Reimagining Mountain Day: On modifying the ableism and institutional inclusivity

October 19, 2016 by Justice Namaste

“The mountains call us in their sun-dappled splendor. Let’s get out and play,” President Adam Falk said on Mountain Day 2016.

As we, Williams students, are reminded every year, Mountain Day is about getting outside as a community and enjoying the beautiful nature that surrounts us. Knowing all of this, I think it is deeply problematic for Mountain Day to be framed as a day that is “quintessentially Williams” when it is inaccessible to so many students. Much of the culture at the College enforces body normativity and exercise culture that is deeply unhealthy and alienating to a number of students, and Mountain Day is just another example of how the College’s traditions can exclude certain groups of people.

Mountain Day was established in the late 1800s, and many core aspects of the College have changed dramatically since then, including the makeup of the student body. Centuries-old traditions have not automatically transformed themselves to best suit our current wants and needs. We must make the conscious choice to acknowledge our history and to work to make all aspects of our college more inclusive.

At the root of my discomfort with this tradition is the expectation that all people can and want to hike a mountain, and the implication that if you cannot or do not want to, that makes you less of a part of the College community. Within a student culture that already cultivates such strong body-related pressures, it is not appropriate for the College to pass judgment on our bodies and our choices in any manner. I do not become a more valid member of the College community because I go to the gym six days a week instead of three. There are plenty of ways for us to engage with the outdoors on this annual school holiday that do not necessarily involve hiking, yet such activities are not included in the tradition of Mountain Day.

Of course, it is unhelpful to critique without offering solutions, so here are a few of my ideas on how to make Mountain Day a more inclusive school holiday.

One, make it easier for students to either drive up the mountain or be driven in some way by the Williams Outing Club (WOC). Whether it is because you cannot climb the mountain or because you simply don’t want to, it is not the College’s job to tell anyone that climbing a mountain is an essential part of participation in the day. If the day is truly about nature and community, it should be easily accessible to all students. There should be no shame in choosing not to hike, and there should be no barriers for those who choose not to. You should not have to produce your entire medical history to ride a van to the top.

Two, choose a more accessible hike. I understand that for those of us who are inclined towards outdoors exercise, the Mountain Day hike is likely a breeze. But every year, I get to the top of the mountain and hear countless people, athletes and non-athletes alike, remarking, “That is not an easy hike.” It turns off and turns away countless people who want to participate in this tradition but who don’t want to struggle up the mountain. And again, it is not the College’s job to police anyone’s exercise habits. If we still want to go to Stony Ledge, perhaps there is a place closer to the top where students could be dropped off and do a shorter and less steep hike.

Three, perhaps, instead of the mountains being the center of the day, there could be more events that are on campus. Maybe something involving art, such as nature photography, free-drawing at different picturesque locations around campus or writing nature-inspired poetry. Or perhaps it could be structured more like the Lehman Center’s Day of Service. WOC could bus people to different places to work in mini trail crews. This could also draw in a variety of different student organizations, further expanding the reach of Mountain Day activities. These are just a few ideas, but I’m sure there are even more activities that would align with the themes of Mountain Day while engaging even more of the student body without taking resources away from the events that are already occurring.

To be clear, I am not trying to condemn Mountain Day as a school holiday. I love autumn at the College as much as the next person, and I think it’s actually admirable that we take a day off to appreciate the gorgeous place where we live. However, as the College is an educational institution, it seems essential that we expect it to continuously work to better serve all of its students and this seems like a wonderful place to start.

Justice Namaste ’17 is an American studies major from Williamsville, N.Y. She lives in Woodbridge.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

WLS1 October 19, 2016 at 9:30 am

I’m a little surprised by this op-ed. For me, Williams’s location in the mountains is a part of its character and attraction; I came to Williams partly because of the deep ties between the student body and nature. I did sunrise hikes to Pine Cobble, climbed ridges and crossed bogs in a botany class, and did the long Mountain Day hike over Mt. Greylock twice. I never exercised in a Williams gym, but the outdoors was and is deeply important to me and I thank Scott Lewis for everything he does to connect Williams students to nature.

