Nutcracker ropetows are typically used at some of the New Zealand club fields
. They basically consist of a moving rope that passes through a series of pulleys, and skiers fix themselves to the rope with a metal contraption that is connected to a harness around the hips. The metal clamp is nutcracker shaped, hence the name “nutcracker” – it has nothing to do with the difficulty of riding the nutcracker ropetow (boys stop worrying!).
Nutcrackers are a very primitive form of ski lift transport, but they have associated benefits. They can be as fast as a high speed detachable chair, can travel up very steep terrain, and can operate in high winds and various snow conditions. The best advantage is that they’re associated with cheap lift tickets.
Generally nutcrackers are recommended for intermediate riders and above, and even if you’re a super expert skier, if you haven’t used a nutcracker before you’ll need some patience and determination. It may be completely demoralising when you’re a first-timer, but once you’ve got the knack it can be incredibly entertaining watching other nutcracker virgins (don’t laugh aloud though). Most people get the hang of it within half a day, but this may depend on the speed and pitch of the ropetow. The Craigieburn Valley ski area
has some very steep ascents at the start of the rope tows which make it difficult, whilst areas such as Mt Olympus
are more gentle and can be a good place to learn. Ski patrollers are there to help, and club members are usually also very willing to assist if you are having trouble.
Snowboarders find nutcrackers more difficult than skiers considering that they have to face sideways. The side of the rope that you ride impacts on the degree of ease for snowboarders, and this varies between and within resorts. (You can only ride one side of the tow because there is a trip wire present on the other side). At Craigieburn
the rider is on the left of the rope, which is very tricky for goofy snowboarders. Fox Peak has the ropetow set up the other way, so it is more difficult for naturals. Temple Basin ski area
has a variety of set ups.
Riding a nutcracker requires a fair bit of strength and endurance, particularly in the forearms, lats and other muscles that work to grip the rope initially. Even though the harness does most of the work once you’re on the ropetow, you might find it takes a fair bit of energy to get to the top. It’s worth going to the gym before visiting one of New Zealand’s club fields.
What equipment is involved
The nutcracker (metal clamp) has two handles that clamp onto the rope when closed together. The clamping part of the nutcracker is at the end near the hinge. The nutcracker is attached to a belt via a short rope, and a small metal loop is attached to the belt, onto which the nutcracker can be stored whilst skiing. When riding the nutcracker, the rope attachment is worn to the front which can then be pushed around to the side whilst skiing. The belt needs to be worn tightly around the hips.
The lift office at the ski area will generally provide these belts (possibly for a small deposit), but some regular users use a proper harness such as a windsurfing or climbing harness for improved comfort. Don’t wear your good skiing gloves, or they will get destroyed pretty quickly when the rope runs through your hands. You need to wear heavy-duty gloves or a glove protector. Most of the club fields sell glove protectors for about $15, or hire them for about $5, but if you buy some tough heavy-duty leather gardening gloves, that will do the trick. You might want to wear some thin glove liners under your gloves if it’s a cold day, although you will probably be pretty warm with all the work involved anyhow.
Tuck away any loose clothing such as a scarf, and tie back long hair to avoid getting these caught in the ropetow pulleys. Also, don’t wear light coloured clothing that you cherish, because the rope can be dirty and mark clothing.
Getting onto the Nutcracker
Ask the patroller for a demo of how to get on the nutcracker. If riding a rope on the right (such as Craigieburn), then use the left-right-left hand technique (otherwise a right-left-right technique if riding a rope on the other side). Hold the bottom handle with your left hand then grab the top handle with your right hand as you pass the hinge area around the rope (but not in contact with the rope at this stage), then swap your right hand for your left hand so that it is hanging onto the top handle.
As you grip onto the rope and start moving, tighten you grip so that you are moving at the speed as the rope tow. Then attach the nutcracker on the rope by dropping the hinge area of the nutcracker onto the rope and grip the ends of the handles to keep the nutcracker closed. You may need two hands initially to hold onto it.
Experts often use the “flip” method, where they hold the bottom handle with the left hand and flip the nut-cracker over the rope. It’s quicker, but perhaps it’s best to master the “easy” technique before going onto the advanced methodology.
Riding the Nutcracker
Whilst riding the ropetow, keep holding onto the ends of the two handles of the nutcracker with your outside hand. You can use the other hand as well if you need to, but keep it away from the rope.
When you get to a pulley, have faith that the nutcracker will pass through the pulley. If you’re not a whippet, you might need to turn your body slightly towards the rope as you pass the pulley to avoid your hips brushing against it.
Wherever possible, try not to pull the rope off the pulleys, but if you do it’s not the end of the world. Someone behind you will put the rope back on and fix your little misdemeanour.
Don’t waterski on the rope-tow. Use the harness to do most of the pulling rather than using your arms. You’ll need to save your strength to hang onto the rope the next time you want to get onto the nutcracker ropetow.
Getting off the Nutcracker
At any stage that you need to get off the ropetow, just let go of the top handle and the nutcracker will unclamp itself from the rope. There will be people coming up behind you, so clear the ropetow area as soon as possible. In an emergency, there is a trip wire that runs alongside the tow which can be pulled to stop the ropetow.
If there is a queue at the lift and you need multiple attempts to get on the rope-tow, you can try again without going to the back of the line. The general rule is “three strikes and you’re out” when after three attempts you should go to the back of the queue. Of course when “pushing in” to the front of the queue during your first few attempts, be very polite and apologetic. Hopefully they’ll be sympathetic to your frustration, and won’t laugh too loudly.
And remember – be patient and persevere. You’ll get the hang of it in much less time than it took you to learn to ski or snowboard.