No more tow lines at Grouse ski run

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      Oh, for the days when newbie skiers had to endure the cruel initiation ritual of riding the rope tow

      Riding a rope, or ski tow, was once one of the cardinal rites of passage when learning to downhill-ski on the North Shore. By the time snowboarding came along in the 1980s, chair lifts had long since replaced most of them. Still, examples of this brutish technology persisted.

      This winter marks the centennial of the invention of the rope tow. Those who've put their snow mitts around a whirling rope and had their arms wrenched from their sockets know it's a terrible irony that this most challenging manner of motorized ascent remained on bunny slopes such as the Paradise Bowl on Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour's Goldie Lake runs. Initiation rituals don't come much crueller.

      There's also priceless entertainment in watching a newbie's first attempts to latch onto a thick coil of twine as it spools past. Much like learning to smoothly operate the clutch of a standard-transmission car, mastering the technique of slowly easing yourself into motion as you gingerly clung to the rope took more than a few tries. Just as if you'd popped the clutch, if you grasped on too quickly you'd find yourself violently lurching forward, often stalling in the process.

      On skis, this meant being flung sideways onto the slope. Woe betide those who persisted in clinging to the rope as they were hauled ingloriously uphill before finally giving up the fight, relinquishing the rope, then quickly hauling themselves out of the path of the person behind.

      Over the summer, Grouse Mountain replaced its last remaining rope tow with the new Greenway quad chair lift. On the phone with the Georgia Straight, William Mbaho, Grouse's communications manager, confirmed that the old tow has been mothballed, at least temporarily. "We would like to use it in some capacity," he said. "Reinstalling it in the terrain park is one option. That decision will be made in early 2009."

      How fitting. Terrain parks are where young skiers and snowboarders spend hours executing off-axis manoeuvres. Rather than freeride the groomed runs, they much prefer to huck themselves off boxes, kink rails, rollers, and step-ups in a corner of the mountain fenced off for their enjoyment. Given the myriad challenges, clinging to a rope tow would offer yet another opportunity for creative self-expression.

      That leaves the Goldie tow on Mount Seymour as the last remaining one in the Lower Mainland. Jikke Stegeman, sales and marketing manager at Mount Seymour, told the Straight that this rare double rope tow was installed in the 1950s as state-of-the-art technology. Originally powered by a diesel engine, it was more recently converted to electricity.

      "I grew up in Blackstrap, Saskatchewan," she recalled, "where riding a rope tow was a new experience on slippery, noodle-y skis while trying to hang on for dear life." With Playland closed for the season, the Goldie tow offers the most thrilling ride in town.

      If you've got room, consider installing a DIY rope tow in your back yard. The made-in-Canada technology is available from Toronto-based Motorsport Engineering. Given that North America's first rope tow fired up in 1933 in the Laurentians near Montreal, you'll help keep a long-standing winter tradition alive—and your physiotherapist gainfully employed.