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The Backyard Rope Tow Revival

Jun 11, 2023Jun 11, 2023

By Kim Brown/Opening photo by Brian Morh/EmberPhoto

Ask any old Vermonter about their early days as skiers and they will almost always tell you that learning to ride a rope tow was an integral part of growing up. You will also hear: "When I was a young kid, every town had a tow." Those days are long gone, or maybe not so much. Ascutney, St. Albans, Randolph Center, Bellows Falls, and Brattleboro – okay the latter has a T-bar — and Ascutney have thriving little community-run ski areas where rope tows play a starring role.

Let's not forget South Stratford, in service since the 1960s. During a visit on a Sunday afternoon, I got to talking with the volunteer liftie who allowed that the previous summer they had to replace the tow rope. Seems that cows graze on Harrington Hill in the summer and they love scratching against the rope. "Wears it out, don't you know," he said.

I’m not sure Epic Pass resorts have that issue.

Tyler Wilkinson-Ray's 2013 film United We Ski paid homage to many of the classic small ski areas in Vermont like Hard’ack Hill up in Saint Albans, The Lyndonville Outing Club, Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond and maybe the most classic of all – Northeast Slopes in East Corinth. But also starring in the film were some private little backyard tows hidden away in Vermont's hills.

[See related: The Vermont Rope Tow Hall of Fame]

During the pandemic winter of 2021, inspired in no small part by that film, I set off on a quixotic quest to visit as many of these backyard Vermont ski areas as I could.

As this journey began, I was warned by my friend Lisa Gosselin Lynn (editor of this magazine) that it could be an endless task. "You won't find them all," she predicted. She was so right.

Every inquiry made of long-time ski friends seemed to deliver yet another rumor of a hidden tow: The Masters racer from Mount Snow with the rope tow in his yard; the two other people from Norwich with rope tows built for their kids. Tucked up at the top of a long dirt road in Duxbury yet another hidden spot. In Stowe, a newly installed tow. Near Burke Mountain yet another rope tow squirreled away behind a ski house usually occupied by patrollers. Huntington and Warren have families that love to ski in their backyards. If you can find just the correct side road in Roxbury Gap, you might notice a rope tow servicing a modest 100 feet of vertical; yet for those willing to skin up from there, your reward will be 500 more vertical feet of open glades.

Within a few weeks of undertaking this quest, I had already located and identified more than 25 private ski spots. Now, I have not been able to ski all of them (yet)—an early March melt cut the journey short. But between visiting all 22 public ski areas associated with the Vermont Ski Areas Association and successfully ferreting out of a whole bevy of backyard spots, I was pulled up 37 different lift-served hills in Vermont in the winter of 2021/22 —which just might be some kind of record.

Accessing the backyard tows was the real challenge. Folks with these tows tend to be pretty private (we’ll use first names only in this story). They don't like to attract attention from entities like the Vermont Tram Board, so the lifts need to be free (otherwise subject to all sorts of laws and insurance regulations) and off the radar. But it didn't take long to learn that folks with rope tows know one another. Get talking to one person with a tow and you will learn about others. It turns out that every county in Vermont other than Grand Isle has at least one private tow.

Private Idahos

One of the first backyard tows I was privileged to ski was the Tar Bowl in Jericho. The face of the Tar Bowl is steep and protected by the dense cover of mature coniferous trees. Paul built the tow back in 2020 for himself and the kids. Just a very simple drive powered by an electric motor. But he also peppered the forest with low-energy LED lights and at night it is a spectacular place to hang out. As Paul said, "We just did a Wednesday night ski. The neighbors show up with their kids each week and do loop after loop down a couple of gladed runs."

If you ski Tar Bowl, you will visit the Whiskey Box for some trail magic. Affixed to a tree trunk alongside one run is a beautifully crafted small cabinet with its door secured by the rear cluster from a bike. Inside are treats for all – Dr. McGillicuddy's and whiskey for those of age, an oversized jar of M & M's for the younger set.

The next visit was to Herbert Hill in Huntington. In the open meadow near the rope tow is a beautiful 16-foot x 16-foot cabin. In the gabled end, a diamond-shaped window peeks at the Summit Ridge of Mount Mansfield. While the author was skiing laps, the owner, Michael, was sledding, and his son was riding his snowboard. On Sunday afternoons, as many as 30 neighbors arrive for a session of lift-served sliding on skis, boards and sleds.

As the owner, a retired Burlington police officer, said: "My wife and I talked it over a few years ago when the kids were still young. We figured we could spend a bunch of money on a family trip to Disneyworld or maybe we could do something that would be fun year after year right at home." They built the tow.

For the most part, rope tows are pretty affordable. A ski trip with two kids for a week to Utah can easily cost at least $6,000 to $7,000. You can install your own tow for about that same number. If you are a good tinkerer, you can also build one for even less.

