BOSTON -- The weather phenomenon El Nino has taken its share of the blame for various peculiarities the world over, but in the U.S., ski areas are betting that it will deliver just what the winter vacationer ordered: plenty of snow.

"We anticipate a record-breaking ski season," said Barbara Jennings, communications director for Colorado Ski Country, a nonprofit trade association for 24 Colorado ski resorts. "The last time Denver got an October blizzard was in 1992, which was an El Nino year and a great year for skiing," she said.

While cautioning that El Nino is a wild card, forecasting services generally agree. "Trends in the West indicate warmer and snowier winters in the Sierra Nevadas [during El Nino years]," said Russ Murley, meteorologist for Precision Weather Service, a private firm based in Casco, Maine. "Storm tracks favor those areas also," Murley said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also said southern Colorado has a more than 50% likelihood of seeing greater than average snowfalls.

But exactly which resorts are we talking about?

"It is like rolling dice to predict where the snow will be good," said Bruce Rosard, president of Moguls/Tours de Sport in Boulder, Colo., a tour operator that sells ski packages to resorts in the U.S. and Canadian Rockies. "But this year the dice seem to be loaded toward the southern Rockies," he said.

Telluride and Purgatory ski resorts, both in southern Colorado, may be sitting in the cat bird seat this year, as is Taos, N.M., and resort officials are eagerly anticipating a great season.

Taos Ski Valley has received more than 77 inches of snow since mid-October, prompting the resort to move its official opening date to Nov. 22 -- its earliest ever. "If the El Nino weather patterns continue, this should be an exceptional year to ski Taos," said Chris Stagg, vice president of marketing at Taos.

As to the rest of the Rocky Mountain resorts, "they are on the cusp," said Rosard. "It might be a normal year or it could be extraordinary." There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that heavy snowfalls, if they occur, will not be restricted to the Rocky Mountains.

East Coast resorts are predicting a great year, based on records of snow conditions during previous El Nino years. Sunday River Ski Resort in Maine, for example, posted record attendance numbers every El Nino winter since 1980.

And during the 1986-87 ski season, also an El Nino year, Vermont's Mount Snow and Killington resorts broke their own attendance records, thanks to heavy snowfalls.

Sources agree that the precipitation will probably be concentrated heavily on the second half of the season. If this holds true, it could be a boon for spring skiing, with a longer-than-usual season extending well into April.

For skiers, the advantages of spring skiing are warmer temperatures, uncrowded slopes and late-season specials. For the industry, a longer season means more time to sell the product.

According to Colorado Ski Country's Jennings, recent storms have put skiers in the mood for the sport sooner than otherwise might be expected.

"It's a sure bet that everyone in the U.S. knows there is snow in Colorado," Jennings said. "That kind of awareness at this time of year is good for us in terms of boosting reservations."

As to El Nino's effects on ski conditions in other parts of the world, the evidence is much more ambiguous. Since El Nino is a disruption in the ocean atmospheric system in the tropical Pacific, Asian countries such as Indonesia could be affected because they are close to the equator, according to Murley.

Forecasters are predicting a warm, dry winter in Japan, however, fueling speculation that the ripples from El Nino may be wider than expected. Japan will host the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano this February.

For continually updated, if somewhat technical, information about El Nino, visit the U.S. Department of Commerce El Nino home page at

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