Ski artifacts from the Colorado Snowsports Museum: The grab-and-go ski rope tow gripper
September 15, 2017
Editor's note: The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at some of the artifacts and stories contained in the museum's archives. The Colorado Snowsports Museum, located in the Vail Transportation Center, is currently undergoing a $2.4 million privately funded transformation that will refurbish the 24-year-old facility, add new exhibit space and modernize exhibits with interactive technology.
Skiing and the 10th Mountain Division are the cornerstones of Vail's history and success, which the museum preserves and celebrates year-round. The museum has been a favorite family-friendly visitor attraction in Vail for 41 years and, with these improvements, will become the most comprehensive ski museum in the world.
VAIL — During the 1930s, the use of motorized ski lifts began to spread across the United States. These first tows were powered by running a rope around the tire rim of a Model-T car, set up on blocks.
Needless to say, the rope tow became very popular, not only because it provided much more time for skiing than having to walk back up the hill, but they also served as an attraction, in and of themselves, as spectators would also turn out just to watch the skiers being hauled up the hill.
The tow was ridden by gripping the passing rope, being careful not to let jacket cuffs or other clothing twist into the rope. The skier carried the weight of the rope. If the snow happened to be soft, the skier would find the rope jerking his or her arms forward, while the skis lingered behind.
While the tow proved to be extremely popular, skiers complained about having difficulty holding on to the rope due to its speed and the often wet and slippery condition. Just getting onto the rope tow was tricky. If the skier grabbed the rope too hard, then it could easily yank the skier off of the snow. If the skier did not hold on tightly enough, then the rope would fly through the skier's gloves.
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First rope-tow grippers
Enter George Dondero, a skier and member of the Sierra Club, who devised a solution. A pattern maker for a metal-casting foundry in San Francisco, he determined that a U-shaped device would fit over the rope and, with sufficient length to provide friction, could bend the rope and grab it, carrying a skier uphill.
He carved a wooden pattern before casting several out of aluminum. A hole was put in the end of the handle so the device could be attached to a skier's belt with a light cord that would break easily if the skier fell.
Hoping for a potentially sizeable market for his rope-tow gripper, Dondero applied to the U.S. Patent Office in May 1939, receiving the first patent for a rope-tow gripper. It was dubbed the "Up-Ski-Towing Device."
One month after Dondero's filing, Clare Bousquet in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, devised a second gripper concept. Bousquet had developed a small but popular ski area on his hilly pasture lands, and a prominent New York ski club frequented his "ski grounds," as the slopes were accessible by train from New York City.
Bousquet filed for a patent on his gripper in June 1939, calling his device "Bosquet's Ski Tow Rope Gripper." The new Colorado Snowsports Museum will have a Bosquet Ski Tow Rope Gripper on display when it reopens in December.
His device was sold with a belt, which had a pocket to store the hinged handle. Commonly referred to as "the nutcracker," more than 500,000 were sold over the course of the next 30 years.
Two catalog models
The Anderson & Thompson Ski Co. 1955 catalog displayed two models of rope-tow grippers. The first was a clamp-type grip with a cord fastened to a canvas belt. The catalog noted that the gripper was "always in operating position" and it "releases automatically" as well as "fits in the hand comfortably with a minimum of pressure and holds firmly for any style rope tow." Its army-type belt fastened around the waist with a hook.
The second A&T model was a departure from the loose, belt-fastened grippers, as it was mounted on a ski pole. The A&T catalog described the pole-mounted gripper as "light, compact, safe and mounts to any ski pole." It went on to note that it "holds firmly while pulling but releases easily when weight is removed."
The use of rope tows in the United States escalated throughout the decades leading up to the 1960s. However, the advent of new lift devices such as J-bars, T-bars and chairlifts would prove to be more versatile and longer lasting, and rope tows were being replaced at an increasing rate. By the late 1970s, rope tows had essentially vanished, and as a result, the use and knowledge of rope-tow grippers had almost disappeared.