Skiing with a nutcracker

By Carolyn Barry 9 May 2011
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You ain’t really skied until you’ve hauled yourself up the mountain on a nutcracker rope tow.

THERE’S SOMETHING TO BE said for a skiing challenge, whether that’s aiming for a 720 in a halfpipe, hucking a cliff or . . . mastering a rope tow.

The skiing world has mostly moved on to mass transport options like high-speed quads and even sixes, so these days, even pommels and T-bars seem quaint, if not a little daunting. But if you want to ski the hidden gems of the club fields in New Zealand, you first have to tackle the nutcracker.

With an apt double meaning, the nutcracker is a metal tool resembling a walnut cracker, with a handle and bulb at the top that clamps onto a rope. This is the way the pioneers hauled themselves up the mountains and it’s a relic that is really only seen in the club field of New Zealand (like Broken River) today.

The idea is to clamp the nutcracker – which is attached to you via a belt or harness (an old climbing harness is what many locals use) – and hang on while the moving rope pulls you up the slope, flinging over and ducking under pulleys as it drags you along.

The nutcracker is attached to a belt worn around the waist, even when skiing.
An old climbing harness is a good alternative. (Credit: Carolyn Barry)

The first rule before you even get to the nutcracker is that you need to be going at the same speed as the rope (which, mind you, is not much slower than a quad chair). This means crouching down and grabbing the rope under one arm (the arm closest to the side the rope is) and hanging on until you slide along at the same speed. This way, the rope is stationary relative to you and you can drop the nutcracker on.

There are a couple of methods for success, including a good wrist-flipping action to flick the nutcracker over the rope, but the easiest method for beginners is simply to drop the nutcracker onto the rope from a straight vertical height. It should, theoretically just fall into place, whereupon you then simply grab the handles and hang on.

Llewellyn Murdoch demonstrates on a ski pole, how the nutcracker should grasp the rope.
(Credit: Carolyn Barry)

If you grab the nutcracker too soon, before it has fallen into place, then the rope gets clamped by the handles, and, unless you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’ll find it impossible to hold on.

Another tip is to make sure you look ahead and clear your arm that was first grabbing the rope, because pretty quickly you’ll come across the first pulley and the only thing that should go under or over it is the rope and your nutcracker (with a bit of a kerthunk). Fingers do not survive well getting caught between ropes and pulleys.

This is why locals wear leather glove protectors (a half glove cover worn over gloves) or the thick leather variety.

There is no locking mechanism on the nutcrackers because you need to be able to release them quickly. You do that by just letting go. Having said that, when you do reach the top of the tow, you should grasp the rope again and be prepared to angle your skis off so you don’t slide back down the hill when the nutcracker is released.

While it might seem like a bit of an initiation, the challenge is worth is when you get up the top to ski the untracked, uncrowded powder.

A word for snowboarders: Just like T-bars and pommels, it’s not impossible to get up the slope, but harder than on skis. You might wanna spend your money on heliskiing instead!