SNOWBIRD — It wasn't surprising that plenty of snow greeted Utah skiers on Thanksgiving morning and over the ensuing weekend.

The surprise has been, over the previous three years, that there wasn't enough snow. Having brown spots on the ski slopes heading into December is the exception rather than the rule.

Over the past 63 years, Alta has missed the Thanksgiving opener only seven times — the 1999-2000 season being the seventh — and the Christmas holiday only twice.

Thus far, both Snowbird and Alta have received well over 100 inches of total snowfall, which, again, isn't so unusual. What is unusual is that the two didn't hit the century mark last year until late December.

Still, what it takes to trigger the need for skiers to make turns is snow — deep snow. The 10 Utah resorts with lifts running over the weekend reported crowd totals ranging from good to record-breaking.

Even better, said Kip Pitou, president of Ski Utah: "It appears the locals are back. We lost them at the start of last season. Some put off skiing until later in the season, and some chose not to ski at all. When you get good snow like we have now the locals ski — and they did over the weekend."

"There's no way to compare this year's opening with past years, but the old timers around here tell us that it was definitely one of the best, if not the best," said Dave Fields, communications director for Snowbird.

The resort reported record crowds over the weekend.

"But I can tell you one thing," Fields said. "Our bookings thus far are up 267 percent. Of course, you've got to consider we didn't open until Dec. 8 last year.

"All this early snow, though, has increased bookings throughout the season."

It's the same at other resorts. Park City, for example, showed a 30 percent increase over Thanksgiving, "but more importantly, people are staying longer," said Melissa O'Brien, communications manager at Park City Mountain Resort.

By comparison, Park City had two runs and one lift open last year. This year it had 61 runs, seven bowls and nine lifts.

"Our skier days are up 200 percent over last year," O'Brien said, "and so are our bookings. We're up 40 percent just for December. Year-to-date for January through March, we're up 25 percent. Things are looking very good right now."

Thus far, Alta has received 134 inches of total snowfall.

"What helped," said Onno Wieringa, general manager, "was the snow we got in October held because it stayed cold. Normally, that snow would have melted. That snow is now our base, which helped make it possible for us to open a week ahead of schedule. And when we did open, we were able to open most of the mountain.

"Locals are sometimes reluctant to come out early in the season, but, really, this is the best time to ski, before all the crowds. I'd suggest they even consider taking a lesson to start out the season. With fewer people around, they can pay the price of a group lesson and end up with a private or semi-private."

Deer Valley will open Saturday for its 20th season. Among the planned festivities will be the $20 lift tickets on Saturday and Sunday and the Merrill Lynch Celebrity Ski Classic. Among those coming in for the classic will be skiing greats Billy Kidd, Steve Mahre and Heidi Volker, along with celebrities Catherine Bell ("JAG") and Kelly Wigglesworth ("Survivor").

How are resorts doing in other parts of the country?

Over in Colorado, Aspen won't open until Dec. 16. Steamboat is open with a 25- to 27-inch base and nine of 20 lifts open, and Vail is open with a 25- to 30-inch base and 19 of 33 lifts.

In California, Mammoth is reporting 16 to 24 inches of snow and 25 of 30 lifts running. In Idaho, Sun Valley is reporting a 12- to 29-inch base, and in Wyoming, Jackson Hole is scheduled to open Saturday.

Canada, as yet, has received very little snow. In Quebec, the two open resorts are reporting a 10-inch base; in Ontario depths range from seven to 16 inches; and in Alberta the one open resort has a 12- to 20-inch base and only six of 105 trails open.

Back east, what few resorts are open are showing limited snow, anywhere from 5 to 36 inches at Sugarbush, Vt.

So, Utah's totals, ranging from 25 to 48 inches, seem even more impressive but not really so surprising.


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