Andrew Kim, 5, has some snow fun at the Mountain High ski area the day before… (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)
Ski resorts across the West are enjoying a flurry of winter storms, bolstering hopes for a blizzard of customers for resort operators and snow sport retailers.
The recent winter bounty comes after a disastrous 2011-12 season, when snowfall across the country hit a 20-year low.
"It's a very positive trend at this point," said Bob Roberts, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., a trade group for the state's 29 resorts. "To get early snow for the holidays is good news."
Ski resorts around Mammoth Mountain and Lake Tahoe reported that 16 to 19 inches of snow fell from Christmas Day to Wednesday morning, with more expected later in the week.
"We are trending in the right direction," said Joani Lynch, a spokeswoman for the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, which has collected 12 feet of snow in December, marking the fifth-snowiest December on record.
This winter, Mammoth has recorded 212 inches of snow — compared with 263 inches for the entire season last year.
Near Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Mountain ski resort has recorded 11 feet of snow in December, matching the most snowfall for any December on record.
"We are feeling pretty optimistic," said Russ Pecoraro, a spokesman for the resort.
Even in Southern California, where lower-elevation resorts struggle to keep ski runs open, storms have dropped enough snow to build a 20-inch base at Mountain High near Wrightwood.
"We are seeing the holiday crowds and it's wonderful," said Kim Hermon, a spokeswoman for Mountain High.
As the season started this year, ski resort operators prayed to avoid a repeat of last year, when snowfall across the country was the lowest in 20 years, forcing half the resorts to either open late or close early.
Resorts across the country drew 51 million skier and snowboarder visits, a 15.8% decline from the previous season and the second-biggest year-over-year decline on record, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade group for resort operators.
In California, visits to ski resorts dropped 27% from the state's five-year average of 7.4 million per season. This season, Roberts said skiers seem to be ready to return to the slopes, encouraged by better snowfall and a rebounding economy.
It's too early, however, to declare this season a snow-packed success, he said.
"Mother Nature has a way of throwing us a few curveballs throughout the winter," Roberts added.
During the 2010-11 season, epic snowfall pushed sales of snow equipment up 1% from the previous year, according to SnowSports Industries America, a trade group for the nation's snow equipment manufacturers and retailers.
But last season sales of snow sport equipment fell 6% compared with the previous season, according to the trade group.
In October alone, snow sport retailers across the country reported a 19% drop in sales of snowboarding equipment, a 30% decline in cross-country ski equipment and an 8% drop in alpine ski gear compared with the same month last year, according to the trade group.
A bountiful snow season could turn that around, Roberts said.
"If we get momentum coming out of Christmas and into January, it's the kind of energy we need in the marketplace," he said.
Skiers who are closely watching weather reports say they are planning to visit their favorite resorts more often this year than before.
George Kitsch, a longtime skier from Orange, said he usually visits Mammoth Mountain for 15 to 20 days each season. But he said the latest snowfall has him considering hitting the slopes even more.
"It's gets me chomping at the bit," Kitsch said of the latest snow flurries. "It gets me excited."