‘Old School’ Skiing Coming To Ascutney

Take It Outside, By Anne Richter Arnold
The first rope tow in America was set up on Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock back in January of 1934, so it seems to appropriate that our area, the home to that and many other early ski hills, is going to have another one soon. Yes, after five years without any substantial skiing, Ascutney will be the site of a brand new, old-school-style rope tow, and what’s even better…it’s going to be free to ski. Those two things are incentive enough to head back to this beautiful mountain, and many people are going to be happy about skiing here again finally.

Back in the early days, rope tow skiing was an adventure. You had to hold on, tightly, so you wouldn’t fall off, and you’d go through a few pair of wet work gloves if you were out all day. When someone bigger than you was ahead, lighter weight or smaller people would be lifted up in the air. And the speed…well, it’s said that Bunny Bertram got the fast lift up to 90 miles an hour and even at lower speeds sometimes people would be launched uphill, flying through the air up to the summit. With all the issues, it was a heck of a lot better than hiking up the hill with seal skins on your skis just to take a run.

volunteersEven with all the adventure of using a rope tow, you might be scratching your head: in this day of high speed and technology, why go back to the old days? Well, here are a few reasons that it is going to make a comeback at Ascutney. First, it’s a very economical lower tech way of getting up the hill. It’s relatively easy to build as well, with the workings not too much different than the first rope tow — mainly an engine, some telephone poles and a whole lot of rope. But one of the main reasons, according to organizer Laura Farrell: it is just plain fun!

Farrell is the executive director of a nonprofit group that recently started to, among other things, bring skiing back to Ascutney. It’s called Mount Ascutney Outdoors and its purpose is to develop, manage and finance the recreational opportunities on Mt Ascutney. MAO signed an agreement with the town of West Windsor in the late spring of 2014 designating the group as the one to bring back outdoor opportunities at Ascutney including skiing. Together with the volunteer group Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin, which is primarily responsible for mountain biking, the nonprofit groups are reviving sports and outdoor use on the Ascutney Trails.

According to Farrell, adding the rope tow at Ascutney is following a trend in Vermont.

“Small ski areas are starting to come back, as they make it affordable for people who wouldn’t be able to ski otherwise. Smaller ski areas work in tandem with the bigger ski areas to create a wider market for winter sports. We’re excited about the Ascutney rope tow; it’s opening skiing back up to make it accessible to a lot of people in the community.”

The idea for the rope tow came about as the group of eight original members was forming and trying to find a way to keep the alpine area going a small community ski area setting. They realized that a rope tow could get constructed quickly and would be a good way to keep the momentum and excitement going about the Ascutney project. MAO’s goal was to make sports accessible and affordable for the community and this was a good place to start.

Farrell visited active rope tows such as Cochran in Richmond, where she worked, as well as ones in St. Albans and Corinth. Seeing the viability, they went forward to get an engineer on board and the necessary permits. Keeping costs down is the fact that the old style equipment works even now; she’s looked at old trucks and tractors for motors and its possible the rope tow is going to use 50-60-year-old motor — 2,300 feet of special rope has been purchased and the log telephone poles donated by Fairpoint and other items donated by local businesses are being assembled and put up.

Farrell said that the momentum in the community is building every day.

“The rope tow is great way to get Ascutney going again. Everyone we talk to is donating items or money and volunteering. On a Saturday work day recently over 70 people showed up to work! It was wonderful to listen to all the old stories from people in the community about their experiences and how much they love this mountain.”

Even being somewhat bare bones, the rope tow has a startup budget of $30,000 to get it up and running and to maintain expenses through the season. The effort to make this happen will truly be an organic community- based one. Says Farrell, “Everyone involved is a volunteer, from the board to the people who can sign up to help staff the rope tow. We can never can have too many people to help, so if you’re not able to work on the construction you can work on clearing trails.

Community businesses are donating like crazy. Everyone is seeing the benefit it will bring to our area and everyone wants to be part of it.”

The 1,000-foot rope tow will go up Little Eagle and be used to access a couple other trails such as Main Street and Lower Millers. Volunteers will staff the rope tow, which will be open Friday noon to 4 p.m., weekends, Holidays and vacations 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The goal is to be open by Christmas and on Feb. 6, 2016, have grand-opening winter celebration, which may include a fat bike event, a snowshoeing event and a ski race.

But this is just the beginning for Mount Ascutney big comeback; next year MOA plans to open a chair lift, start snowmaking and have fat tire mountain biking in the winter and ski lift mountain biking in the summer. All these great outdoor activities will be in addition to the cross country skiing, snowshoeing, backcountry skiing already available on the mountain.

All this takes money and effort from the community. MOA will have another work day for the rope tow on Saturday Nov. 28 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Volunteers will be seeding and mulching the hill, working on the little warming hut, putting pads on towers, clearing trails, having fun and eating yummy food. Everyone is welcome and they would love the help.

To help defray costs, MOA will also host a fundraising and very fun ’60s-era Ski Dance on Dec. 12 at the Brownsville town hall. Keeping with the ’60s theme, there will be a DJ and live music and guests are asked to wear ’60s ski clothes.

So soon you’ll be able to get up the mountain “old school” style on a rope tow. Farrell has some final words for those who will be coming out next month to try it: “Rope tows haven’t changed much, so you’re still going to want to bring work gloves, but it is going to be awesome!”

If you’d like to help, MOA is looking for donations and volunteers. Contact Laura Farrell at jlfarrell0@gmail.com or go to mountascutneyoutdoors.com.

This article first appeared in the November 12, 2015 edition of the Vermont Standard.

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