Utah skiing is experiencing a banner year

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 19 2011 5:00 p.m. MST

Jodi Holmgren makes her way down a run at Eagle Point, a newly opened ski resort located outside Beaver. Eagle Point was established on the site of the former Elk Meadows Ski Resort, with extensive renovations to two lodges and reconditioned lifts.

Ryan Fisher

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.

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