Grabbing That Twirling Rope Was Not Easy.

We’ve all been there. Cartoon Credit: Mike Roth

It was the early 1960s, I was in first or second grade and learning to ski at Mohawk Mountain in Connecticut. At the time Mohawk had just installed the first chairlift in Connecticut but most of the experiences I remember where on their numerous rope tows.

The first thing newbies had to master was slowly gripping the rope. Despite instructions to slowly grasp the rope, all first-timers, including myself instantly use a death grip. As a result I’d get hurled up the mountain about five feet before doing a face plant.

To my relief (and later amusement) there was no shortage of people making the same mistake. Every so often there’d be heaps of beginners tossed about on both sides of the tow. Sometimes people got so jumbled up it was impossible to tell whose arms, legs, skis or poles belonged to whom.

After repeating this several times in front of my laughing, older siblings and their friends I finally learned to adjust my acceleration by gently grabbing the rope. Once underway it was an exhilarating ride up the hill.

It was exhilarating because the rope tows at Mohawk moved at about 16 mph. To put that in perspective, modern-day high-speed chairlifts travel at about 12 mph.

After a few tiring rides up the hill someone showed me how to reach my left hand behind my back and grasp the rope while still holding on with the right hand. This did wonders in making the ride physically tolerable.

Another essential skill was learning how to stop once underway. This skill was needed when someone further up the tow fell and blocked the path. Until this skill was learned there would be spectacular pileups. Easing up on your grip wasn’t sufficient because the friction of the rope would tear your gloves apart. Instead you would have to turn one of your skis perpendicular to the hill and use it to keep you from sliding backwards.

The people who didn’t learn this skill would inevitably slide backwards down the hill bumping those behind them. I remember struggling to maintain my place on the tow while two or three skiers slid back into me.

Being six or seven years old the last thing I wanted was to be on the rope tow without others close ahead and behind me. Without other riders close by I would desperately try to hold the rope up off the snow. Being so heavy I’d have to bend over and hold the rope just inches above the snow; a backbreaking way to ride up the hill.

Another challenge was following a tall skier and when you’re a little kid they’re all tall. One of my friend’s fathers was 6’2″. When I rode behind him I’d have to reach up at head level to hold on to the rope. This was another excruciating way to ride up the hill.  In the lift line there was always jostling among my friends to be in the middle of the pack among like-sized skiers.

Being the youngest of three brothers and skiing with a bunch of boys from our neighborhood there was no shortage of mischief. When unloading from the rope tow the older boys would whip the rope in an attempt to knock those following off the tow.

The art form was perfected when one could whip the rope enough to knock off a follower but not so much as to get yelled at by the lift attendant. Those who excelled at this learned to look innocent and express dismay over what happened.

Years later it occurred to me that it was ironic that rope tows, one of the most difficult lifts to master, were most often found serving beginner slopes. I guess they served to toughen us up.

End note: I just recently learned about rope tow speeds at Mohawk having read Nicholas Howe’s fabulous article The Wonders of Walt in the December 2004 issue of Ski Heritage Magazine. Walt Schoenknecht was the ski visionary who founded Mohawk and soon after Mount Snow, Vermont.

Fryeburg, ME, 1936. First rope tow. Credit: MaineSkiMuseum


  1. Scott Kellogg says:

    Absolutely!, Mohawk mountain rope tow in the 60’s. Be there, done that. Many a new pair of gloves were destroyed on that lift.

  2. mike dowling says:

    Don, I am a MM rope tow veteran from about 1965-1970. Two friends and I were dropped off for the day around age 10 with enough money to buy a chairlift ticket, maybe $8 then. Rope tow was $4. So we’d buy a rope tow ticket and pocket the extra cash for candy, food, hot cocoa, then try to sneak on the chairlift. Got caught several times. So we used the rope tow. First guy was in trouble, cause friends would jump on right behind and poke the first guy in the behind, which causes laughter, which causes grip strength diminishment, triggering 1st guy sliding backwards into 2nd, & 3rd guy. “Get off this lift if you’re gonna fool around!” We survived. Sill skiing 50 years later, and usually go to MM for Warren Miller film in November. Great mountain

  3. John Elliott says:

    Don, I enjoyed your article. I grew up in Rhode Island, often skiing at Diamond Hill (long closed). They had 2 rope tows. One on the beginner hill and the other on a short, but quite steep pitch going up on the right side of the base area. As an eight year old it scared the crap out of me, as it seemed very fast and lifted me off the ground for about 40 or 50 feet approaching the summit. It was hard to keep the skis pointing up the hill while 4 feet off the ground. What fun! Good memories.

  4. Bruce Sherman says:

    Then came the Bosquet Tow Gripper…invented by the owner of the ski hill in Pittsfield, MA. Made life a lot easier! Unquestionably the fastest rope was at Suicide Six in Woodstock VT. Don’t know the speed but it was FAST.

