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Ski industry headed for record month

Utah's 1999-2000 ski season might best be described as the proverbial snowball rolling down the steep, snow-covered hill: Slow to start and small in numbers, it has been picking up speed and skiers and is headed for a record-breaking March.

"My guess is that we will finish even with last year, but based on how the season began, that's good, very good," said Kip Pitou, executive director of Ski Utah.A random check of Utah resorts shows that, with few exceptions, November and December were down but January, February and especially March have been up.

Reasons range from good snow -- half of the 14 areas are reporting snow depths of 100 inches or more -- to the Internet.

"The Internet has allowed people to get up-to-the-minute snow reports, so they know Utah has the best skiing and the best snow," says Melissa O'Brien, communications manager at Park City Mountain Resort. "A lot of our bookings are from people who made their reservations 10 days to two weeks out."

Utah does, in fact, have some of the best snow conditions in the country. Averages at Eastern resorts range from 20 to 40 inches. Colorado resorts are averaging bases of around 75 inches.

Here in Utah, Alta is reporting 131, Brighton 112, Elk Meadows 100, Snowbasin 100, Powder Mountain 116, Snowbird 131 and Solitude 100.

Utah's ski season sputtered in the beginning. Some resorts were off by as much as 50 percent.

"We had projected a 20 percent increase in skier days, and looking at what's happened in the past three months, there's no question we would have reached our objective had we had a normal opener."

Kim Peterson, director of communications at The Canyons, said the resort is up in total skier days, "mainly because of the good snow conditions and because people have come to realize what we're doing. This is not a Wolf Mountain or ParkWest but a major destination ski area. Driving up to The Canyons, they are getting a whole new view of the resort."

Stephen Lane, marketing director at Brian Head, said because the area was not able to open for Thanksgiving and had only part of the mountain open for Christmas, "our numbers were down, but we've picked up a lot over the past three months. Our weekends have been very strong. We're also seeing a strong increase in people from places like Texas and Arizona. Good snow has a lot to do with it. We've had more than 50 inches so far in March."

Dave Fields, communications at Snowbird, said numbers are about 4 percent ahead of last year, "and because of the strong March, we expect to be up as much as 6 percent. If that happens, this would be our second biggest season on record next to 1990-91. Good snow conditions have a lot to do with it, but opening Mineral Basin, which gave us 25 percent more terrain and spread skiers over the mountain and cut lift lines, also played a big part."

This year, because Easter falls so late (April 23), it is not expected to figure into this ski season. Typically, Easter is recognized as the beginning of the end and ski traffic remains high through the holiday. This year several resorts will close before Easter.

Still, as Pitou pointed out, in a year as strange as this one has been, to finish even with last season is reason to celebrate. Many of the country's ski states would love to be in Utah's position.