Ode to Oak Hill.

Ruff Patterson.

Alice Bradley, Katie Bono, and I (l to r) skiing at Oak Hill last year. Photo: Ruff Patterson.

After traveling around the country for ski races over the holidays, it was great to come home to Hanover. For the first time in years, there has been consistent snow through December and January, and Oak Hill is a wonderland. It’s some of the best skiing I’ve ever seen in town.

I would like to say that I grew up skiing at Oak Hill, but I didn’t. I grew up on touring skis in my grandparents’ woods in Lyme, where there is a small trail system groomed by Mike Smith. As an elementary school student, the trails there seemed endlessly long.

When I started ski racing my sophomore year of high school (thanks to peer pressure), I found out that skis were made for more than walking on: you could glide! I began training on the 5k loop at Garipay Field and the 15k system at Oak Hill. Although I still do easy training at my grandparents’ house once or twice a year, it’s just for fun; we rarely race on such small trails.

Learning to ski at Oak Hill was an adventure. One of the first things people mention about Oak Hill is the technical downhill corners. Some people I know have hit trees or skied off the trail on the S-turns coming down from the 10k; I’ve been spared that fate so far.

In the beginning, it was because I was timid. I remember one Saturday that first year when my friend Julia Schwartzman made me ski the S-turns coming down from the 10k, over and over, probably ten times, so that I would stop being terrified of them.

Now, they don’t scare me, and I can make it down with the best of them. In practice, we sometimes race from the top all the way to the stadium, or that’s what it feels like at least, trying new lines and seeing how far we can lean into the corners.

The other thing people mention about Oak Hill, of course, is the uphill. Switchbacks cut across the old alpine trails and wind up and up. Then there’s the outback loop, which isn’t actually very long but has a monster climb.

I remember once in high school I watched a Dartmouth carnival race, a 15k skate, and the girls were suffering up the switchbacks, complaining to the spectators about how hard it was. The Dartmouth girls, of course, were doing fine.

Our coach, Cami Thompson, made us ski the whole 5k loop without poles once. So when we race there, the hills don’t seem so bad. If you can ski them without poles, then when you have poles, you’d better be able to catch that girl up ahead.

We have a definite home course advantage on the whole course: the uphills, the downhills, and the way they go together. We know where we can recover on the switchbacks, we know exactly when they’ll be over, and we can make up time on the downhills. The men do workouts on the outback loop so that when they get there in a race, they can make a break and drop the competition.

It’s too bad that with the snow conditions over the last few years, we had a three-year period where Dartmouth carnival was held at other venues. We did fine for ourselves, but we didn’t have the advantage or the satisfaction of winning on our home course in front of our home spectators.

Because, in my seventh year, Oak Hill really is home. When we leave college carnivals on Saturday afternoons, we know that we have to do a long ski the next morning. I look forward to it. Skiing the familiar terrain can cheer me up if I’ve had a bad race, and it’s like a victory lap if the weekend was good to me.

One day on our long ski, I came across Katie Bono sitting in the trail. This isn’t our usual practice activity, so I asked her what she was doing. For her Environmental Studies class, students were supposed to sit outside and write about their relationship with the natural world around them. The back loop seemed like the perfect place to her.

Another time, Hannah Dreissigacker was lying the middle of trail. She was tired and thought she might rest.

Did I mention that Oak Hill is our home?

When I got back from Alaska last Friday, I put on my skis and was very excited to get out on the trails. It completely escaped me that the freshmen had never skied in Hanover before – fall term ended and we left for ski camp before the trails were skiable.

I started out of the stadium, cutting up to the switchbacks rather than starting the 10k or the 5k loop. Steph Crocker began skiing the wrong way up the trail leading into the stadium.

“Steph!” I shouted. “The trails here are one-way!”

“OK,” she said, and kept skiing.

“No, one way the other way!”

There’s a lot of learning to be done your first time at Oak Hill. Another freshman, Nancy Dietman, is from Minnesota, where hills are not so technical. She is a tentative skier. We predicted, “Oh, Nancy, you are NOT going to like Oak Hill!”

We have exhorted her to wedge instead of snowplowing, and to step the turns instead of wedging. Keep your hands in front of you, Cami always says.

When I asked her about her first impressions of Oak Hill, Nancy said, “Ouch!” But she’s learning. I don’t think she loves Oak Hill – the downhill corners have already sent her flying and broken one of her skis – but maybe she’s getting used to it. Maybe by the time she graduates, she’ll feel as at home there as I do.

But I have a three year head start on everyone else, so maybe not.

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