  5. They had some serious drawbacks that could be life threatening.
    I experienced a near fatal ride. The mountain “Diamond Hill” in RI had just installed a new 1 1/4″ tow rope with a nice long splice in it.
    The rope needed to be run for several hours to get the twist out of it. By mid afternoon the Brown University Ski Team was showing up and wanted to use the ‘big hill’ as compared to the bunny hill. A few of the Team members had already gone up the rope –even though it was unattended and theoretically closed.
    As a ski patrol member I took the lift up to make sure the upper safety gate was set and safe. The rope was still un-twisting and rotating in my hands –squeeze and then release other wise your glove got wound to the rope. I put my right arm behind me and grabbed on —about half way up the hill i found that my ski parker had become entangled and was winding up my back!!!
    The rope wound the jackup and had me crucified on the moving rope as I fell and continued being dragged up the hill. I was being dragged into the bull wheel at the top of the mountain–it was like the horror movie of of “the fair maiden strapped on a board headed into a saw mill” I knew there was no safety gate set–I was going up to set that –I saw my life pass buy, at 18 years of age I would not be seeing Christmas this year. I’m sure I yelled out for help and struggled to free my self –I had a vague recollection of the wooden structure surrounding the metal frame that held the wheel cracking as I was dragged in– then nothing. My next recollection was walking down the hill and collapsing into the arms of some people one of which was a State Trooper that took me to the hospital. Dislocated shoulder, bump on my head –and I remember nothing else of that fun night, I do not have a fondness of rope tows any longer.

  6. Edit from above. The ski team raced down and pulled the stop switch –in evidently the nick of time! and someone must have cut my jacket off!??

  7. What memories. I was a patrolman in the 60s on Mt Hood, Oregon. I
    was watching a pretty young lady with very long hair ride up the rope tow when she started screaming at the terminus as her hair was caught in the rope and pulling her up off the snow. Alert attendants shut off the tow and we had to cut her hair to release her. She was not happy with our hair cutting skills!

  8. So here I am now at the Seattle Mountaineers Meany Ski Lodge and we’re still using our fastest rope tow. It’s now toned to 14 miles an hour from the previous high of 17 through most of the 60’s. We’ve been using AT&T Tow Grippers since they were first introduced in the early 60’s (?) and we bought up the last production run of them in the early 70’s. By the way, our Mach Tow is 1100′ long with a 450′ vertical rise. The tow has been in its current location since 1956,

  9. Hi, I was 5 years old at Seven Springs, PA in the early 60’s and wearing my old brother’s too large parka. The parka ended up getting twisted in the rope tow and as I went to let go I just kept going. The tow rose up to the bull wheel which was in a shack where the lift operator sat. I was so little that I missed the safety cord and was headed towards the shack. Fortunately, my Father was standing there yelling at the lift operator to shut off the rope tow along with a few expletives! Next my Dad took me to the chairlift where neither he nor the lifty knew they needed to lift me up into the chair. So the chair hit me in the butt and pushed me off the ramp and I fell face first into a pile of snow.
    Despite those early mishaps I moved to Salt Lake at 18 and still am an avid skier in in the Wasatch Mountains.

  10. The article brings back memories. I started skiing in the 60’s at 4 Lakes in Lisle , Il. (suburb of Chicago) It had two rope tows, one for beginners and one for the “advanced.” I remember ruining more than one pair of gloves on the tows but they did serve as an important introduction to skiing. In fact, I started two grandchildren there. The ski area is still in operation.

  11. Mark Leighton says:

    Enjoyable read, Don. Paucutuck “Mountain” in western MA in the 60’s. Our farm work gloves (worn over our winter gloves) were no match for the rope tow’s tearing them apart. Heavy tape and every other effort to make them last was futile — as was the effort to avoid the one ahead of you falling. Some very humorous tales, but OMG Jim, a real horror story. Just glad you are around to tell it.

  12. Going down memory lane….wayyy down to the mid-60’s…my parents were ski patrolers at Crystal Mountain WA, and they’d take my sister and I (ages 3 & 4) on the bunny tow in between their legs for a few runs, but then would just leave us there to our own devices and go off to do their patrol duties. This was back when you could leave a 3 & 4 year old alone ;). The tow operator was our “baby sitter” and if we made it up the tow and back down the bunny slope without falling, he’d give us a blue ribbon. We really wanted that blue ribbon and did everything we could to not fall…can’t say we got that blue ribbon every time, but we sure had fun trying, though not without some crying in between when things didn’t go so great.

    We skiid the rope tows for 3 years (graduating to the longer ones on regular slopes) as we weren’t allowed to ride the novice chair until the age of 7. And when my sister was 7 and I was 6, she didn’t want to ride it alone, so I chanced getting in trouble and went with her, but I fell off the chair right before the mid-way ramp where we were going to get off…felt like a long fall but it wasn’t too high up, and I was fine. The lift operator then told my parents later on (they all knew each other). Dad thought it was funny and said, well…that’s how you learn. Mom was not amused.

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