I Try Tuckerman’s.

Nat and Han hiking up to our lunch spot. Photo: Courtney Robinson.

Nat and Han hiking up to our lunch spot. Photo: Courtney Robinson.

Last week I wrote that I wasn’t a bike racer, but I enjoyed a bike race. Well, I’m not an alpine skier either, but I still went to Tuckerman’s Ravine this weekend.

It started something like this: having dinner with friends on Thursday night, they started talking about going to Tucks on Saturday. I wanted to go. Oh man, I wanted to go. But… “I really should work on my thesis, guys. I just don’t think I can go.”

My friends pretty much think that I’m crazy and all this work I’ve been doing is somewhat unnecessary. So they convinced me (it didn’t take much): I hadn’t been to Tuckerman’s in four years at Dartmouth, and this would be my last chance. I could always make up for it by working harder the next day, right?

And so on Saturday morning we shoved our skis in the car and hit the road. The cast of characters included this outgoing ski team captains Hannah Dreissigacker and Courtney Robinson, incoming captain Ida Sargent, senior teammate Sarah Van Dyke and her friend Nate Mazonson, and my old Ford Sayre teammate Natalie Ruppertsberger, who was home from Bates on break.

When we arrived, we ran into more friends: Pete Van Deventer, Lizzy Asher, Katie Ammons, and Zoe Acher. They had driven up the night before to get an early start, but their plan had obviously failed since we all met up around 10.

Natalie, Hannah and I don’t own our own alpine gear, so we had brought nordic skis. As we stood waiting for people to get ready at Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, the AMC staffer came over and asked us if we did this often.

“No,” I replied, “Not really.”

“Well, just be careful. Those skis aren’t really appropriate. You’re not planning on skiing the bowl, are you?”

No, we weren’t. But it seemed to us that anyone who bothered to bring nordic skis probably had, actually, a pretty good idea of what they were doing; it would never occur to an out-of-state novice to bring nordic gear. This was evidenced by how many times we were asked if we were crazy.

As we started up, Pete said, “Less talking, more walking!” which turned out to be his mistake. Natalie and I power-hiked up, passing dozens of people on the highway of a trail. We were aided by the fact that our skis weighed so much less than everyone else’s heavy alpine skis and boots or snowboards. Nonetheless, it was a workout; I guess maybe we are a little competitive with each other! I was drenched in sweat by the time we reached the Hermit Lakes shelters, where we paused for a snack before continuing up into the bowl.

There were so many people. It was overwhelming. Where could we put our packs and eat lunch? Before we even figured this out, someone shouted “Avalanche!” and we watched as a huge section just below the cliffs come tumbling down as people sprinted out of the way. It ran out before it reached us, but we still retreated towards the scrubby trees.

We decided to climb up to some rocks on the right side of the ravine, high above the “Lunch Rocks”. It was a steep hike, and I wondered a few times, “how am I going to get down from here?” But I put these thoughts on hold.

We sat in the sun eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, slapping on sunscreen and watching people tackle the headwall. It was probably sixty degrees and not a cloud in the sky; I could have sat on those rocks forever, although I would have ended up with quite a suburn.

It was amazing the risks people were taking. We saw a guy break his femur. While he was being helped, not a minute after his crash, a snowboarder attempted the same line and carwheeled all the way down; I don’t understand how his neck wasn’t broken. “Look at those knuckleheads,” Natalie said. It made me nervous, even though of course I wouldn’t be trying anything nearly as dangerous. I just thought of how unpleasant it would be to be carried out from Tuckerman’s on a stretcher – it’s a long, jolting way down.

After lunch, half the group bootpacked up to the summit so they could ski in the Great Gulf, where it was less crowded. The three of us with nordic skis stayed in the bowl, hiking and sliding our way down through the rocks and scrub to the bottom. Sarah and Ida hiked over the rocks to the Right Gully, and skied down from there.

Hannah, Natalie and I decided to tackle the left side of the bowl. We hiked up to a set of rocks below the Chute, and looked down. It was steep, but not too steep (not compared to the terrain I foolishly attempted to ski in Colorado this summer…); the difficulty was more that the snow was heavy, thick slush, and there wasn’t much chance we could push it around with our skinny, light skis.

Hannah tackled the problem by doing telemark turns. They weren’t the as graceful as turns on real telemark skis, and she fell every once in a while, but they worked. She was having fun.

As for me, well, I can’t do tele turns. As far as I could see, this left me only one option: jump turns. The first run, I did okay turning to one direction (as long as I didn’t get up too much speed), but the other way I crashed every time. Once we got down to the shallow bottom of the bowl, we could step around the turns and go faster. It was fun.

We immediately hiked back up to those rocks. People started asking us, so what trick are you going to do this time? We would smile and laugh and say we didn’t have too many tricks up our sleeves. That time, I think I made it down the whole way down jump-turning without any falls. I was feeling pretty good about myself.

The third time, of course, I was overconfident and fell on almost every turn. But so it goes. We were enjoying ourselves, enjoying the sun, enjoying the atmosphere; there was nothing that could make the day better, it seemed.

And we were sad when, after a few more runs, the time came to leave the bowl and head back down the mountain. Couldn’t we just stay there forever? Did we really have to go back to school? And did Natalie have to go back to Bates? Why couldn’t she just hang out with me all the time? We were exhausted from the sun, and the ride back was quiet. I was just glad I’d had the chance to experience Tuckerman’s once before I graduated.

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I try cycling.

Like many seniors, I have a mental list of things to do this spring, and I don’t mean chores like “apply for degree” or “present thesis”. it’s a list of fun things I have to do now before I run out of time.