There are a couple of outliers in the world of backyard skiing. A couple of ski racing enthusiasts built an amazing private ski area at their remote estate near Woodstock, complete with a Poma lift, a high-end grooming machine and an elegant summit cabin that sleeps dozens.

Generational Playgrounds

A benefit to visiting these backyard ski areas was discovering hidden places along the backroads of Vermont. In Moretown, up a long dirt road photographers Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson (who wrote about their tow for this magazine in 2018 ), welcome friends and family to the Barnebakken where their two daughters learned to ski.

One of the more memorable journeys was to the McKusker homestead perched at the top of Rochester Gap at 2,000 feet above sea level. Angus McCusker is very well-known in the ski world as one of the founders of the Ridgeline Outdoor Collective – an organization behind some pioneering backcountry recreation initiatives, including the glades at Brandon Gap and the proposed state-long Velomont mountain bike trail.

But Angus is also passionate about backyard rope tows. He has three in his family forest. From the "baby tow" in the front yard you can see the trails of Killington and even Ascutney and New Hampshire's White Mountains. The baby tow, which by the way is a misnomer, is powered by a garden tractor that does double duty in the summer mowing the highland meadows.

Off to the side is the kid's tow – so-called because it can only transport those weighing less than 80 pounds. There is a third very long, very steep tow that services black diamond terrain. The day before I arrived, Zeb Powell, Maggie Leon and a few other pro riders on the famed Red Bull Tour paid a visit, fresh from their huge event at Stratton. When promoters told the riders they were headed for a backyard rope tow in the Vermont woods, the pros grumbled. Until the vans arrived and the boards came out. As Angus McCusker put it, "We finally had to boot them out of the woods when it got too dark to see – or shoot video."

I arrived at the McCuskers with a couple of friends who happen to own a modest Poma lift in Norwich, Vermont located at Grill Hill. We lapped the trail alongside the lower tow as the late afternoon sun faded into rosy twilight. The conditions were great, in no small part due to McCusker having bartered with the Trapp Family Lodge's Outdoor Center for a used trail groomer.

Once built, rope tows seem to get passed on to new generations. Up north of Greensboro, one family-owned ski area has been pulling local skiers uphill since 1961. One of their three tows (powered the old-fashioned way by a diesel tractor drive), delivers you 1,200 feet up the hill in 40 seconds- about 20 mph. A dozen routes down beckon, some gentle, some black-diamond steep. On a Sunday, there were easily 25 or 30 people doing laps.

Pete is the guy that keeps the lifts running and the trails trimmed. Noting that everyone was on the fast tow, I asked Pete when and if the other tows run. Pete smiled and pointed across the meadow to a tow off in the distance. "See that one?" he asked. "It's kind of steep and not for everyone, but we fire it up for the big powder days."

Best of the best might just have been a spot that can be seen by the eagle-eyed as you head south along I-89. This one is located on a farm and it was started by Ross’ grandfather. A horse farmer and one of many generations of blacksmiths, the grandfather once hosted summer riding camps. Since winters are quiet times, he thought it would be fun to start a ski camp, so he installed a rope tow and bunked the kids from down south in the barn. Four generations of the family have learned to ski or ride on this set of slopes.

The 1,500-foot-long tow rope can deliver you to the top as fast as you dare. In the old days, a power takeoff on a tractor spun the rope but as, my host Ross put it, "Used to slip all the time and the more folks on the rope the more it bogged down." (This is a common ailment with backyard tows.) "So, we came up with the idea of using a come-along to hook the front wheel of a car to the bull wheel. Worked good until the car died. So, then we got this Econoline Van. This was a big upgrade because it had cruise control! The more people on the tow line the more gas runs to the engine. Works great!"

Ross grinned and said, "We can run the line at 60 m.p.h." No one has gone up the hill at that speed, but you can bet that farmers being farmers (and perhaps occasional car racers), someone has gone up that hill at better than 30 m.p.h.

Towing to Win

Reports of the demise of the rope tow are premature as it appears that Vermont is still home to at least 50, and by all reports that number is growing. Backyard rope tows are all about kids. Little kids love to ski and ride – the faster you get up the hill the quicker you get down.

Growing up in Burlington, Billy Kidd and I shared the joy of skiing off the steep face of the 9th tee at the Burlington Country Club and climbing up over and over to do it again. Kidd won his first race at one of those long-gone rope tows at the Underhill Snow Bowl. He went on to claim an Olympic silver medal in 1964 as America's first male alpine medal-winner. Diane Roffe, Director of Junior Racing at Burke Mountain Academy, went from lapping a tow at tiny Brantling Ski Center near Rochester, N.Y. to capturing multiple Olympic medals. Today, she still talks about going lap after lap on the tow as a little kid.

At Cochran's Ski Area, rope tows have built up the leg strength of dozens of World Cup racers and Olympians over the years. The Cochran's tow is still going strong. And, like Northeast Slopes and the other ski areas mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's open to the public.