Outing Club considers poor-weather alternatives to Mountain Day

In the midst of ambivalent weather, settling on a Friday for Mountain Day may prove more difficult this year than in the past. Though only one full week of October has passed, potentially unfavorable weather predictions have sparked discussion of contingency plans within the Williams Outing Club (WOC), which organizes Mountain Day.

Mountain Day, which has been a Williams tradition in some form or another since the 1800s, has for the past nine years taken place on one of the first three Fridays in October. If the weather is seen fit, the College president sends a campus-wide e-mail in the early morning, declaring a day without classes and encouraging campus members to get outside and enjoy the fall foliage and fresh air. Carillonneurs play “The Mountains” and WOC board members noisily run through dorms to rouse their fellow students.

“It’s a big deal because the school only shuts down and cancels classes for this and Winter Carnival, and now Claiming Williams,” said Alessandra DeMarchis ’10, president of WOC. “People are actually encouraged not to do homework, to just go outside and enjoy the day, which makes it very different.”
It has not happened in the nine years since Mountain Day was moved to Friday that the weather has been too bad to hold the traditional Mountain Day festivities, most importantly the hike to Stony Ledge. According to Scott Lewis, director of the Outing Club, WOC has had to wait until the final Friday to hold Mountain Day only twice. Those days, he said, were overcast, but still had relatively good weather.
With a 30 percent chance of rain forecast for Friday, WOC members have been discussing what should happen if the weather does not cooperate. DeMarchis explained that concerns revolve around participation, safety and professor support.  “This is the first year we’ve brought into the discussion what happens if it rains all three days,” she said. “There’s a concern that if we have it on a rainy day, people won’t show up.”
Lewis added that poor weather conditions pose a safety risk, as hiking can be made slippery by rain, that low temperatures can pose the risk of sickness, especially when people congregate on Stony Ledge for food and music, and that thunderstorms would likely cancel the event altogether. “There are inexperienced hikers, and you can’t educate everybody, so it can be a danger,” Lewis said.
According to Lewis, WOC will continue both planning for the worst and hoping for the best. “The fact that we do this is really shouting out ‘We value this,’ that in our busy lives, it’s worth a time out. It’s a Williams tradition that goes beyond the classroom,” Lewis said. At the same time, Lewis expressed the belief that Mountain Day should only be held on a particularly special day. “It should be a time when it’s so nice you just have to be outside,” he said. When similar discussions arose in Oct. 2005, it was decided that, in the case of poor weather, Mountain Day would be cancelled and that the final Friday of the semester would then be treated as an additional Reading Period day. No similar plans have been finalized for this year.
Members of the WOC board are proposing other festivities in the chance that a hike up the mountain is rendered unfeasible. “I think it would still be fun to go outside even if it is drizzly, because it’s nice to appreciate the foliage either way, but on the other hand, our posters do say, ‘Coming to you on a sunny Friday in October,’” DeMarchis said. “I’m not very worried though – apparently two or three years ago the first two Fridays were terrible, but the third was really nice. It’s the magic of Mountain Day.”
A more general and recurring concern on the part of the Outing Club is the impact Mountain Day has on class and event scheduling. Professors have had mixed feelings regarding the inconvenience of rearranging classes and planning syllabi. When Mountain Day was integrated into the calendar, beginning in 2000, faculty voted to try it for three years. Faculty voted again in 2003, and, according to Lewis, agreed by only a narrow margin to keep Mountain Day. The question has not come before the faculty since 2003.
As Jay Pasachoff, professor of astronomy, explained, the scheduling can be inconvenient, and not everyone is interested in participating. “I don’t teach on Fridays, so Mountain Day doesn’t affect my teaching, but it does affect scheduling any colloquium speakers in the month of October,” he said. “I’m not a fan of going up in the mountains, anyway, so I am skeptical about whether such a floating holiday as Mountain Day is worth the disruption.”
Some professors simply design their syllabi with Mountain Day in mind. “If Mountain Day is this day, then this is our schedule; if it’s this other day, then this is our schedule,” said Ken Savitsky, professor of psychology. “My view is that Mountain Day is well worth any small scheduling headaches that it causes.”
Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history, explained that some classes are easier to fit in alongside Mountain Day than others. In particular, tutorials that only meet once a week and “build on momentum and rhythm” can be somewhat negatively affected, he said. But, for Bernhardsson, the inconvenience is worth it. “At this point in the semester, it is good to get a breather,” he said. “It also enjoins two of the things that make Williams unique and distinct – its community and natural surroundings.”