Bill Fetcher: Rope tows and skiing, ’50s style
November 22, 2012
While of little historic value, the rope tow hill that served the ranching community of Clark, 20 miles north of Steamboat Springs, was perhaps typical of weekend rope tow hill operations.
In 1955, the rope tow on Steamboat's Howelsen Hill was relocated and rebuilt. Through a work-exchange agreement, my father, John Fetcher, acquired the old rope, wheels and other parts. With volunteer help from neighbors, the tow was installed on a hillside pasture on our ranch in Clark. It was driven by a tractor located at the top of the hill.
Most ski lifts have their drive motors at the top, as it's more efficient to pull the load. In this instance it meant gasoline had to be hauled to the top, plus someone had to climb the hill to start the tractor, often by vigorous cranking if the battery was dead, which was often the case. The length of the tow was about 500 feet, an average peak length for most rope tows as it was about all one's arms, hands and smoking mittens could stand.
The tow ran on weekends, usually with an average afternoon crowd of 30 to 40, mostly neighbor kids and their parents who had driven them over once their morning chores (feeding livestock for most) and noon meal were finished. An admission was charged to offset such small expenses as fuel for the tractor: 25 cents per day or 20 cents for an afternoon. To put this in perspective, during the '50s, Howelsen Hill charged $2 for a daily pass or $1.50 for an afternoon pass. Meanwhile, Aspen (Ajax) Mountain, with five chairlifts, charged an outrageous $6 for an all-day pass!
Some of our neighbors were too poor to even consider skiing on Howelsen, but for 20 cents they could have a blast on our hill, and indeed they did. Parallel turns were unknown; the snowplow turn and stem Christie reigned supreme. A few subscribed to the most basic approach to skiing — point 'em downhill and let 'em run. Equipment was primitive even by 1950s standards: bamboo poles, wooden skis that may have served as barrel staves at one time (steel edges were a screwed-on "option"), leather lace-up boots or even rubber galoshes shoved into bear-trap toe pieces and held in place by some cable business that offered no chance of escape. Sprained knees and ankles were common. The two most serious injuries in six years of operation were a broken leg and a broken back (both boys made speedy recoveries).
The rope tow itself was involved in no accidents other than a few rope burns. As for clothing fashions, you wore what you put on that morning. Blue jeans and heavy work coats prevailed. I should add that after a fresh snowfall, the hill had to be packed out by sidestepping. Heavy snow and drifting sometimes would bury the rope, particularly if we'd forgotten to hang the rope up on the towers at the end of the day. It then would have to be dug out. This offered the added thrill of traveling through a 3-foot trench on the ride up. By early spring no laborious packing would be needed as a crust would form on the snow and we would go night skiing on the crust, by moonlight.
The 1960-61 season was the last for our ski hill. The Clark School, which I attended for seven years, closed in 1961, as well, among the last of 47 Routt County school districts to be consolidated into three: Steamboat Springs, Hayden and South Routt County (Soroco). The two-room Clark School, once the center of many community activities, was no longer so, and Clark underwent a change as kids were bused to school in Steamboat, later to grow up, find jobs and move on. The rope tow was dismantled and 10 years later was donated to Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat. Whether it ever was installed and put to use, I can't say. We kept the tractor, a 1953 Farmall Super-C. It's still in service.
I don't know how many of those neighbor kids who skied at Clark have kept on with it. I'm certain they'll look back on it, as I can, too, as a time when it was possible to have a lot of fun without a lot of high-tech complication and expense.
Bill Fetcher is a lifelong resident of northern Routt County. His father, the late John Fetcher, was one of the men most responsible for the creation of Mount Werner and Steamboat Ski Area.