Under a cloudless March sky, the Ascutney Rope Tow purrs like a Bobcat as it whisks skiers up a quaint, Central Vermont hillside. Other rope tows may purr like housecats, but this one is different—wonderfully rugged—built with about a half-dozen telephone poles, about a half-dozen car rims, a large engine, and a rope so thick it could pull the weight of the world. It’s a beautiful recipe.
The thermometer reads about 50 degrees today—the warmest weather we’ve seen in many months. School is out for the afternoon and local kids are taking free laps at an astounding rate, each with their own style. There are straightliners, looking for speed and only speed. There are freestylers, leaping off every inconsistency in the soft, untamed snow. And there are racers, wiggling through the short-but-sweet courses with no timers.
Some kids successfully hang tight onto the tow, all the way to the top. Their thick gloves desperately grip the fast-moving rope, which shows no mercy or acknowledgement of age, size, or strength. Other kids are less successful and they’re comically dragged up on their backs, while peers cheer them on. The parents down bottom, meanwhile, are smiling, laughing, holding their babies who aren’t ready to ski—yet—and throwing tennis balls for their dogs, which nearly outnumber the humans.
“Good job, honey!” one mother hollers up the hill at her son as he grabs onto the rope for another ride. “Proud of you!”
I remember skiing here when I was a kid—when Ascutney was a much different place. It was a “real” ski area then. Real lifts. Real lift tickets that cost real money. Real ski races with real expectations. But, between then and now, the place shut down, and with that came a lot of change. The town of Brownsville eventually found a way to purchase the ski area, which resulted in a humbler—and arguably better—situation that we see today. The Rope Tow carries on the torch, and judging from the looks on these kids’ faces, it’s more than enough to make them happy and get them excited about both skiing, and ski racing.
While ski-touring above the rope tow, I’m reminded of the mountain’s charming nuances that have slipped from my conscious over the years. That steep, wooden start ramp is still there, though tired looking. And those two old trees at the top of the first pitch stand a little bit taller and thicker than before, right in the middle of the trail. I remember how the course setters would attach an outside panel to one of the trees, which was probably not the safest idea, but a quintessential backwoods Vermont move, nonetheless.
By 5 p.m., it’s time for the Thursday Night Race. Most of the kids have gone home, but a new batch of locals have arrived with beers and sharp skis, ready to go fast under the lights. Local volunteers drill a paneled slalom as the sun sets and the snow hardens into Au natural World Cup conditions. I watch the first couple of racers go down with times hovering in the 16-second range and quickly realize that, while this race is regarded as casual, it’s also an all-out sprint.
I do my best on run one—zipping through the red and blue, just like the old days—but come up a little short. The local favorite, Bobby Farrell, whose mother is a humble mastermind behind Ascutney’s reimagination, lends me his old Salomon race skis in hopes of a faster second run. I grip onto the rope again, skate to the start, push out of the gate, wiggle through the course again, and ski across the finish. I’m a little faster this time and remember how fun ski racing is, seven long years after my frustrated retirement.
“Nice one!” says Bobby, as I click out of of his loaners and crack open a freezing-cold beer that I had stashed in the snow. He’s encouraging each racer that comes through the finish, not just me. And despite the fact that he’s a former NCAA all-star who’s raced with the best of the best on the toughest of mountains, you can tell he’s happier right here than anywhere. This is home.
By now, the sun is down, the race is nearing its end, and it’s time for dinner. Everyone gathers at the lodge and enjoys a pot luck meal together like one big family. I take a moment to look around and appreciate what a special experience this has been. The weather. The mountain. The kids. The parents. The dogs. The racers. The Tow.
It’s a beautiful recipe.