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Lassen County's jalopy rope tow is at the heart of Coppervale Ski Area | Bartell's Backroads

Come for the wallet-friendly day passes and try your hand at mastering California's oldest gas-powered rope tow.

COPPERVALE, Calif. — Between Susanville and Westwood on Highway 36, there is a lonely "open" sign. 

At first, it is a little unclear what exactly is open, but if you drive down the bumpy snow-covered road, you'll eventually find a ski hill. And that’s where you’ll find 70-year-old retired logger Norm Wilson working on what looks like a pile of mechanical parts bolted together. 

“It is, but you know, you don’t want to walk up the hill. You did what you had to do to make it work,” Norm said.

Sandwiched between the Sierra and Cascade mountains is Lassen County’s Coppervale Ski Area, home to California’s oldest continually operating gas-powered rope tow. Wilson has been maintaining the rope tow jalopy for 40 years.

“This is basically the rear end of a truck with the rear end of a Dodge,” Norm said. 

Coppervale is a mostly volunteer-based ski hill started by a group of locals from Westwood and Susanville in the late 1930s. 

“This was a copper mine that closed in the 1930s,” Norm explained. 

Back then, original rope tow was even more primitive than the current. Wilson describes it as a car chained to a tree and a rope wrapped around the tire rim.

Lassen College took over the ski area in the 1940s and started the first official ski classes using the rope tow. Then, in 1977, a hand-me-down Poma lift was purchased from Alpine Meadows in Tahoe so skiers could get to the top of the mountain.

Don’t let the primitive nature of the gear fool you. All equipment is tested and approved by state regulators. With an elevation just over 9,000 feet and seven black diamond runs, Wilson says Coppervale has an impeccable safety record. 

“We’ve only had four or five people injured here because you are always on your feet,” Norm said.

Since there are no high-flying chair lifts, Coppervale is an ideal place to learn to ski or snowboard. Just ask Kayle Englund.

“They are really nice and they’ve been helping me do this, and they even came over and grabbed me and helped me navigate down. If you go anywhere in Tahoe, they will charge you like $300 bucks for that,” Englund said.

Because this is a community-run ski hill, visitors get a community feeling and Wilson’s wife Debbie will even give outsiders community pricing. 

“$30 full day, $25 for half day and $20 donation for rentals,” Debbie said.

For the past 40 years Wilson, his wife and many other volunteers have put their heart and soul into this place. 

“It’s really emotional for me because we’ve been able to make this available,” Norm said. 

At Coppervale, accessibility for all comes before new chairlifts, modern amenities and high-priced lessons. Here at Coppervale it's about memories and people. 

“Why would you want to put yourself through this for 40 years? Well, that’s the reason you do it. It’s not about you, it's about helping others,” Norm said.

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