Snow now, dollars later

ASC counts inches, not earnings

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— Executives for American Skiing Co.'s resorts opened their holiday gifts early this year, and from New England to the Rockies, they received their hearts' desires.

It wasn't Santa Claus but El Niño who delivered the goods. The snow that fell on ASC resorts in Vermont, Colorado and Utah offered hope that the financially beleaguered ski area operator will get the kind of earnings news it desperately needs in the second fiscal quarter of the new year.

ASC has already filed notices of delays with the federal government for both its fourth quarter 2002 earnings report and its first quarter 2003 earnings report. But it will be the second quarter, now under way, that will prove to be the most telling.

The second quarter is when destination ski resorts begin their most significant revenue cycles of the year. And the amount of snow that falls on the slopes during the weeks when people typically make up their minds about whether to book a ski vacation is of critical importance.

Steamboat, which is reporting 11 feet of snow since Oct. 29 and tallied 35 inches in a 72-hour span last week, led the storm of good news.

"This is setting up to be one of our best early season holidays ever," said Jim Lacey, ASC's corporate senior vice president of sales and marketing. "The recent storms had conditions just where we want them going into the Christmas and New Year's period."

Steamboat is reporting a 43-inch base at mid-mountain and a 54-inch base at the summit with 139 trails, 19 lifts and 2,880 acres, or 98 percent of its terrain open.

As recently as two weeks ago, The Canyons near Park City, Utah, was looking at meager natural snowfall. That situation has reversed itself with more than 2 feet of fresh snow.

The Canyons has in excess of 120 trails and all eight mountains open for holiday skiers and snowboarders. Settled snow depth at mid-mountain is now more than 30 inches.

"This great terrain coverage so early in the season has enabled us to open up our premier black diamond trail, Ninety-Nine 90, just this week, and has provided excellent snow conditions throughout the resort for skiers and snowboarders of all skill levels," said Chip Carey, vice president of marketing and communications for The Canyons.

Conditions in New England are equally good. Killington Resort in Vermont opened for the season on Oct. 25 with top-to-bottom coverage. It was the first time in the resort's history that had happened. To date, Killington has received more than 140 inches of natural snow, including 2 feet Wednesday night and Thursday. That compares to just 20 inches of natural snow at the same time last season. Killington has 31 lifts running this week compared to 22 last year at this time.

ASC's other Vermont ski area, Mount Snow, is also living up to its name. "We couldn't have hoped for a better early season," said Andrew Rubenstein, director of public relations for the resort.

On Dec. 20, 2001, Mount Snow had received a total of 15 inches of natural snowfall. This year is a different story as the ski area has measured 7 feet since the beginning of November. Holiday skiers and riders will enjoy 142 trails compared to just 55 a year ago.

New Hampshire and Maine haven't had the abundant natural snow that Vermont can boast of, but cold temperatures have allowed round-the-clock snowmaking.

New Hampshire's Attitash Bear Peak got a foot of snow from the New England storms and has a 14- to 36-inch base. During Christmas week, the resort expects to have 44 of 70 trails open, including its Palmer X Terrain Park and the new Superpipe, New Hampshire's longest.

For Sunday River in Maine, natural snow and snowmaking systems will allow the ski area to have all of its snowmaking terrain open -- that's 92 percent of the terrain and more than 500 acres -- during the holiday week. Snowmakers have logged 700 hours to create average base depths of 5 feet on nearly 100 trails across eight mountain peaks. A year ago, the resort had 56 trails open during the holiday week.

Sugarloaf, Maine, has its best holiday week conditions in two seasons. A year ago, 31 trails and seven lifts were open at the resort. Sugarloaf has 70 trails served by 14 lifts in good shape.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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