A Portable Rope Tow For The Backcountry?

At the recent KORE speaker series, Robert Button, the founder of Zoa Engineering, based in Richmond, British Columbia, shared the story of his new invention that could change the backcountry.

Robert “Robbie” Button is the founder of Zoa Engineering, a Richmond, BC-based company that’s developing a portable rope tow for the backcountry. It weighs less than 15 pounds with 1,000 feet of paracord and it fits into your backpack. He gave a presentation recently as part of the KORE speaker series and multiple makers were on hand to hear about the process and technology behind developing what’s being called the Zoa PL1 personal backcountry electric rope tow, from concept to beta testing to product release.

Robbie says he started his journey figuring out the engineering first and the next stage was determining whether there was a market for the product. He ran two online surveys and had over 250 reponses : 92% said they were interested in it and 25% said they’d pay more than $1,000 for the device. That and some free publicity on industry specific websites helped generate a mailing list of 1,200 potential customers with zero ad spend.

The Zoa PL1 personal electric rope tow device uses an rechargeable lithium-ion battery and at this junction Robbie says the battery life is good for 800 metres of vertical but that is entirely dependent on external factors such as the weight of the skier. Here’s how the device works:

  1. a skier skins to the top of a run
  2. a paracord is affixed to a tree or snow anchor
  3. the skier descends while feeding out the line
  4. the line is then attached to the Zoa handheld rope-tow device
  5. the skier is then pulled back up the mountain.

The paracord is loose at the bottom (it’s doesn’t reside in the device but rather it’s fed through it on the up) so clotheslining risks are minimal, and initial tests on hard pack and light powder have been promising Robbie says.

Robbie says he’s been working on the project for over two years and went through 20 design concepts and everything’s been entirely self funded. His home-based shop now has a mini lathe, CNC router, 3D printer, drill press, band saw and urethane caster. and the software he uses includes Fusion 360 and EagleCAD. He also uses components and services from external sources such as McMaster Carr.

During his presentation there were many questions from KORE makers and one was, “What happens if your arms get tired?” Robbie replied the solution is built into the device in the form of a harness hook. Another question was, “How steep does it go?” Robbie responded that it depends on the snow conditions and how much the skier weighs. The device tends to stall out with skiers who weigh over 200 pounds and a general rule of thumb is you want to use it on terrain that you’d be comfortable skinning up: not steep shots that you’d have to kick turn the whole way up.

Robert says the base price for the PL1 personal rope tow unit will be $1,200 via a crowdfunding campaign he plans to kick off later this year. For more information about him, Zoa Engineering, and the PL1, visit zoaeng.com.