The “Febs” were out in full force this year, the most ever.
Donning traditional caps and gowns — along with unique commencement regalia like helmet cams, scarves, goggles and ski pants — 190 Middlebury College mid-year graduates gathered at the top of the Snow Bowl on Feb. 5 for their highly anticipated Graduation Ski Down.
It has been a tradition at Middlebury for four decades — going straight from the commencement stage to the chairlift — and this winter’s Class of ’21.5 was quite a bit larger than normal due to students taking various semesters off during COVID.
Eighteen inches of new snow didn’t hurt attendance either.
Many who participate each year are accomplished skiers, while many others have never even tried the sport. One recent graduate aptly described the tradition as a metaphor for his college career: It started out slowly, picked up some speed, overcame a couple of rough patches, and finally coasted to a nice, easy finish.
It isn’t your typical graduation procession, nor is the oft-overlooked Middlebury Snow Bowl your typical ski area. The Graduation Ski Down illustrates how fundamental the Snow Bowl and its neighboring Rikert Nordic Center are to campus life. But it also illustrates a common confusion.
“The single, biggest misconception is that the Snow Bowl and Rikert are just for Middlebury College students and staff,” said Mike Hussey, general manager for both the nordic center and the Snow Bowl — both of which are owned and operated by the college. “Both Middlebury College ski areas — and the golf course — are open to the public and have been for their existence.”
The first trails were cut for skiing in the Hancock, Vt., area in the 1930s and opened in 1936 as a featured part of Middlebury College’s Winter Carnival.
“It is one of the oldest ski areas in Vermont,” Hussey said. “Stowe and Pico opened in 1934, the Snow Bowl and Bromley opened in 1936. It is also one of the eight oldest in the country. There were seven ski areas opened in the country by the end of 1935, and the Snow Bowl opened in 1936, along with nine other ski areas. Middlebury College and the Snow Bowl were part of the inception of collegiate carnival ski competition.”
The Snow Bowl also features the oldest existing base lodge/cabin in the country, built in 1938 by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps using trees that had been cut to clear the first trails. The cabin served as the base lodge until the current Snow Bowl lodge was completed in 1962. Currently unused, it was dedicated as Hubbard Cabin in 2004 to honor the college’s first ski coach, Richard Hubbard, a member of Middlebury’s Class of 1936 who joined alongside the CCC to help build the structure.
Another unique feature at the Snow Bowl is its ski patrol, one of the longest-running patrols in the country. Established in 1946, the patrol is staffed 100 percent by Middlebury College students, with the exception of the director and assistant director positions. It is a highly competitive in-class and on-snow process for students to be named to the patrol, which is certified by the National Ski Patrol and Vermont EMS.
With a summit elevation of 2,720 feet and 1,000 feet of vertical, the Snow Bowl today offers boundary-to-boundary access to 600 skiable acres, including 17 trails and some of Vermont’s best woods skiing. Three chairs — Worth Mountain Triple, Sheehan Double and Bailey Falls Triple — service the area, along with a carpet in the Discovery Zone learning area.
In 2018, major improvements were made to the snowmaking system, with the addition of approximately 100 new energy-efficient HKD tower snowguns and switching from diesel compressed air to electric compressed air. “We decreased air consumption by nearly 50 percent and reduced our diesel fuel consumption by nearly 90 percent,” Hussey said.
“Other recent capital improvements include a new snow cat with Tier 4 technology (reduced emissions), rebuilt snowmaking pumps, upgraded snowmaking feed pipes and valving, point-of-sale system in all retail departments, and reconfiguration of the lodge entrance and customer service area,” Hussey said.
In 2013, an $850,000 snowmaking system was installed along the Rikert Nordic Center’s FIS-certified 5K course created to host the NCAA championships that year. When installed, the 20 HKD guns were the most extensive snowmaking system of its type among any nordic center in North America. In total, Rikert offers 55 kilometers of skate and classic skiing, snowshoeing and fat-biking.
The road less traveled
Sandwiched in the Green Mountains, smack in the middle of some of Vermont’s bigger and better-known ski areas — Killington/Pico to the south, Sugarbush and Mad River Glen to the north — the Snow Bowl is unrivaled in what it will cost for a family to ski there. Adults can grab a weekday lift ticket at the window for $40 on weekdays or $60 on weekends. Season passes run as low as $349 for adults and $340 for juniors.
Completely independent, the ski area has the flexibility to promote families skiing together with ticketing options like the shared parent/guardian pass. The pass is designed for parents who need to keep an eye on small children. Parent 1 can ski or ride while Parent 2 watches the little ones. Then they can switch the pass … sharing the skiing and the responsibility.
The area is open Wednesday through Sunday and closed on Monday and Tuesday, when the focus shifts to snowmaking, grooming and other operational maintenance.
“On a decent Saturday, we will see somewhere between 500 and 600 skiers,” Hussey said. “They are predominantly from this area — Addison County — but we are seeing a strong uptick from the surrounding counties as well. There is also a strong contingent of Middlebury College students, which is also gaining momentum each year.”
January will typically swell with students, as ‘J-term’ is a popular semester to be at the Snow Bowl. “J-term is an exciting time at the Snow Bowl with students,” Hussey said. “As a means of receiving a physical education credit, students may sign up for J-Term ski lessons. These lessons are taught by a mix of Snow Bowl Snow School staff and student instructors. We also have students working in all aspects of mountain operations as work/study employees.”
With the Snow Bowl in their backyard, both the Middlebury alpine and nordic ski teams have a rich tradition of racing success, not just locally but around the globe. The Panthers boast 99 All-American selections and 10 national champions, while numerous alums have gone on to compete in the Olympic Games, World Championships and on both national and domestic teams.
Current sophomore Ali Nullmeyer competed in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, China, as a member of the Canadian Olympic Team. She placed a career-best fifth in slalom at the World Cup in Zagreb, Croatia, last month and followed that with a sixth-place finish at the World Cup in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia. Junior Michel Macedo also competed in Beijing as a member of Brazil’s Olympic alpine team. He was the best Brazilian in the Youth Olympic Games in 2016 and participated in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Matt Boxler can be reached at email@example.com.