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A Yankee Notebook

September 29, 2014


NEW LONDON, NH – It happens once a year, and with only a couple of minor breaks, has been happening for over 150 years. It’s Mountain Day at Colby-Sawyer College. Its date is always a well-kept secret among a few administrators and professors, but our crew had been let in on it so we could be here to climb the mountain with the students and film the event.

I have no idea how many schools have mountain days. My northern Massachusetts school had one, and still does: a day whose date is secret, and upon which the senior class is excused from everything else, bussed to the foot of Mount Monadnock, and treated after their descent to burgers and hotdogs at the campground, with the faculty doing the honors in white chefs’ hats. It’s the same deal here at Colby-Sawyer, but here it’s Mount Kearsarge, and the whole school climbs.

Colby-Sawyer has gone through many changes in its long life, beginning as an academy founded and funded by the Colbys, a prominent local family. It was for many years during the mid-20th century a women’s institution known as Colby Junior College. Many Dartmouth alums of my vintage recall it as a happy hunting ground; they practically wore grooves in the secondary roads between Hanover and New London – the interstate highway system was still only a gleam in Dwight Eisenhower’s eye – and not a few of them found wives here. Dartmouth, however, became coeducational in 1969 and Colby in 1989; thus, in spite of the increased ease of travel, the volume has no doubt diminished.

The thought of hundreds of young people with still incomplete cortical restraints clambering over miles of steep, rough trails must give administrators heart palpitations. Last year at Colby-Sawyer, four students came back down with injuries needing treatment. But the college encourages the climb every year – at the same time choosing the best possible weather and footing for the event.

Why do they do it? Simply because extracurricular activity is the best way to build institutional solidarity. The friends you make on the touch football field will outlast every time those sitting next to you in English class. The ones you hike, climb, canoe, or mountain bike with last even longer. My old buddy, the late Dudley Weider, often said that the fellow alums he remained closest to were the men he’d met on his Freshman Trip.

Still an institution at Dartmouth, First-Year Trips (they dropped “freshman” because of its sexist overtone possibilities) engages about 90 percent of entering students. They clamber, bike, ride horses, and paddle all over northern New Hampshire, camping along the way, and finish with a raucous dinner at the college’s Moosilauke Ravine Lodge near the foot of the mountain. The college’s rugged identity is firmly implanted there. I used to go to those dinners whenever I could, just to watch the speakers, college officials accustomed to dry presentation, trying to catch hold of the students’ enthusiasm, like late-arriving travelers boarding an accelerating train.

A couple of coeds, interviewed for an article in the college daily, explained it well: “I wanted to take advantage of the great location Hanover was in and try new outdoor activities like whitewater kayaking that I never tried before college,” said one. The other: “I knew I wanted to go to a school where I could be outside all the time, because that’s how I recharge psychologically, academically, emotionally,” she said.

Colby-Sawyer is in an equally rich environment. Mount Kearsarge, a 2920-foot granite monadnock with a summit left bald by a 1796 forest fire, looms over the campus. The annual climb is the ideal way to get students together – on the buses, on the trail, at the top, at the barbecue after the descent. It’s also a way, I discerned during the climb, to introduce foreign students to this beautiful part of the United States. On the summit, I chatted with three girls sharing a cigarette, one from Macedonia and two from Nepal, and had my picture taken with another from Nigeria who was climbing with a new friend from Massachusetts. Others were up in the fire tower, checking out the story that on a clear day they might see the towers of Boston. Faculty and staff members were practically indistinguishable from the students, which on a day like today is a good thing.

We had fun before the climb talking about the ways the students try to predict the exact day of the event. They go at it with the sophistication of a bookmaker or hedge fund administrator. Some check the president’s published schedule; if he’s away, it won’t happen, because he always climbs. They check the weather forecasts; it won’t be on a rainy day, and probably not the day after. Someone came up with the bright idea that the kitchen staff, preparing for the afternoon barbecue al fresco, take the ketchup bottles off the dining hall tables early that morning. But once that idea became known, it was rumored the kitchen staff began taking away the bottles randomly, just to confuse the issue. Students who know which professors are in on the secret watch them covertly for changes in behavior or dress. Hiking shoes, in some cases, are a giveaway.

However it is, shortly after ten o’clock in the morning the traditional designated bell-ringer makes his way to the college bell tower and peals out the news. This being 2014, there’s another means of instant communication: the all-college text message. Within minutes this morning, students began congregating under the maples at the edge of the quad where the buses would pick them up. Shortly after that, we joined a fast-moving mob streaming up the rocky 1.1-mile short trail to the top. Watching them practically leap uphill, I wished myself able to trade some of my hard-won prudence for just a little of that long-lost mountain goat agility. It’s been a lovely day.

Photo by Willem lange