To break the current record 4,249,190 in 2007-08 two things have to happen, he figures: The economy has to be in good shape, so people can afford to buy lift tickets, and the mountains need snow early and often.
"We can't move the [ticket sales] needle significantly without help from Mother Nature," Rafferty said. "That's what makes this business tricky."
It would have been trickier last season were it not for snowmaking, which allowed most Utah resorts to open at least parts of their terrain in the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas period when minimal snow fell.
"The resorts get better with their snowmaking every year," Rafferty said. "It takes the inconsistencies out of the weather patterns to a degree. And a lot of people don't realize how important it is to get that good early-season start and get momentum going in the right direction."
This past season did not pick up momentum until February, when snow finally blanketed Utah's mountains with some regularity and depth. By season's end, Alta Ski Area had accumulated 432 inches of snow, modest by its standards but far more than resorts in most every other part of the country could dream about getting.
"It was a winter where we were lucky to get all the snow we do," Rafferty said.
Industry performances in other ski states also reflected the importance of early snow.
Skier visits in Colorado reached an estimated 12.6 million, best ever for Utah's eastern neighbor. "By Thanksgiving, the ski season was off on a brisk pace backed by excellent early-season conditions," said Melanie Mills, president of Colorado Ski Country USA.
Similarly, the Vermont Ski Areas Association reported 4.5 million skier days this past season.
"This season was most notable for its record early start and incredibly strong finish," said Ski Vermont President Parker Riehle. "We had an industry first with nine Alpine and three Nordic areas opening a full week before Thanksgiving, owing to snowmaking."
By contrast, the drought that deprived California of snow until late in the season took a toll. Vail Resorts said visitation to its three Lake Tahoe resorts was down 27.7 percent through the end of January. The numbers improved along with snowfall near season's end.
Utah skier days
Season Skier Days* Rank
2013-14 4,161,585 3
2012-13 4,018,812 7
2011-12 3,825,090 10
2010-11 4,247,510 2
2009-10 4,070,822 5
2008-09 3,972,984 8
2007-08 4,249,190 1
2006-07 4,082,094 4
2005-06 4,062,188 6
2004-05 3,895,578 9
* A skier day is one person visiting a ski area all or part of a day or night.
Source: Ski Utah