This winter, Will Mayo hit the road with his girlfriend, two dogs, and a cat, all packed into a van, to try to sell customers on his new-and-improved version of a product that has been used in New England since 1934: the rope tow.
To skiers and snowboarders, rope tows are known as glove-degrading, shoulder-yanking conveyances that pull you up a short stretch of the mountain — often the bunny hill. But they’re also the least expensive type of ski lift, and Mayo and his business partner, Kyle Roy, have developed one so inexpensive that a consumer with disposable income can install one in a hilly backyard. They call it the Towpro, and last fall they were offering it on the funding site Kickstarter for $5,800, a fraction of the cost of most systems. (The price has since been bumped up to $7,250.) The Kickstarter pre-orders collected nearly $100,000 for the Fremont, N.H., company.
Towpro systems are already in use in Vermont backyards, as well as at ski resorts as far away as Idaho and Japan.
In 2016, Mayo was one of the snowboarders who performed as part of a tour called “Air & Après.” The dozen or so athletes who performed in the choreographed show would get pulled up a stretch of hill by a snowmobile — but it was loud, smelly, and slow, Mayo says. So he and Roy designed and built a prototype rope tow system that would be lightweight enough to bring along on tour, which they did the following year.
An electric motor is anchored at the bottom of the hill, and a pulley system at the top, with a loop of rope running between them. The system could plug into a 240-volt power outlet, “just like a recreational vehicle would use,” Mayo says.
They sold the prototype to the Aomori Spring resort in Japan and continued making improvements — like a flared pulley wheel that did a better job of keeping the rope from derailing, Roy explains.
The whole system weighs in at about 400 pounds.
Often, Mayo says, small ski areas find themselves coddling decades-old surface-tow lifts that are “maintenance hungry” and cost $100,000 or more to replace. They also rely on big diesel generators for power. And Mayo says a big benefit of the Towpro system is that it can be moved easily to give skiers a variety of experiences on the mountain. (Towpro’s most expensive unit can pull 25 people, Mayo says, and is priced at $70,000.) The Midwest, in particular, has a lot of smaller ski areas that still primarily use rope tows.
Due to the pandemic, Mayo says, “income is lower for most ski resorts, which are operating at reduced capacity.” A new rope tow “is one way to spread people out on the hill, and increase lift capacity,” he says. The company is seeking certification from regulators in several states, including New Hampshire, Utah, and Colorado, that ensure the safety of lift systems.
The Rotarun Ski Area in Idaho, a bit south of the famed Sun Valley resort, had just one surface lift before it purchased a second from Towpro.
“Our earlier rope tow was probably pulled out ten years ago,” says executive director Scotty McGrew. But he wanted to accommodate more skiers, so the nonprofit ski area bought a Towpro system for about $40,000 and installed it at the start of this season. It runs 800 feet up the mountain.
“The engineering was off a little bit,” McGrew says, but Mayo showed up a few times to help tweak the gearing and the pulley wheels that convey the rope. McGrew says the Towpro lift has had some “great stints,” but also some stretches when it was not operating — including when the rope would break. “We’ve got a new rope coming, and I’m optimistic that this one is going to be the ticket,” McGrew says.
Including Rotarun, Towpro has delivered three systems to resorts so far, and Mayo says they’ve seen more demand from individuals who have dreamed of being able to ski their backyards. “The backyards outweigh the resorts, 10 to 1,” he says.
Mike Orlando is one of those early customers. When he bought a home in Danby, Vt., with 30 acres of property, “I knew I could make ski trails, but I didn’t know if they made any rope tows,” he says. After a year or two of fruitless Googling, Orlando, a New Jersey entrepreneur, stumbled across Towpro on the Kickstarter site. “I bought it right away,” he says.
Orlando cut down a handful of big trees and some seedlings on the hill behind his house and bought a small generator from Home Depot for power. In early January, Towpro delivered and installed his rope tow. “My buddies come over, and it’s a blast,” Orlando says. He’s also teaching his 5-year-old daughter, Harper, to snowboard.
“You have to be careful — it does go fast, and you have to know how to ride it,” he says. “I turned the speed down for my daughter.”
Orlando says the trail on his property is intermediate — “at least a blue, and some spots are black” — but he hasn’t given it a name. He occasionally visits Killington, but at his backyard resort, with no parking, no shuttle buses, and no lines, “I feel like I get my entire day’s worth of snowboarding in an hour. It’s just so much better, especially during COVID.”
Orlando says he may add a second Towpro lift next winter, to give him access to more terrain.
On Friday, Mayo was demonstrating the system in Rangeley, Maine, for managers of the Saddleback Mountain ski area. It’s part of his spring marketing tour of about a half-dozen East Coast resorts.
Roy says the two-person company is building a lift for a private ski area in New York and has another four on order. “We’re busy for sure,” he says.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.