Seasons Magazines

Seasons Magazines

It’s All Downhill From Here…

Except for Ski Sundown’s future prospects, which have never been brighter

New Hartford’s Ski Sundown is beloved by locals and out-of-towners alike. And why not? It has challenging slopes, top-notch snowmaking, a nice place for the kids to learn to move on skis, and a cozy ski lodge with a dining area.

But those aren’t the only reasons. Over the past 50 years, Ski Sundown has become a home away from home for hundreds, even thousands, of snow lovers – a place where families can ski or snowboard together, catch up with old acquaintances and be warmly embraced by a caring and attentive staff. Ski Sundown – first named Satan’s Ridge when it opened in 1964, just around the time former French World Cup alpine ski racer Jean-Claude Killy was starting to win all the Olympic gold medals – has become a way of life during the winter.

Oh, things have changed, to be sure. There’s better snowmaking equipment and new snow guns throughout the winter wonderland, new trails cut, impressive additions to the indoor amenities and spaces, and in 2014, the addition of a new expert trail, Satan’s Stairway, claimed to be the steepest trail in Connecticut and arguably one of the toughest mogul runs in southern New England.

Ski Sundown has 16 trails – 15 lit up for night skiing – spread out over 65 acres of skiable terrain for skiers and snowboarders to enjoy.

Skiers can access trails via three triple chairlifts, one double, and a conveyor. Incidentally, part of the facility is in the town of Canton.
Some ski resorts in northern New England may have more of a wow factor than Ski Sundown, which has opened as early as Thanksgiving Day weekend, but none beat it for the fun factor.

“The challenge has always been to provide as much fun as we can so that people can come here and enjoy what precious spare time they have these days,” says current owner Robert Switzgable, who purchased the facility from longtime owner Rick Carter in December 2002. Switzgable didn’t just helicopter in and take over; he was an employee of the facility for 19 years and at the time of the purchase, was its general manager. He has worked diligently to enhance Ski Sundown’s terrain, amenities and programs, all the while maintaining the “small mountain” ambiance that draws skiers and snowboarders from as far away as New York City.

“I never want to get away from the fact that we are a ski area, first and foremost,” says Switzgable. “We do other events off season, but we dedicate most of our resources, time and effort to making it the best wintertime sports area it can be. We stress customer service, and we have the best French fries around,” he adds with a laugh. “We have a good bar, good food, and always a good mood.”

Former owner Carter believes that for many residents of New Hartford and surrounding communities, there is a positive sense of connection to Ski Sundown, either because someone in a household skis, or wants to start skiing, or perhaps individuals are associated with the area in another capacity, either working or volunteering during the winter season.

“Sundown is valued for its positive impact on the local community and I always sensed support for what we were doing, or trying to do,” he says. “Over the years, the ski area earned a reputation for providing a quality skiing experience – even during unfavorable weather conditions – became a dependable venue for winter fun, and added to the value of living nearby.”

The ski resort began modestly when Frank S. Linnell and Russell J. Smith opened Satan’s Ridge ski area in 1964, with three slopes, a one-mile long trail and two lifts, a chair lift, and a tow rope. Five years later, the owners sold it to Channing Murdock, who renamed it Ski Sundown. It was subsequently sold to Carter, then general manager, in 1978. Snowmaking and night lighting were added in the 1970s, as was the first triple chairlift in the state, and trails were improved and widened. The first terrain park was installed in 2003 and a 300-foot “magic carpet” conveyor lift was installed in 2013 to improve the beginner experience in the area’s “Sunnyside Learning” area.

Emphasis is placed on getting children involved in the skiing and snowboarding, which not only breeds future adult skiers but also allows mom and dad to enjoy a day or evening on the slopes knowing their children are safe and having fun close by. There are a number of programs for children and several schools use the mountain to train and compete.

“The lodge is kind of like the kids’ clubhouse,” says Betsy van Gemeren of Canton. “The whole family can enjoy Ski Sundown. And coming here during the winter has been passed down from generation to generation.”

The area has a vibrant ski patrol that numbers over 100 individuals, and has hosted the state Special Olympics winter games and Ski Sundown Senior Winter Games. It also hosts one of the biggest ski swaps in southern New England every fall.

Carter says that in addition to enormous growth over the past 50 years, Ski Sundown has kept up with the demands and expectations of today’s skiers, which have changed significantly over the years. “There is more variety on the mountain than there ever was,” he says. “There is a growing and strong media presence which hardly existed when I was there, but at the same time, there is the same comfortable, relaxed and friendly atmosphere around the facility, which makes for an enjoyable visit.”

Torrington’s Kurt Johnson first came to Ski Sundown around the age of 12. He hasn’t left – well, figuratively at least. He is the race director at Ski Sundown and head coach of The Taft School ski team. He’s been skiing and coaching at Ski Sundown for almost 30 years.

“I think what makes Ski Sundown successful is location, location, location,” Johnson says. “It’s in a great area where we can draw from Litchfield County and into Hartford County and there are a lot of schools in the area that use the slopes. Our snowmaking has really improved. Ski Sundown is very important to the local economy. Besides the full-time staff, there are many part-timers who work at Ski Sundown during the winter season.” Two of Johnson’s sons moved from working at Ski Sundown to take on jobs at other mountains; Shane teaches snowboarding at Mount Snow and Korey worked at Mount Hood ski area in Oregon last winter.

“As far our main slope goes, it is one of the steepest in the area racing circuit,” says Johnson. “I’ve raced some top hills in Massachusetts and Vermont, and our hill is one of the best anywhere for racing because of its pitch.” The drop of the main slope is around 660 feet and the mountain tops off around 1,150 feet.

More changes are coming, says Switzgable. An agreement is under way with the Metropolitan District Commission to allow Ski Sundown to draw water from a nearby reservoir, which will increase the area’s capacity to make snow when it is needed and when weather conditions are ripe.

“It’s going to be a big step up for us and further allow us to increase our skiable terrain and ensure consistent conditions,” Switzgable says.

“Ski Sundown has a bright future,” adds Carter. “It has a very strong snowmaking capacity, so there will always be snow on the trails. There are abundant skiers in the immediate area who value what the area has to offer, and the ownership is very capable and dedicated to providing the experience that its customers expect and appreciate.”

Sure, a lot has changed at Ski Sundown in 50 years. But it remains the friendly, hometown facility it has always been. And that may be its biggest draw.

Photography courtesy of Ski Sundown