Sliding up to the rope, it’s hard to miss the utter simplicity before us. A few wheels, some rope, a motor, and a hill above. And of course, gloves. Reaching down to pick up the rope triggers a slight rush of endorphins, and no matter your age, or level of experience, you smile. It’s a bit like ringing a bicycle bell.
Before long, we are on top of the world, soothed by the sounds of spinning wheels broken only by the occasional splice in the 1000 foot long tow rope. Choices abound. Do we hit the Back Bowls? Whoop dee doos? Racetrack? Or do we pause to look beyond our cozy home and valley here in Vermont to the big mountains beyond. Clouds shift. Light scatters. Wood smoke swirls through the trees below. Before long, we give into gravity, allowing our skis to guide us.
It all came together when my then two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Lenora, scooted over toward the rope just above our home in Vermont, and, for the first time, grabbed on by herself. Lenora’s tiny hands were barely able to wrap around the rope, yet she managed to take hold of the rope and make it half way up the hill before she lost her grip, slowed to a stop, and shouted, “Daddy, I’m stuck!” The rope continued to whizz through her ice-crusted mittens. She was clearly concerned, but I slid up behind her and we headed up together.
“Daddy, when we’re done, can I shut off Coco?”
Coco is the name of our riding lawnmower that doubles as the motorized drive for our homemade rope tow during winter, when she lives in a small shack with a grass roof, adorned by a chain sawed sign that reads, Barnebakken—Norwegian for kids’ hill. Before Coco came Betsy, and when we sold Betsy for a hundred bucks, Lenora, now four, was beside herself. Thankfully, I was ready with hugs and organic lollipops.
Whoever invented lollipops was a genius.
Lenora’s big sister, Maiana, now six, went for twenty laps in a session last winter. And she wants to build twenty jumps this winter. But her favorite thing about skiing the Barnebakken is when her friends are there, too. When that happens, it’s like nothing else. Surface lifts are unique in that you can be continuously skiing, both on the way up, and of course, down. When there are half a dozen fun-loving little humans skiing back to back laps in relative harmony, everything makes perfect sense. The kids find a rhythm rooted in the power of a small motor and the gift and joys of gravity. Flow.
It’s no wonder rope tows and other surface lifts are still alive and well worldwide—be it our own backyards or on the slopes of a Chilean volcano. They are often the only practical way for ski communities to keep skiing accessible and affordable. And while each one has its quirks and charms, what they share is a good dose of adventure and a hands-on, action-packed approach to getting uphill that doesn’t compare to sitting on a chairlift.
After a while, we gather, ceremoniously, at the top. Last run. Lenora pushes against the engine shut-off wand, which tugs on a 500 foot long cord, and cuts the power to Coco far below. The soft rumble of the motor goes quiet.
“Back Bowls?” Lenora asked. —Words by Brian Mohr