Ski back in time

Craig Hill • The News Tribune /

Published Mar 6, 2013 at 04:00AM

STAMPEDE PASS, Wash. — The instructions for time travel are as follows:

Step one: On a winter weekend, follow Interstate 90 east to Exit 62, then drive south until the road ends.

Step two: Haul your gear to the southeast corner of the parking lot and step into your skis.

Step three: Put on a pair of heavy-duty leather gloves and wait.

You’ll hear a rumble rising from the woods before you see your escort to the winter of 1938.

Seventy-five years ago, Washington’s ski scene took a giant step toward the future thanks to the arrival of a device called the rope tow. The relatively simple contraption used a long rope loop, a car engine and pulleys to tow skiers up hills that they previously had to hike.

A Tacoma lumber baron urged on by an East Coast visionary installed rope tows on Snoqualmie Pass, Mount Rainier and Mount Baker while others assembled a tow on Steven Pass.

Meanwhile, near Stampede Pass, an outdoor recreation club called The Mountaineers built its own rope tow at its 10-year-old ski hut, Meany Lodge.

Most of Washington’s first rope tows saw popular ski areas take shape around them before those glove-shredding lifts were replaced with comfy chairlifts.

But at Meany Lodge, it’s as if time stood still. Here, just 10 miles from the Summit at Snoqualmie’s crowds and modern lifts, a Chevy truck engine still powers the longest of three rope tows.

But that’s not the rumble you’ll hear as you prepare for time travel. That noise is from Tom-Cat, a 1954 Bombardier snow tractor.

When it arrives, two long ropes are tossed off the back of the covered tractor with tank-like tracks. Skiers grab hold and are towed down a popular snowmobile road before veering left onto a less-used route. Here, the tractor might pick up speed, slowing only to cross the railroad tracks that once delivered skiers from Seattle for 50 cents each before service stopped in 1960.

After 2.7 miles, Meany Lodge comes into view.

Most lodge visitors these days come Friday night and stay for the weekend. Because I was the only person arriving on a recent Sunday morning, I was towed in by a snowmobile.

While the 80 guests in the lodge enjoyed a pancake breakfast, I followed ski instructor Jim Fahey to the tow house where Andy Smith was firing up Mach, the main lift.

Fahey calls the tow house “a living museum,” and I immediately saw why. A still working — but barely used — hand-crank phone hung just inside the door. Ropes, pulleys and tools hung from the walls.

But the real piece of history is the Chevrolet truck skeleton that fills most of the room. From the radiator to the rear wheel that moves the rope, the machine is painted red. A protective casing around the fan is fashioned from wire fencing.

I watched as Smith opened the fuel line, checked the radiator and turned on the battery. Fahey checked the oil.

Smith pushed a button on the wall to start the engine.

“Like an old car engine it takes a while sometimes,” Smith said. On the fifth try, the old engine sputtered to life.

In the middle of the contraption sits the four-on-the-floor gear shift. To shift gears, Smith engages the clutch by pulling a yellow rope above his head.

He puts the engine in third gear, which moves skiers up the hill at about 15 mph, the maximum speed allowed in Washington, Fahey said. Before high speed chairlifts necessitated speed limits, Fahey said the old engine ran in fourth gear moving skiers at 21 mph.

Mach is the oldest rope tow in the state, just as Meany Lodge is the state’s oldest ski area. But fire code is forcing a new chapter in Meany history.

Because the tow house doesn’t meet code, the engine will be replaced by a modern electric motor after this season. The Chevy engine will be saved as a backup for Tom-Cat.

As Mach warmed up for one of its final weekends of work, young skiers and snowboarders gathered.

Smith gave them a thumbs-up and they were off.

I was feeling pretty nostalgic when I clicked into my skis and joined the fun. I’d learned to ski on a rope tow at Summit West, but hadn’t spent much time on them since. But this was like no rope tow I’d ever seen.

First, at 15 mph, the rope hummed as it ran across the palm of my leather glove. And the hill it was pulling me up was so steep that a gripper was required to hang on.

The metal gripper looks like a pair of large pliers and was attached to a harness that is worn around the waist. Once you get up to speed, you clamp the gripper onto the rope and hold on.

Using the gripper is a bit tricky at first, but with no trouble my first two runs, I thought I’d picked it up quicker than most.

But if there was any question why skiers don’t pine for the days of rope tows as they sometimes do for the time of two-seat chairlifts, it was answered on my third run.

The rope caught the cuff of my right glove as I grabbed hold. The rope tore into my hand. I let go, but was left with an inch-long burn on my right palm, a torn sleeve on my shirt and a small hole in my soft-shell jacket.

Later, I’d notice initiation markings like these on the clothes of many Meany regulars.

While this might seem brutal now, there was a time when the rope tow was cutting edge.

“Before the rope tows, skiing was mostly a pretty dedicated community of people who parked at Narada (Falls) in Mount Rainier National Park and hiked up to Paradise,” said ski historian Lowell Skoog. “It’s amazing that people actually did that. The rope tow made that much easier.”

Despite my bloody right hand, it was easy to see the appeal. Not the least of which is the skiing.

After bandaging my hand, I followed ski instructor Art Freeman on some of his favorite runs: Steep runs through the trees, narrow lines and a single-track return known as Psychopath because the slope it traverses is so steep.

I couldn’t help but wonder what these runs must have been like on the long wooden skis visitors used in 1938.

To return to 2013, visitors are instructed to toss their packs in Tom-Cat and start skiing down the trail at 3 p.m.

After about 2⁄3 of a mile, when the road starts uphill, the skiers and snowboarders stop. Once again, they wait for the roar to rise from the woods and Tom-Cat to appear with its long tow ropes.

This time about 40 people grab on. The ride out can be tough, especially for snowboarders. Ten times, Tom-Cat stopped for a fallen visitor.

“The rule is, you fall three times and you ride inside,” said longtime lodge volunteer Linda Harkness.