How To Build A Backyard Rope Tow

The DIY backyard rope tow is a Vermont tradition that’s come full circle. Story and photos by Brian Mohr

As we were having our land in the Mad River Valley logged a few winters back, we couldn’t shake the idea that the slope above our home had “rope tow” written all over it. Just before logger Rich Hallstrom sunk the teeth of his feller-buncher into the upper reaches of the hill, we singled out six trees to be spared with the idea that their trunks could serve as the future towers for a backyard rope tow. “I can’t say I’ve seen this happen on a logging job before,” said Hallstrom with a smile.

Growing up skiing in Vermont, it’s hard to miss the story of Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock, and how in January of 1934, it became home to our country’s very first mechanized lift—a 1,100-foot-long rope tow powered originally by a Model T engine.

Pride in Vermont’s skiing history undoubtedly fed our appetite for a rope tow of our own. But it was sporadic laziness that was our primary motivator.  As much as we’ve always loved climbing for backyard runs on our 500-foot long hill, the appeal of being whisked up there in merely 42 seconds has always been attractive, albeit more of a dream than anything.

That dream became reality when we fired up the 19 horsepower Briggs & Stratton motor under the hood of our retired riding mower this past fall, and we watched as our 1,000-foot long loop of three-quarter inch, three-ply rope made its first trip up and down the hill.

That weekend treated us to snow. Betsy (the motor) started right up, and we enjoyed our first rope-tow-assisted laps on the hill with our two girls – Maiana, 4,  and Lenora, 2. Modern skiing, at least in our own little Vermont backyard, had just come full circle with its Model T-powered roots.

Making it Happen

There’s no doubt that putting together a backyard rope tow requires a bit of mechanical know-how and a healthy respect for the laws of physics, but ultimately, it’s quite simple. Some sort of electric or gas motor is required, which can be either at the top (preferred) or bottom of the hill. Of course, some sort of bull wheel (return pulley) is also needed for the opposite end of the tow. We use a late 60s vintage Moto Guzzi motorcycle wheel that was a gift from our neighbors, Penny and Jon, mounted to a simple wooden frame that we built, which is anchored with a come-along attached to two cedar posts driven into the ground above it. The come-along allows us to add or relieve tension in the line.

Although not necessary, towers along the tow line are helpful for hanging the rope at night, for mounting lights, and for keeping the returning portion of the rope out of the way. Plus, they look cool, and the spinning return wheels on the towers (we used salvaged wheel barrow rims) are oddly soothing to watch and listen to.

Last, it’s important to have safety shutoffs in place for stopping the tow on demand. Our tow features duplicate electrical and mechanical shutoffs, with the mechanical shutoff being little more than 2.5-mm cord running from the ignition key along the length of the tow to a shutoff gate at the top of the tow. A skier can push the gate just a few degrees, or give the cord a tug anywhere along its length to stop the motor. A second section of cord runs to a simple pull stop dangling outside the shack, too.

Ultimately, once we had all of the pieces in place, the tow came together in a long weekend. And other than the big $500 purchase for the 1,000-feet of rope we needed, our expenses were less than $300.  Then again, we milled or salvaged every piece of wood used for the tow shack, used our own field-grown sod for the roof of the shack, and our motor was a freebie from a friend. In planning our tow, it also helped to do some field research at community rope-tows around the state, and checked out those at Cochran’s, Hard’ack, Northeast Slopes and Ascutney. Every tow is unique and beautiful in its relative simplicity.

The Rope Tow Movement

We also discovered friends with rope tows. Angus McCusker, the founder of the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trails Alliance and his wife, Cricket, may be two of the most ardent backcountry skiers in the state but they’ve put in a rope tow on their land in Rochester.

“The convenience of it being right out your door is pretty awesome,” says McCusker. “Our kids usually want to ski in that window right after dinner and before bed and that short hour is a great way to burn off that extra energy during the winter school nights. All it takes is LED flood lights, jumps and gates.”

Or perhaps it’s a lazy Sunday morning. Snowflakes drift down from the skies above. We spark a small fire near the base of the Barnebakken (Norwegian for kids’ hill), gather the family, fire up the rope tow and burn off a waffle breakfast by laying fresh tracks on our little Vermont hillside.