Mountain Day tradition evolves over two centuries

Students gather on the summit of Stony Ledge for apple cider donuts and musical numbers from College a cappella groups. --Photo Courtesy of the Williams Outing Club
Students gather on the summit of Stony Ledge for apple cider donuts and musical numbers from College a cappella groups. –Photo Courtesy of the Williams Outing Club

It’s 6 a.m. on a Friday and you wake to raucous singing and the sound of pots and pans being banged outside your door. It’s not the normal start to a college Friday – at another school such noise might cause students to cower beneath their covers. But not at Williams. You know what that sound means – the start of Mountain Day.

For such a well-loved campus tradition, the history of Mountain Day is surprisingly tumultuous. Mountain Day originated from Chip Day and Gravel Day, two somewhat less festive celebrations dedicated to clearing wood chips left over from chopping firewood during the winter and repairing the College’s muddy pathways, respectively. But by the mid-1800s, Williamstown residents had begun taking over these duties, and students spent both days hiking instead. Consequently, in 1857 Gravel Day was replaced with Bald Mountain Day, a day off from classes so students could enjoy the outdoors. In 1874, Chip Day was usurped by a similar outdoor themed day called Foliage Day. At first, most students would participate, climbing Mount Greylock or other nearby peaks, although some students rode in a carriage to the top.

By the early 20th century, the student body was much less excited about the prospect of spending a day off from classes to climb a mountain. Many members of the all-male student body seemed more interested in meeting girls than connecting with nature, choosing to visit Smith or Vassar instead. In 1932, students petitioned to replace Mountain Day with an extra day of Thanksgiving break, and in 1935, Mountain Day was abolished. Mountain Day was not reinstituted until 1981, when popular demand brought it back as a scheduled Sunday in the fall. In 2000, it was finally fully restored to the spontaneous day off from classes it had been nearly two centuries before.

Since 2000, though, Mountain Day has had its share of hiccups. One of the most notorious is the “Siberian Mountain Day” of 2009. This day came about after the first two Fridays in October were rainy. The weather report for the third Friday, however, predicted snowstorms, and after much deliberation, Williams Outing Club (WOC) Director Scott Lewis and Interim President Will Wagner decided to cancel Mountain Day. The College Council (CC) presidents at the time, upon learning of the plans to cancel the holiday, came to Wagner in tears, begging to restore it. And so, in a last-minute plan, Siberian Mountain Day was born. Students hiked up Stone Hill, embracing the stormy weather with games and warm drinks. But somehow, when everyone got to the top of Stone Hill, a small hole of clear skies had opened in the space above the hill. Despite the scary weather reports, students ultimately enjoyed a cappella and donuts in the sunshine. It was, as Lewis calls it, a “Mountain Day miracle.”

Today, Mountain Day is a complicated affair involving over 2000 doughnuts, multiple hikes spanning two to 10 miles and countless traditions. Take, for example, the adventure race. “When I joined WOC my sophomore year, the adventure race was less well-known but more hardcore, involving a bouldering challenge and a bike race followed by a run up Stony Ledge,” Gordon Bauer ’14, this year’s mastermind behind the race, said. “My junior year we started making it a little more goofy.” Since then, the race has evolved into a highly anticipated spectator event involving a pumpkin hunt, costumes, monetary prizes and as the final challenge, an epic search for the purple cow at the top of Stony Ledge. This year, Bauer plans to continue the carefully planned tradition of excellence that has come to characterize the adventure race, while upping the goofy factor even more. Rumor has it that unprecedentedly large objects may be involved.

While Mountain Day is a well-known tradition, some mysteries nevertheless remain about the day. How, for instance, is the day chosen, and who gets to decide? And once the final decision is made, who gets to know early? Most confusingly, how does it remain a secret until the dawn of that special Friday?

We all know the  story. One beautiful fall morning, President Falk decides that the student body would benefit more from spending the day outside, building community, than it would by spending the day in class, and so he declares that it is Mountain Day. No one but him, so legend goes, gets to know ahead of time which day it will fall on. Yet every year, rumors abound about the chosen day by people who claim that, through some connection, they have found out early. Representatives from CC, singers of the a cappella groups, students employed by Dining Services, members of the WOC board – at one time or another, all have claimed to know the date the night before or even days in advance. Every Thursday night in October, there is a flurry of activity as students try to find out if they need to finish papers and go to bed early, or if they can relax knowing that the next day is a holiday. It is doubtful that the masterminds behind Mountain Day will ever divulge the true process behind choosing the day, but perhaps it’s better to be left wondering. Maybe this air of mystery is what makes Mountain Day so special.