Hiking, as an activity, is ableist – that’s true. However, the outdoors are also enablist, just like playing a sport or visiting inaccessible countries is ableist. In a different way, the intellectual caliber and expectations in Williams’s classes is mentally ableist and only available to a subset of people. Pine Cobble and its beautiful view will never be accessible to someone with injury, and as someone who had a broken leg for a few months, I know how unfun it is not to be able to join in some activities.

That’s why Mountain Day’s component at Stone Hill is so important (as well as the all-campus picnic on Chapin Lawn). Stone Hill is a very short and easy walk, with all of the same programming and donuts as Stony Ledge, and allows students and faculty who don’t have the time or ability to do the Stony Ledge trip to fully participate in the day. The only thing different about Stony Ledge is the elevation of the view, but it’s still pretty fantastic on Stone Hill, and I think Mountain Day’s inclusion of Stone Hill festivities is the inclusion this op-ed asks for.

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Egg October 19, 2016 at 11:07 am

WOC offers a van…

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Egg October 19, 2016 at 11:08 am

*up to Stony Ledge and has done so for years

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Barry October 19, 2016 at 12:14 pm

This is such an absurd article. It’s a day off from school and that’s awesome. Not everyone hikes. Loads of perfectly capable bodies choose to sleep in and hang out instead of hike on mountain day. I can’t think of anyone who’d be passing judgement on someone who doesn’t go on the hike when they physically can’t when so many perfectly able people also do not. To say that people who aren’t hiking are being excluded from the school’s community sounds like a stretch. We’re talking one day in October, and again tons of people don’t hike (I’d estimate maybe half the student body?). And there has always been easier options available — namely Stone Hill, and plus there ARE vans that go to Stony Ledge.

Also, is pressure to go enjoy the outdoors and exercise really the worst thing? If you really don’t like that outdoors and you know that, that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s bad for others to encourage you to get outdoors. Hiking is awesome and a healthy activity, plus you’re going to school in the Berkshires so, yes, I would argue it’s part of the “quintessential” Williams experience. To reiterate, if you physically can’t, that’s a different story. But I believe in the mental fortitude of the average Williams student to be able to handle a little goading to get outdoors.

When people say that certain Williams students are too easily offended, they’re talking about stuff like this. The protest about money being spent on marble instead of therapists, while it has the same general ring of inherently discontent liberal arts students, actually had some substance. This one really doesn’t. Find something better to complain about, and maybe time it better, too.

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Person October 19, 2016 at 12:56 pm

I think the argument she’s trying to make is that, people who would like to be a part of the celebration that takes place on Stony Ledge but may be incapable of hiking (i.e., an injured person) can miss out. Or let’s say I wanted to see my friend perform acapella on Stony Ledge but I have an upset stomach and can’t hike. Although WOC vans are available, they should be made more accessible than they currently are. I think Williams currently strongly discourages people from taking the van unless they can provide serious medical documentation to do so, but if I just sprained my ankle the day before and have no real documentation about it, I’m therefore barred from participating. From this article, it seems like Justice is asking for is more availability for people to ride the van to Stony Ledge, which isn’t that absurd of a request.

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Person October 19, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Yikes, excuse all the grammatical mistakes

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OP October 19, 2016 at 2:50 pm

She seems more interested in expressing discontent with whatever outdoorsy attitudes prevail here than improving accommodations for people who are physically injured and can’t hike even though they want to. Her opening paragraphs seem to be saying, “It’s not that we’re not helping people participate in mountain day, it’s that mountain day is fundamentally flawed because it assumes hiking a mountain is worthwhile and fun for everyone.” This strikes me as an inconsequential issue compared to other issues at this institution. I really wonder how many people are genuinely distressed that there’s a day where classes are cancelled and they’re encouraged to go hiking. As I was saying, tons of people don’t hike anyways so if you’re choosing not to, nobody is judging you and you shouldn’t feel particularly left out.

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Benno October 19, 2016 at 1:04 pm

“You should not have to produce your entire medical history to ride a van to the top.” I drove/organized the WOC vans up to Stony Ledge for two years while at Williams and then (co-)organized the whole thing one year, and we never turned anyone away. The van was advertised to the community as a service for those who weren’t able to do the hike, but anyone who asked for a spot got a spot, no questions asked.

