Bethel Family Skiing Off of Their Home-Built Rope Tow

By Jared Pendak

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2018 9:46 AM

Bethel — Recent snowstorms and below-average temperatures may be causing some to pine for the arrival of spring, but Angus McCusker has a different perspective. As ski patrolman in his own front yard, he sees the joy in the faces of his sons, 5-year-old Galen and 3-year-old Elet, every time they make a run down makeshift trails thanks to a motorized rope tow that he, his wife, Kricket, and a friend installed four years ago.

For the McCuskers, the snow is quite welcome.

“It’s the miracle of March,” said Angus McCusker, 36. “A few weeks ago, it was bare here after we had those 70-degree days. It’s a south-facing slope.”

The McCuskers’ property is at the base of Rochester Gap, and the front yard affords splendid views of the rolling central Vermont landscape, including Mount Olympus, the Coolidge Range and, on clearer days, Killington and Okemo. It’s the perfect setting for Galen and Elet to enjoy hours of fun or, just as commonly, a few runs to start or end the day.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility,” said Kricket McCusker. “Sometimes, they’re out there for 10-20 minutes and then they’re ready to come in for some hot chocolate.”

The rope tow is powered by a riding lawnmower initially gifted by Kricket’s grandfather, Richard Fellows. Resting in a small shed at the top of the hill, the lawnmower’s rear left tire was removed and repositioned on the same axis as the rear right, so the rope threads between them and spins back down the hill.

Up top, the rope threads along wooden towers, the mixed hardwood harvested from the McCuskers’ land. At the bottom, it spins on a dirt bike wheel McCusker dug out of a salvage yard.

The addition of some solar powered flood lights even enables night skiing.

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“The kiddos love when the lights come on,” Kricket McCusker said.

And just in case, a stop gate was installed with the use of a wire and two electrical outlets, so if one of the boys forgets to disengage, the unit stops.

Having the motor at the top of the hill helps absorb slack and eliminates the need for counterweights, Angus McCusker noted.

“(When the motor is at the bottom), the rope is being pushed up the hill. When someone grabs on the rope, they are pulling the rope back and downhill a bit, creating some rope slack,” McCusker wrote in a follow-up message. “Having it at the top eliminates that issue, as the drive wheel and skiers are both pulling the rope in the same direction.”

The McCuskers’ front-yard rope tow is actually one of two on their 45-acre property. The first is laced through the woods behind the house, a 950-foot version allowing access to a 250-foot, backcountry vertical drop.

The McCuskers, indeed, have a passion for backcountry skiing, one of the drivers behind co-founding the Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance five years ago. The nonprofit has developed to advocate for sustainable multi-use trails and glades in central Vermont and is involved in several long-term projects to connect various trail networks and communities.

A few years ago, RASTA helped open the Rochester Gap Trail, which intersects with the McCuskers’ backcountry rope tow and is closed to the public during winter.

Both rope tows are for private use only, though family and friends have been over to enjoy them. The McCuskers would like to open the front yard version periodically as a free community resource but would need liability insurance and a tramway license.

“There is legislation that protects landowners from liability in regards to trails on their property, as long as (trail use is) free,” McCusker wrote. “When it comes to having a rope tow, it’s a moving machine and with that comes liability and regulations.”

Rope tows are a longstanding Vermont tradition, dating to 1934, when the first U.S. ski rope tow opened at Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock. Community rope tows had dotted the Vermont countryside thereafter, sometimes as a means for farming families to generate modest income during the winter months.

“I think there were some lawsuits in the 1980s, and now they’re harder to find,” McCusker said. “Small (ski areas with rope tows) like Northeast Slopes in East Corinth are harder to find these days.”

Still, the McCuskers have noticed an increasing interest in smaller community skiing areas. After all, they’re generally more accessible and affordable. A new rope tow in 2016 opened to the public at Ascutney Outdoors in Brownsville, for example.

“I think more families are starting to come back to where skiing doesn’t have to be about going to a big resort,” Kricket McCusker said. “It’s a whole different experience skiing with a (homemade) rope tow, but it’s a lot of fun.”

Anyway, the McCuskers’ front yard rope tow — known by the parents as the toddler tow — has Galen’s full endorsement. “It’s my favorite,” the preschooler said, “because my mom and dad built it.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3225.