner year [Ray Grass The Deseret News]
January 15, 2011
The snow fell early and in great abundance here in Utah so far this winter — thanks, surprisingly, to colder water temperatures in the tropical Pacific.
With the snow came skiers, snowboarders and winter travelers, which, as might be expected, started Utah's ski/snowboard season off at a full-on run verses the slow walk experienced the previous three years.
And the results have been good ever since.
"Looking at the season up to this point compared to last year, it's been incredible," said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah.
"What looks even better is the forecast for the rest of the year," said Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber of Commerce. "In some cases, we're seeing double-digit increases."
"People around the country have heard about our great snow and skiing," said Erin Grady, communications director at Deer Valley. "It was even talked about on the Today Show, and we're seeing the results in the increase in the number of calls and in skier days."
"Numbers are up, and revenue-wise we're up in double-digits," said Jason Dyer with Snowbasin.
"We were down a little over the holidays, but now we're ahead in bookings compared to where we were last year," said Nick Como, public relations director at Solitude.
"In other years with strong early-season snowfall, we've seen a very positive impact throughout the year based on the perceptions created in November and December, so we're confidently optimistic that this year should follow suit," said Jared Ishkanian, public relations director at Snowbird.
There are similar stories coming from other Utah resorts and snow-related businesses around Utah: numbers are up, bookings are up and revenues are up.
All of which can be traced to a lesser-known climate conditions known as "La Nina," a flip-flop of "El Nino."
Under an El Nino, surface water temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific warm slightly. Under a La Nina, they cool slightly, which causes a decrease in storm activity.
"The energy and moisture then go into the atmosphere on a giant scale," reported Brian McInerney, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City. "When that happens, we have weather that comes into Utah from the Pacific Northwest in much stronger storm tracks.
"Storms that come into Utah from the Pacific Northwest that are cool and wet become cooler and wetter. When we have a strong La Nina, we have a better probability of getting above-normal to above-average snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains."
He then explained that there was a little "wiggle'" along with the La Nina pattern. The Pineapple Express, a non-technical term used to characterize a flow of moist air brought in from Hawaii, came in from the southwest, which is why southern Utah also received abundant moisture.
McInerney said it's impossible to predict whether this moist pattern will continue. History, however, shows that a good start to the ski/snowboard season typically picks up and carries through to the end.
"What the early snow did was move the momentum to a fever pitch and has set the tone for the rest of the season," Rafferty said.
"The strong start has created confidence in that it's going to be a good year," Malone said. "We're seeing a higher call volume and people are starting to loosen up (on their spending). We're hearing anecdotally on the streets that purchases are starting to come back on higher-ticket items. Even though unemployment is still high, we're seeing more optimism on the part of the customer."
The important Christmas/New Year holiday season started slowly, but picked up in the second week and, as noted, left resorts, in some cases, with double-digit increases over the previous year.
One reason for the slower start was the bad weather the week before Christmas in the East and Europe. Flights were delayed and sometimes canceled, and bags were delayed. One report said there were around 30,000 bags that were delayed and being held in Frankfurt, Germany.
The early snow also dislodged local skiers from their chairs. Typically, local skiers wait for a proper snow depth and conditions before stepping into bindings. This winter, they showed up early and with an interest in skiing and snowboarding.
"Yes," said Grady, "we had the snow and we did get locals early on and it helped."
"We're above projections," said Como, "and what helped was the locals. With the early snow, they started early."
What makes this picture all the more interesting is that most of the major ski areas in the United States have good snow depths.
"Which," pointed out Rafferty, "paints a good picture for the entire industry. Colorado has great snow. California has great snow and the eastern resorts have had their good days. In the long term, this is good for everyone. This year, they may ski in Colorado and the next in Utah and the next in New Mexico. The important thing is they're skiing."
While Utah draws its share of the destination market from around the county, its strongest influence comes from California, Texas and New York.
Malone pointed out there's also a growing number of international travelers coming to Utah.
"Surprisingly, the largest increase so far has been in visitors from Australia," he said. "There's a flight that comes directly from Sydney to Los Angeles, and it's a direct flight from there to Salt Lake City. The international guest is a growing segment of our market."
Looking at resorts around the country, overall conditions are among the best in many years.
Here in Utah, Alta had a base of 107 inches as of Tuesday and has received nearly 300 inches of total snowfall, with the snowiest months still ahead. The average at Alta is 500 inches. Last year, it received nearly 600 inches, with most of it coming later in the season. Brian Head has a 62-inch base, Deer Valley 84 inches, Park City 77, Snowbird 99 and Brighton 91. The lowest is Wolf Creek showing 59 inches.
Deer Valley reported receiving more than 100 inches of snow in the seven days before New Year's Day. Como said it wasn't until Feb. 6 of last year that the resort held the base it did on Christmas Day this season. Alta didn't come close to 300 inches until mid-February in 2010.
In Colorado, Beaver Creek has a 45-inch base, Copper Mountain 54 to 64 inches, Steamboat 63 to 80, Vail 45 inches and Aspen Highlands 46 to 64.
Jackson Hole, Wyo., is showing a base of 80 to 88 inches, and Sun Valley, Idaho, a base of 45 to 62 inches.
California resorts, as might be expected, hold the deepest bases. Alpine Meadows is showing 83 to 152 inches, Heavenly Valley 77 to 98, Mammoth 120 to 220 and Squaw Valley 116 inches.
Back East, in New York, Whiteface Mountain, site of the 1980 Olympics, has a base of 22 to 34 inches and Hunter Mountain 45 to 90 inches.
In Vermont, Killington is showing a base of 30 to 40 inches, Stowe 24 to 40 inches and Sugarbush 18 to 32 inches. Attatish in New Hampshire has a base of 24 to 34, and Sunday River in Maine has a base of 42 to 46 inches.
As noted, Utah's ski and snowboard season is off at a record clip and, with a little more help from the La Nina, it may well end with record numbers.
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