A ski tow
, also called rope tow
or handle tow
, is a mechanised system for pulling skiers
uphill. In its most basic form, it consists of a long rope
loop running through a pulley at the bottom and one at the top, powered by an engine at one end. Passengers grab hold of the rope and are pulled along while standing on their skis or snowboards and sliding up the hill.
The first ski tow was invented 1908 in the Black Forest
by Robert Winterhalder. The first one in America was apparently installed in 1933 by Alec Foster at Shawbridge
in the Laurentians
It was quickly copied at Woodstock, Vermont in New England in 1934 by Bob and Betty Royce, proprietors of the White Cupboard Inn. Their tow was driven by the rear wheel of a Ford Model A. Wallace "Bunny" Bertram took it over for the second season, improved the operation, renamed it from Ski-Way to Ski Tow, and eventually moved it to what became the eastern fringe of Vermont's major southern ski areas, a regional resort still operating today as Suicide Six.
Their relative simplicity—a car engine, some rope and a few pulleys were all that was needed—made ski tows widespread and contributed to an explosion of the sport in the United States and Europe. Before tows, only people willing to walk uphill could ski. Suddenly, relatively unathletic people could participate, greatly increasing the appeal of the sport. Within five years, more than 100 tow ropes were operating in North America.
A rope tow requires a surprising number of skills for successful use:
- Initial proper positioning to make grabbing the rope easier, avoid falls, and avoid excessive jarring of the rope which might upset uphill riders.
- Grabbing the moving rope requires a dynamic and strong grip to clamp gradually until matching the rope speed.
- The rope's pulling force must be counterbalanced by a slightly downhill (or backward) center of gravity which varies with rope speed, slope gradient and surface conditions.
- The rope is subject to lateral forces, mostly due to other passengers, but occasionally by wind or terrain: the passenger must counter these forces or risk falling sideways.
- Effectively supporting the rope's weight which can be considerable for long spans.
- The ground track is followed by actively steering the skis or snowboard.
- It is useful, though not usually necessary, to successfully avoid obstacles, such as fallen riders and out of control downhill traffic.
- The release of the rope at the top is a delicate act of balance, timing, propulsion and turning—which take experience to develop.
Rope tows are limited in distance because they cannot have intermediate supports; some ski areas have a series of rope tows instead. The grade of a rope tow is largely limited by passenger grip strength.
Tow grippers or nutcrackers, as they are often known, were widely used in the 1940s. The rider wears a harness around the hips. To this is attached a clamp, much like the nutcracker
from which it derives its name, which the rider attaches to the rope. This eliminates the need to hold on with the hands, reducing fatigue and allowing faster tows.
Nutcrackers are still used at Meany lodge
in Washington state, and Mount Greylock
Ski Club in Massachusetts.
There are a few rope tows with nutcrackers running in Australia and New Zealand. In Australia they're now confined to isolated ski lodges, except for the Mount Mawson "club field" near Hobart in Tasmania which boasts four rope tows.
To simplify usage and somewhat improve uphill capacity, the rope tow evolved with a series of handles descending from the rope supported well off the ground. These relieve the rider of the rope's weight and make it possible to use intermediate support towers for long spans. These Poma lifts
allow faster rope speeds.
Rope tows are often supplemented by chair lifts
when the number of users and budget warrants it. Chair lifts have the advantages of not blocking off a portion of the skiable terrain, not requiring skiable terrain under them, and requiring fewer passenger skills - plus, they are generally more comfortable.
Rope tows are still common at ski areas around the world, particularly small areas or in relatively flat portions of ski areas devoted to beginners—often called bunny slopes.
Many resorts have magic carpets to serve their beginner terrain, as the range of skills are considerably lower.