Willoughby: Rope tows, fast or slow, offered skiers the original hand-up-the-hill

Ski Illustrated of the 1930s carried an ad to promote the Sweden Speed Ski-Tow. (Courtesy photo)

When skiing caught on in America during the 1930s the sport resembled a hike with skis. Rather than execute beautiful powder turns, skiers aimed to cruise the countryside. Only a few skilled skiers summited mountains and enjoyed the downhill return. But the sport shifted toward the expectations held for Aspen today when rope tows appeared.

The first American rope tow was constructed in 1934 in Woodstock, Vermont. In just a few years the number of tows grew to 100, with most in New England. Not long and sorely lacking in vertical persuasion, the tows would nudge a user’s skill in the general direction of improvement, after many runs.

During the early 1930s, Ski Illustrated published the advertisement that accompanies this story. Workers in Seattle manufactured the continental-sounding Sweden Speed Ski-Tow, and distributed in the West. The larger, six-horsepower model would lift up to five persons per minute. Portable, it could pull itself uphill. A skier could move it easily—and therefore frequently—to a site with better snow conditions. It looks short as pictured, with a small rope coil that runs in a loop. A tow trip would consume half a rope length.

Multiple locations aspired to offer skiing as a business, and a rope tow figured as a high-priority, low-expense necessity. Car parts comprised a tow used in Woodstock. The length of rope and the drag created as your weight stretched it limited the length of the uphill ride. Skiers avoided the stretch by lifting the rope off the ground. If skiers kept social distance in their spacing on the tow, and filled in all possible spaces all the way uphill, they would eliminate half the potential drag. The other half could be limited when the rope travelled on pulleys set on poles, similar in principle to today’s lift towers. In both cases, rope elevation and skier spacing keeps the rope from drooping to the ground.

The Aspen Ski Club’s first lift extended farther than most rope tows of the time, and on a relatively steeper slope. Instead of sliding skiers uphill as they leaned into their skis, the community worked on a “boat tow” to pull a sled of sitting skiers. The device looked more like a boat than a sled. Snow depth determined the location.

The device presented two challenges. First, skiers had to climb the mountain to reach the tow. Second, the downhill trip was too steep for beginners. Organizers cleared the area below the bottom of the tow as an appropriately-named practice slope. Today we call that kind of area the beginners slope. Skiers paid only to use the tow, not to use the practice slope. Much early skier training involved lessons in walking and climbing upslope on skies. Without a tow, and with beginner skills, new skiers tired quickly.

After two seasons the Ski Club built another community project, a rope tow to address these problems. At 500 feet in length, it moved skiers from the parking area to the boat tow. The Midnight Mine and local mining engineer D.P. Rohlfing donated metal parts, including the pulleys and wheels that kept the rope off the ground. The motor and drive system came from an old Chevy. They turned the differential to a vertical position, and attached a large drive wheel to move the rope.

Cash donations covered the thousand feet of rope and other project expenses, and totaled $135 ($2,250 in today’s dollars). Rancher Robert Wiese undertook the most difficult task, braiding the two ends of the rope to form the continuous loop.

The community felt especially excited for the joy they created for children. They charged kids only a nickel a day. Adults did not pay much more, 35 cents ($4.80).

Friedl Pfeifer leased the Ski Club’s operation for his ski school, and redesigned the rope tow in 1945. To make it easier for beginners, his major customers to use, he slowed it down.