WOC spends much of its time, energy, and money working to be more inclusive, reach a broader group of students, and collaborate with other campus groups and organizations. This is especially true on Mountain Day.

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'15 October 19, 2016 at 1:24 pm

This correction basically provides the solution to a pretty silly, unnecessary piece. Had the author bothered to check her own assertion about producing “your entire medical history”–and assuming policy has remained consistent since Benno graduated–it would have saved everyone the time of reading this.

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student October 19, 2016 at 1:29 pm

proposed solutions, as far as I can tell:

1.) vans, which exist
2.) an alternate hike, which exists (what is Stone Hill)
3.) doing something that is not Mountain Day

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Bill October 19, 2016 at 2:03 pm

While I agree that there is an inherently ableist component of hiking, to critique mountain day without having done your research is problematic. As a primary point, the 10AM festivities at the top of Stone Hill located behind the Clark provides an easy alternative to the Stony Ledge hikes and offers all of the same programming and attractions. This is the option commonly chosen by facutly with young children, student athletes who cannot hike during their seasons and members of the Williams community with less ability or time for the Stony Ledge activities.
It should also not be ignored that all campus cookout happens on paresky lawn during mountain day, a celebration that is hardly exclusive or prohibitive. This is to the tremendous credit of dining services who do an exceptional amount of hard work to provide food for all hikes in addition to this free cookout for all of campus in close proximity to dorms and accesible areas of campus.
While the stony ledge hikes do offer a variety of difficulties, WOC offers vans to the top for students with injuries, or those simply unable to complete the hikes. There is no “medical record” check and friends who have used this service note that it is welcoming and inclusive. All that is required is a simple email indicating need or interest. While there are, as with all our shared resources at Williams, a limit to the number of vans available, sufficient space has always been offered.
Perhaps the most unfortunate issue here is one of perception. Mountain Day is what one makes of it. Many students sleep in until noon and take the opportunity to get ahead on work, others hang at home with friends and enjoy the day off in their common room. While activities of all kinds are held, they are never mandatory.
There are larger issues of exclusion and inequality in the realm of outdoor sports and leisure. It is impossible to deny that such interests are dominated by the able, white and wealthy (in many cases) who have considerable advantages in accessing the outdoors. This makes the outdoors formidable, daunting and difficult to enjoy for many, an issue that outdoor educators constantly wrestle with and attempt to mitigate and overcome. Mountain day is perhaps the most inclusive event in this arena that I can conceive of. It is of no cost and contains various alternatives to the strenuous activities of the day. You allude to very important bigger issues that need solving, but have chosen the wrong example.

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Mint Shorts October 19, 2016 at 6:42 pm

OK I’m just gonna go through and comment on stuff as I read it…

“Much of the culture at the College enforces body normativity and exercise culture that is deeply unhealthy and alienating to a number of students…”

Of all of the allegedly unhealthy and alienating things at Williams College (prevalence of reefer, alcohol consumption, acapella groups that shouldn’t exist, the entry system), I think one would be hard-pressed to cite ‘exercise culture’ as one of them… This is a rant for another time, though. I will grant that the average person at Williams is much more fit / athletic than the average person at almost any other non-military college / university. In light of the fact that our health care system is already strained by an entirely preventable obesity epidemic, I’d say that we have larger fish to fry (or bake if you wanna be healthy).

“Centuries-old traditions have not automatically transformed themselves to best suit our current wants and needs. ”

That’s what’s so great about Mountain Day! It forces all you GOD-DAMNED millennials to put down your iPhone 8’s and go climb up a %$&#ing mountain; a timeless tradition that even the stinky grouchy WASPs of the 19th century could appreciate! Maybe on such a hike, some stoned sophomore might have a beautiful epiphany about how vast the world is, eventually causing him to sign up for Williams Mystic and ditch the dreaded ECON major.

“At the root of my discomfort with this tradition is the expectation that all people can and want to hike a mountain…”

Wait, was that an expectation? I thought that the expectation was that we were all too hungover to climb up a mountain to hear acapella groups perform. Where were you for Mountain Day 2K15? I was in my bed, sleeping.

“and the implication that if you cannot or do not want to, that makes you less of a part of the College community.”

