The Ski tow, also known as a rope tow or handle tow, is a mechanised system for pulling skiers and snowboarders uphill. In its most basic form, it consists of a long rope loop running through a pulley at the bottom and one at the top, powered by an engine at one end. Passengers grab hold of the rope and are pulled along while standing on their skis or snowboards and sliding up the hill. The first ski tow in the United States pulled its first skier to the top of a hillside pasture two miles north of Woodstock. In sophistication, it was nothing like the chairlifts and gondolas carrying skiers to mountain summits today. Powered by a Model-T Ford, this ski tow was little more than 1800 feet of rope spliced into a loop stretching from the bottom to the top of the hill and returning along a series of pulleys. Skiers grabbed a hold of the circulating rope and were hauled up the hill. It was simple, effective and revolutionary.

A cable tow requires a surprising number of skills for successful use:

  • Initial proper positioning to make grabbing the rope easier, avoid falls, and avoid excessive jarring of the rope which might upset uphill riders.

  • Grabbing the moving rope requires a dynamic and strong grip to clamp gradually until matching the rope speed.

  • The rope's pulling force must be counterbalanced by a slightly downhill (or backward) center of gravity which varies with rope speed, slope gradient and surface conditions.

  • The rope is subject to lateral forces, mostly due to other passengers, but occasionally by wind or terrain: the passenger must counter these forces or risk falling sideways.

  • Effectively supporting the rope's weight which can be considerable for long spans.

  • The ground track is followed by actively steering the skis or snowboard.

  • It is useful, though not usually necessary, to successfully avoid obstacles, such as fallen riders and out of control downhill traffic.

  • The release of the rope at the top is a delicate act of balance, timing, propulsion and turning—which take experience to develop.