Rope-Tow Requiem

rope tow, chairlifts, old

Pondering the evolution of uphill transport.

My earliest skiing memory, as a five-year-old learning to snowplow, doesn’t recall a single turn nor a single run.

The only remembrance is of grabbing a rope tow and being dragged up the slope on my stomach like some hapless horse rustler experiencing the wrath of cowboy justice. Snow avalanched into my sleeves and down my turtleneck. Hat and goggles, as if embarrassed to be seen with me, leapt off, wanting no part of my attempt to turn the bunny hill into Benny Hill. And ejected skis, tethered to ankles by leather safety straps, carelessly bounced behind me like cans behind a just-married vehicle.

I don’t know if this memory involved one ride or was a patchwork of rope-tow mishaps over one hour, one day, or one season. But I do know that I grew up convinced if Edgar Allen Poe had lived in the 20th century, he would have written “The Pit and the Rope Tow.”

Under this backdrop it came as a surprise when I recently heard myself say, “Damn, no rope tow?” In terms of most unlikely sentences to launch out of my mouth, this ranked up there with “Watch me jam my arm down this badger hole” and “I’m thinking of getting a Kid Rock face tattoo.”

My utterance of this sentence shocked me. Not from saying it, but from saying it without sarcasm. It slipped off the tongue as a matter-of-fact reaction to the sight of a bunny hill, where I was helping a friend teach her six-year-old daughter, Sage, how to ski. Instead of a rope tow, one accessed the top via a “magic carpet.”

For a sport embedded to the image of speed and dare, the sight of this, even on a bunny hill, was on par with seeing extreme skier Glen Plake in a brush cut. The boarding process, as expected, was void of challenge. We shuffled forward until the conveyor belt gripped our skis and inched us ahead, moving at the speed of despondence, through a tunnel of clear polycarbonate plastic. Alas, I thought, a ski lift for the depressed.

It’s not that I wished rope-tow wrath upon Sage, nor any newbie for that matter, but this conveyor belt, with its Disneyesque name and protective covering, felt like an overreaction. Absent was the potential for lift-ride embarrassment—falling during boarding, dropping a ski pole, forgetting to raise the safety bar. Lift-ride humiliation is all part of the ski and snowboard experience. It, especially for kids, teaches grit, keeps one humble and, as I proved, museums the memory vault.

As we approached the top, moving like luggage on an airport carousel, I thought of a line that ski-movie pioneer, Warren Miller, said in one of his early films, “Once you take that first ride up a lift, your life will be changed forever.” I agree, I thought, but I fear this lift will change first-timers by turning them into future glampers.