Maybe the problem here isn’t Mountain Day, but rather that people want so badly to be a part of the Williams community that they are willing to hike up a mountain and sit through acapella group performances in order to feel some sort of collective effervescence. Speaking of which, I wasn’t featured on an I Am Williams poster… does this mean I’m not part of the Williams Community?

“it is not appropriate for the College to pass judgment on our bodies and our choices in any manner”

But wait, when did they pass judgment on our bodies and our choices? Last time I checked, no one really gave two shits that I stayed in my dorm room on multiple Mountain Days.

“There are plenty of ways for us to engage with the outdoors on this annual school holiday that do not necessarily involve hiking, yet such activities are not included in the tradition of Mountain Day.”

Well it is “Mountain” Day after all… I’m sure you played in the snow growing up when your school was cancelled for “Snow days.”

“One, make it easier for students to either drive up the mountain or be driven in some by the Williams Outing Club (WOC).”

I drove to the top (about a 5 minute walk away) my sophomore year. I know people who went with the WOC vans multiple years. Seemed pretty easy to me. I guess I’m privileged in that I had a car, but had someone asked I would have taken them, too.

“it is not the College’s job to tell anyone that climbing a mountain is an essential part of participation in the day”

Still confused about when exactly this has happened in the past…?

“You should not have to produce your entire medical history to ride a van to the top.”

Agreed, did this actually happen to someone? If so, that’s fucked up.

“But every year, I get to the top of the mountain and hear countless people, athletes and non-athletes alike, remarking, “That is not an easy hike.” It turns off and turns away countless people who want to participate in this tradition but who don’t want to struggle up the mountain.”

“Nobody who ever gave [his / her / their / zir / per] best ever regretted it” -George Halas
Yeah, okay, the hike is hard. Is that a bad thing? I have a hard time believing that these people truly regretted hiking to the top of a mountain. After all, the way back down is a lot less strenuous, and the view is nice. There are some great psychology experiments about (can I even say this here???) hazing and how it can promote a sense of community; no pain, no gain.

“Three, perhaps, instead of the mountains being the center of the day, there could be more events that are on campus.”

I think I speak for everyone when I say that the best part of Mountain Day is going off campus for something other than a party at Meadow…

“Maybe something involving art, such as nature photography, free-drawing at different picturesque locations around campus or writing nature-inspired poetry.”

But wait! I SUCK at art! I’m so bad at it! It is not the College’s job to tell anyone that free-drawing at different picturesque locations around campus is an essential part of participation in the day. If this happens, then I, and others like me, will be alienated (for better or worse).

” Or perhaps it could be structured more like the Lehman Center’s Day of Service. WOC could bus people to different places to work in mini trail crews.”

Not a bad idea, but to be honest I’d rather just hike the mountain, eat the donuts and leave. I’m doing enough work every other day at Williams…

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Person October 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm

This comment is so on point. Thank you for articulating (humorously, nonetheless) the reasons this article is striking every level-headed reader as wacky and immature. What an embarrassment the record even considered publishing this.

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Student 2 October 20, 2016 at 7:34 pm

Like Benno, I was once in charge of driving students to the top of Stony Ledge. I did not turn away a single person and I definitely did not ask for anyone’s “entire medical history.” WOC is not perfect, and definitely has a long way to go before it is fully inclusive, but it (mostly Scott) does a very good job of allowing anyone who wants to participate. Whether it involves having 4 vans available for Stony Ledge or running the 10am hike up Stone Hill (if you can walk to class you can walk up stone hill), WOC has taken measures to make Mountain Day extremely accessible for those who wish to participate. Even with these measures of inclusivity, on a busy year typically only half of the student body chooses to participate.

To address another point in the article, if there is interest in other activities on campus, then other groups and organizations are more than welcome to lead those. The Outing Club should not be expected to lead non-outdoor activities just as A Capella groups are not be expected to accommodate non-singers. Should the art department, clubs, or even individuals want to create additional programming, WOC would likely encourage them to do so. To expect WOC to do that on their own, however, is unreasonable.

This article was not properly researched and acknowledges neither the limitations nor the hard work of WOC and its role in putting on Mountain Day. While Williams as a whole does need to address issues of accessibility, this is not the proper way to address this. This essay illustrates the arm-chair activism rampant on this campus.

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