The ski business is as unpredictable as the weather. Take this ski season.

It started out well covered and on schedule. Skiing was good. Then the unexpected cold spell hit and for two weeks of prime time in December it nearly stopped. Skiing improved over the holidays and into January, but then went dry. For nearly a month it didn't snow. Now it's teetering somewhere between exceptional and unacceptable.At Alta this week, a Colorado skier commented on the "soft" snow conditions and great skiing. Locals were more inclined to call the snowpack "firm" and skiing an acceptable OK.

"Actually, it's pretty tough to complain," pointed out Mark Menlove, communications director for Park City. "We've got the sun, warm weather and the snow is holding up real well."

Early counts indicate the Utah skier business is running a little ahead of last year's 2.5 million skier days. And, if March is as strong as early reservations indicate, this could be a record ski season for Utah. The record is 2.57 million skier days.

Park City, for example, the first Utah area to open, is running ahead of last year, which was its record season. Alta is slightly ahead of last year and Snowbasin, one of the last to open on Dec. 21, is having a good year, "but no record."

Consensus is the December cold erased most of the benefits of the good start. Resorts officials feel numbers would be running from 5 to 10 percent higher had the thermometer not dropped.

Elsewhere around the country the picture isn't as snowy.

California resorts are having one of the worst snow years on record. Early closing rumors are as common as cancellations. Mammoth, the largest ski area in the country, has only three of 26 lifts running and lists a snowpack of 9 to 19 inches. Sun Valley, too, is having dry year. Latest reports show a snow depth of only 20 inches.

Colorado resorts aren't much better off. Vail is reporting 33 inches mid-mountain, Aspen 34 and Steamboat Springs 44. Reports are the state is running behind last year's figures.

Taos, an area in New Mexico, is having one of its best snow years ever with a 90-plus-inch base. Grand Targhee, on the Idaho-Wyoming border, also has good snow - an 90-inch base at the summit.

The Jackson Hole area in Wyoming is reporting snow depths similar to Utah's - a 60-inch base.

Montana ski areas are reporting record snow depths and eastern ski areas are reporting good snow cover, while Southeastern resorts are on the barren side.

Currently, Utah skiing is rated among the best in the country. Five years ago this might not have been the case. Because of new grooming techniques, resorts are able to offer better skiing on less snow.

According to Onno Weiringa, general manger at Alta, four things have greatly improved skiing in the past five years - summer grooming, snow fences, snowmaking and the newest in grooming equipment - the "Winch Cat."

"It's funny, but something as low-tech as clearing the slopes in the summer and snow fences has helped a lot. We used to worry every time it snowed and the wind blew because it would blow the snow off high-impact areas. Snow fences have stopped that.

"The `Winch Cats' have added such a new dimension to grooming. Right now we're working them to death. But, it's helped us keep the runs in very good shape."

Cables attached to the cat allows it to work up and down runs that in the past could not be groomed for safety reasons.

Menlove noted that Park City takes a different approach to grooming.

Instead of pulling "tillers" behind groomers that break up the packed surfaces, the area uses "munchers" or "powder makers."

"The tiller," he said, "knocks the air out of the snow and results, eventually, in a hard surface. The `powder maker' uses three overlapping rollers and a screen. It grooms but leaves the air in the snow, which makes a softer surface."

Park City has the most sophisticated snowmaking system in Utah and according to Menlove, snow is being made "when temperatures allow."

Kent Matthews, mountain manger at Snowbasin, said that because the resort lacks snowmaking capabilities, "We use a different grooming technique.

"After it snows we pack it and then use `powder makers' to groom. When it starts to harden up, we go to tillers. We don't till every day, just when needed," he said.

Utah's snowpack is among the highest in the country and it's grooming techniques among the best.

All of which accounts for the high grades Utah is getting, especially from out-of-state skiers from areas where the snow surface and ground are closer than they should be.

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(Additional information)

Reported snow depths

Snow depth in inches. Eastern areas report snow depth from lows to highs.

UTAH

Alta 74

Beaver Mountain 37

Brian Head 38

Brighton 64

Deer Valley 47

Park City 50

Park West 45

Powder Mountain 59

Snowbasin 50

Snowbird 62

Solitude 58

Sundance 34

IDAHO

Bogus Basin 32

Sun Valley 20

Kelly Canyon 30

WYOMING

Jackson Hole 60

Grand Targhee 91

Snow King 30

COLORADO

Aspen Highlands 35

Buttermilk 29

Beaver Creek 38

Copper Mountain 48

Crested Butte 34

Keystone 37

Snowmass 38

Steamboat 44

Vail 33

N. CAROLINA

Fairfield-Sapphire 12

Ski Beech 20

Sugar Mountain 25

NEW YORK

Hunter Mt. 20-100

Whiteface 14-39

VERMONT

Killington 24-46

Stowe 40-56

Stratton 18-44