For Larry Davis, gray skies and low-hanging clouds are reasons to smile: They mean the ski season is here.
A late November storm dumped several feet of snow on high-elevation resorts in the Eastern Sierra and Lake Tahoe and dusted lower-elevation resorts in Southern California with several inches of powder.
Davis, a stock trader from Santa Clarita, made it up to Mammoth Mountain for opening day Nov. 11, declaring it the best he had seen in years.
"The runs at the top were open. They had 8 inches of powder," he said. "It was cold and they had really good snow."
In fact, good snow has already fallen throughout the state, an early sign that the ski industry may be on track for a second year in a row of above-average business.
"It depends on the white stuff," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Assn. "It's all about timing."
All seven of the major ski resorts around Lake Tahoe are operating for the Thanksgiving weekend, marking the earliest lake-wide opening in the last five years. Even the lower-elevation resorts in Southern California had enough snow and cold temperatures to operate snow-making machines to open by Thanksgiving Day.
And it seems November storms have kicked off ski season early throughout the West. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming opens Saturday with 10 feet of snow, the greatest amount for opening day in the resort's history. In Colorado, the Breckenridge and Keystone resorts also got enough snow this month to open some of their most popular runs in mid-November, the earliest time in the resorts' history.
Across the country, resort operators hope that an improving economy will bolster spending on food, drinks and souvenirs this year. In the depths of the recession, some ski resorts offered discounts for furloughed state workers. But few such deals are coming this year. In fact, many lift ticket prices are going up.
The state's ski resorts recorded 8.1 million visitors last season, up from about 6.8 million in 2008-09. It was a monster season, fueled by some of the best snowfall in years. So much snow fell last year that Mammoth Mountain stayed open until the Fourth of July — long past its typical closing date on Memorial Day weekend.
Visitors to the state's ski resorts last year spent at least $700 million, resulting in about $3 billion in total economic activity, according to the state's ski industry association.
So far this year's season has started out well for ski resorts statewide.
Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area, a resort along the lake, opened Nov. 21, the earliest opening day in 12 years. The Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort normally opens in early to mid-December but this year opened Nov. 23, not long after it got buried in 6 feet of snow.
Mammoth Mountain, one of the most popular ski resorts for Southern Californians, opened on schedule — the second Thursday of November — thanks to a storm that dropped nearly 3 feet of snow the previous week.
"Seems like it's off to a bang," said Craig Pursuit, a dentist from Manhattan Beach, who skied opening day at Mammoth, where business has been on the rise after a dismal 2008-09 season.
This season, pre-booking sales are on the rise at Mammoth and discretionary spending appears to be recovering, said Pam Murphy, Mammoth Mountain's senior vice president. Although skiers may be spending more this year, she said resort visitors were still cautious.
"They're watching their dollar closely," Murphy said.
Still, Mammoth hopes high-income skiers are ready to spend even more. This year, the resort launched a "black pass," a yearlong lift ticket that costs between $10,000 and $25,000. Among other benefits, pass holders will be allowed to cut to the front of lift lines.
This has rankled some locals who have complained that Mammoth is trying to cater to the high-end market after resort founder Dave McCoy sold his controlling interest in 2006 to Starwood Capital Group of Greenwich, Conn., led by hotel mogul Barry S. Sternlicht.
"Mammoth isn't changing at all," Murphy said. "It's still the same people. We're just trying to add a product that they'd like."
In Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains, Mountain High opened Nov. 11, Snow Summit opened Nov. 13 and Bear Mountain opened Nov. 24 — a couple of weeks behind schedule for resorts that typically open near the end of October using snow-making equipment.
Mt. Baldy, the closest resort to Los Angeles, opened Thanksgiving Day, relying mostly on man-made snow to cover the runs.
Dan McKernan, a spokesman for the Big Bear Lake Resort Assn., is not complaining about the late start. "We are fortunate this year that Mother Nature provided us the white stuff," he said.
Resort operators say they believe that skiers who have been holding tight to vacation money during the recession are ready to spend again.
At Mountain High "there is definitely a buzz in the air," resort spokeswoman Kim Hermon said. "We've been packed."
Roberts of the California Ski Industry Assn. said he remained cautiously optimistic about the season because meteorologists attributed last year's heavy snowfall to the weather phenomenon known as El Niño. He said weather forecasters now expected a La Niña weather pattern, which should generate the same number of storms but less rain and snow.
"I've been in this business for 40 years and every year is different," he said.