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Currents: mountain day

A Traditional Surprise: Mountain Day

It's a game of suspense: When will it happen? What clues will give it away? Who will know first?

It's an art: How to choose a day with good weather that will work best with everyone's schedules?

It's a tradition: Since the 1850s, students have gone down the hill from New London and up a mountain in Wilmot as a community on a day of the college president's choosing.

It's Mountain Day at Colby-Sawyer. This year, the surprise holiday fell on Monday, Sept. 22, 2008, which dawned overcast and foggy, but cleared as if special ordered for the occasion. Setting a new record for participation, 1,042 people took part in the annual visit to nearby Mt. Kearsarge.

The 2008 edition was masterfully orchestrated, and had a few new features. For starters, college community members who had heeded the urgings to sign up for the new CSC ALERT system were notified via text message and e-mail at 10:02, giving them a three-minute advance notice before the Colgate bell tolled its traditional announcement of cancelled classes. Other additions included three tour buses to transport hikers from campus to Mt. Kearsarge, and an ambulance on call at the base of the mountain.

Today's the Day …

For those who like to poke and shake their birthday presents in an attempt to figure out the contents, Mountain Day is another good guessing game. Some students analyze President Tom Galligan's schedule and eliminate days based on his commitments. Campus lore says that if you go into the dining hall for breakfast and all the catsup bottle have been removed from the tables, it's Mountain Day - you'll see the condiment collection at the picnic lunch. This theory draws a chuckle from Mike Heffernan, manager of dining services, who calls it a legend.

“We don't collect the catsup bottles, I don't know where that idea came from. What we really had in our favor this year for keeping things under wraps as long as possible was that it was a cloudy morning - there was no suspicion of it being Mountain Day,” says Heffernan. “Residents in Best Hall can see our loading area, but it was 9:55 a.m. before I saw a face in the windows and knew we'd been found out. We try to keep it as quiet as possible.”

Keeping the event a surprise is no small task, and President Galligan laughs while explaining he is petitioned with so many requests to choose this day or definitely not that day, that it's hard to please everyone. Some students beg for it to happen on the day a big exam is scheduled, others plead that it not fall on their one class-free day, or when they have internship duties to fulfill, or a variety of other conflicts.

“Mountain Day is one of the highlights of the year and this year was exceptional, especially with so many participants,” says President Galligan. “Early Monday morning when I saw catsup on the dining hall tables, I had my doubts that it could really be Mountain Day. And I also heard Mountain Day could never be on a Monday, but, lo and behold, it happened anyway. Thanks to everyone who made it a wonderful day.”

Up, Up and Away

Already on his way back down the mountain when the first hikers were just starting up, Assistant Professor of Natural Sciences Nick Baer delivered the customary bed sheet for signing by those who reached the top for the fourth year in a row in a 24-minute hike. Later, he made a second trip to the top with his wife and three children, the youngest getting a lift on his back.

“It's a great small mountain to play on,” says Professor Baer. “I was skeptical with the weather, but it turned out really nice. It's a great tradition at the school, and it's always a surprise. One part of Mountain Day I really like is that it's near the peak of broad-winged hawk migration, so it's fun to sit up there and see who flies by.”

Members of the incoming class were a little unsure of what to expect, but they had certainly heard about Mountain Day.

"There was a lot of hype; every day people would say, 'Today's Mountain Day,' and the next day they'd say, 'No, today's Mountain Day for sure,'" says Kim Shaughnessy, a new student from Bedford, N.H. "People would try to guess when it was, and even as a freshman who didn't know what to expect I was excited because it seemed like such a big deal."

With their tie-dyed Mountain Day T-shirts drying at the base, and pockets stuffed with bags of gorp to fuel their climb, Colby-Sawyer students, staff and faculty gathered at the summit, where the quiet solitude gave way to a boisterous, excited collection of hikers. They arrived in pairs, in groups and in athletic teams, in sneakers, hiking boots, flip flops, and even barefoot, in a couple cases. For some, Kearsarge was one more mountain to add to the list of many they've hiked while for others, it was their first climb ever.

“Mountain Day was so cool,” says Binyao Ye, a first-year student from China. “I couldn't believe my eyes when I arrived on the top. It was so beautiful, but you know, it was hard work to climb! My body couldn't move anymore at last; I felt painful everywhere. But it was my first time to climb, really, and I felt so excited.”

Enjoying Tradition, Looking Ahead

Following tradition, people lingered for the group photo as ominous clouds gathered, then headed back down the trail to devour the 572 hamburgers, 460 hotdogs, 108 garden burgers, 180 chicken breasts and other goodies that Heffernan and his Sodexho staff had prepared.

Kelliann Bogan, college archivist, enjoyed her first visit to the summit. “I have been looking forward to Mountain Day since I was hired. As an archivist, I love tradition, and this seemed like a great one. Many of the collections that I have worked with since coming to Colby-Sawyer have made reference to Mountain Day,” she says. “As I climbed the mountain alongside colleagues and students, it was easy to think of all those who have climbed before. The anticipation and excitement are memories that can be shared across generations of Colby-Sawyer College, Colby Junior College, and Colby Academy students, faculty and staff. I'm pleased to have become a part of those memories and look forward to returning to the mountain next year.”

At the end of the day, a lot of tired but happy people headed back to campus to take naps and care for aching muscles and joints.

Five cases of joint injury warranted transport to New London Hospital; two of them required the patients to be carried off the mountain by Wilmot and Warner FAST squads.

“From a Campus Safety perspective, the event was very successful,” says Director of Safety Pete Berthiaume. “We anticipated record numbers participating … so we coordinated with New London Hospital; Director of Emergency Services Kent Wheeler was wonderful to work with and supplied both an ambulance and a great EMT, Pamela Drewniak, for the event with very short notice. Pamela addressed a number of minor injuries on scene including dehydration, and the cleaning and bandaging of scrapes and bruises. We're already looking at ways to support next year's Mountain Day, which may include a first aid tent and additional emergency medical technicians.”

Sandino Volmar, a first-year student from Haiti, is already thinking about next year, too. He went to the mountain not even planning to climb, but was persuaded by friends. He set out, and quickly learned not to believe everyone who told him he was almost there.

"It was kind of depressing hiking up because people kept saying I was almost there, and then I found out I wasn't even halfway," he says. "But I went all the way to 2,937 feet - that was the first time I hiked or was that high. The view from the top was awesome. One of my friends did it twice in the same day, so that is what I will do next year. The year after that, maybe I will climb three times in one day. We'll see."

-Kate Seamans, September 2008