Lauren R. Stevens: Wiliams: Have snow, hill, will ski on it


WILLIAMSTOWN — Where does a college a bit south of northern New England ski? In Williams' case, a football field, a cemetery, a dairy farm, the Thunderbolt on Mount Greylock, three downhill ski areas, a mountain hollow and a bit north in southern Vermont.

In February of 1915, 10 students held ski and snowshoes dashes on (then) Weston Field, even constructing a 1.5-foot jump. The founding of the Outing Club next year led to the school's first winter sports competition, with Colby, in 1917. With the arrival from Dartmouth in 1919 of Prof. Albert Licklider, the search for a suitable ski site became more frantic. In 1920 it was Williamstown's West Main Street cemetery, where a ski relay was held. In 1934, Williams hired Jim Parker as its first coach for the burgeoning sport of skiing.

Gradually colleges like Middlebury, Dartmouth and the University of New Hampshire began to hold ski competitions, home and away. Call them carnivals. Williams hosted at Sheep Hill, Art and Ella Rosenburg's steep dairy farm on Cold Spring Road. Then the college held the first Eastern downhill competition on the Thunderbolt Trail, which Richard Durrance of Dartmouth won in 2 minutes 48 seconds. Williams' Tom Clements came in a second later, possibly because, although both men fell near the top, Clements paused to search for his glasses.

Depending on the snow cover, Williams ran collegiate races on the Thunderbolt from the late `30s through the early `40s. Compared to the 500-foot drop at Sheep Hill, the Thunderbolt descends 2,175 feet in 1.6 miles. Skiing there paused during World War II and, afterwards, could not compete with ski lifts and snowmaking — until reawakened by backcountry skiing, organized by the Thunderbolt Ski Runners.

Parker returned and guided Williams to a rare victory in its own Winter Carnival, in 1950. Ralph Townsend had skied against Williams for New Hampshire in 1942. He then joined the 10th Mountain Division, fighting in Cimon della Piella, Italy, where he was wounded and told he would never ski again. He upset that prediction by returning to UNH to ski against Williams in 1947 and '49, as well as skiing for the U.S. in the '48 Olympics and in the 1950 International Ski Federation Nordic races.

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Within five years of being hired in 1950 he advanced Williams to the NCAA division 1, moved jumping to the Mount Greylock Ski Club's wooden tower in Goodell Hollow and the cross country to Savoy Mountain State Forest. In 1960 he persuaded the college to acquire land on Berlin Mountain for Alpine events, including a 25-meter practice jump and a 45-meter competition jump. The site was named for him, although soon to be abandoned. This was the era of Williams' greatest all-around skier, Dave Rikert who, as all skiers did through the `60s, competed in both Alpine and Nordic events. Townsend retired in 1972.

The arrival of women in that year soon led to a Division 1 women's team; in 1983 the NCAA began combining men's and women's scores. In 1980, Alpine and Nordic skiing moved to Brodie Mountain, to take advantage of snowmaking. After Brodie closed in 2002, Alpine moved to Jiminy Peak, while Nordic began to race at Prospect Mountain, in Woodford, Vermont. The NCAA had dropped jumping, as many of the Midwestern teams had no access to jumps.

Williams hosts collegiate competition at Carnival every other year now, 2019 being an off winter, although Carnival events will take place on campus. Alpine skiers train at Jiminy. Last year Bennington and Williamstown residents and Williams alumni formed the Prospect Mountain Association to purchase that ski area and stabilize a location for Williams Nordic skiing, as well as, when required, for Mount Greylock Regional High School and Mount Anthony Union High School. Although Prospect doesn't make snow, yet, its base elevation of 2,250 feet and location in a southern Vermont snow belt provide unusually good snow conditions. Perhaps Williams skiing has found locations to last as long as the snow does.

At least that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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