Unlike most seniors, one of the things on my list was “do a bike race.” With Dartmouth hosting an Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference event this weekend, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to cross that off my list.

I’m not a bike racer. I’m a ski racer. Biking is my just-for-fun, endurance-but-not-on-the-training-plan activity. Like my teammates who tried their hands in Saturday’s team time trial and criterium, I didn’t train for this; I had been been on six rides before the race, and I hadn’t done anything aerobically taxing since my last ski race of the season.

I was also worried about riding in a “peloton”, since my bike handling skills are less than impressive. What if I caused a giant wreck or something?

And yet I found myself on Route 5 at 9 o’clock Sunday morning, cruising along with 40 other women. We were all chatting and laughing – I talked with my teammates, with Jennie Bender, a standout UVM skier who was doing her first bike race and didn’t even have clipless pedals, and with a nice girl from Colby who was impressed we rollerskied on the bad roads.

The pack periodically rearranged itself, but this was the first thing I noticed that was very different from skiing: for the first third of the race, nobody was racing. At all.

That would change. We rode up into Norwich, through town, and out Union Village Road. The pack collectively sighed and hunkered down, thinking, here come the hills… And come they did. There is nothing like a good hill to break up a pack (apparently). As girls dropped back, I found myself just out of the top 10, chasing a breakaway led by next year’s ski team captain Ida Sargent and Bates skier Caitlin Curran.

We were pretty strung out as we passed Maple Hill Road, and we certainly weren’t appreciating the scenery. By the time we got to Goodrich 4 Corners, I had joined a chase pack of five – two Army girls and two other Dartmouth racers, including outgoing ski team captain Courtney Robinson – in hot pursuit of the six-person lead pack.

Going up that last steep, the one with the “8% grade” sign, I panicked for a second. I was killing myself, and this was only halfway through the race! How was I going to do this a second time around? Then, unusually, I put that out of my mind and kept chasing. If I blew up later, well, I’d deal with it then.

We set up a paceline on Route 132, riding towards the river, but we were exhausted from the hills. We were working hard but staying exactly the same distance behind the leaders.

And then, as we turned onto Route 5 again, they came back to us. I have seldom been so relieved in a race as when I hooked onto the back of the lead pack and finally stopped pedaling for a few seconds. No more chase.

Unfortunately, the reason we had caught the leaders was that they had slowed down, and before long, the main pack engulfed our group. Another thing I don’t understand about bike racing: why work so hard when you’re just going to let everyone catch you anyway? In skiing, if you get a break, you live and die trying to keep it.

In any case, I enjoyed the recovery pace for a few miles, because I knew as soon as we hit the hills again the chase would be back on. And sure enough, when we looped back through Norwich and were deposited at the bottom of the hill, Ida took off again.

The field strung out, but I found myself with more or less the same chase pack I had been with on the last lap. Going up the hills, and down them, we weren’t consciously pacelining; instead, we were all going as hard as we could, and if that put us in the front of the pack, great, but sometimes it put us on the back.

The sensation in your legs which comes as a result of riding up long hills as hard as you can is pretty unique. I don’t think I’ve felt quite the same burn in any other sport. I kept imagining that it would be easier to stand up, but after three or four pedals I found myself back in the saddle. My legs had accumulated too much junk.

To finish, we had to cross the covered bridge below the Union Village Dam and ride up Academy Road, no easy task. At the bottom of the hill, I did something I’m usually ashamed of: I switched into my granny gear.

Going by Burnham Road, I was still riding with the two Army girls, and the rest of our pack had disappeared behind us. I warned them that the pavement was terrible.

I think that was the last time I thought of them for the next few minutes. Going up that hill, this is what I thought: this is the end. I have to keep my momentum going. Switch gears.

Yeah, that’s all. My head was empty. I felt like I was riding fast, maybe because I was passing the stragglers from the men’s race which had started 10 minutes before us. It’s perhaps the most competitively absorbed I’ve ever been in my life, a lesson I hope I can take back to skiing!

500 meters from the finish the Army girls passed me, working together. I tried to follow them but couldn’t. My legs were blocks of lactic acid. Dave Lindahl and his children were on the side of the road, shouting, “Go Dartmouth! This is your hill! You know this!” And I thought, no, this is not my hill.

With nobody close behind me, I was happy to forgo a sprint finish. I rolled across and saw Caitlin and Ida, and Courtney rolled in a minute behind me. After a few minutes we did a short cool-down, trying to spin the lactic acid out of our legs. Ida had ended up second to the Colby girl, Jennie 4th, Caitlin 5th, and I was 8th. That put four skiers in the top 8. Not bad for a sport we don’t train for or, really, understand.

Then Courtney and I spent the afternoon at various intersections, acting as course marshals for the afternoon races. We mostly soaked up the sun and reveled in the spring weather.

I had so much fun that I considered racing the next weekend at MIT. But I decided not to. For one thing, I want to keep this memory of how fun bike racing is, and I don’t want to ruin it. But this is just part of a larger idea: biking is the only sport I do where I’m not focused on competing. I want to keep it as something I always think is fun.

This weekend, mission accomplished.

The last supper

Senior nordies on the Skiway porch: (l-r) Audrey Weber, Courtney Robinson, Chelsea Litle, Sarah Van Dyke, Hannah Dreissigacker.

Senior nordies on the Skiway porch: (l-r) Audrey Weber, Courtney Robinson, Chelsea Litle, Sarah Van Dyke, Hannah Dreissigacker.

Thursday evening, Christine Booker, the women’s alpine coach, had the rare pleasure of driving a bus full of nordic skiers to the Ski-Way. Most of us had showered, and we looked pretty nice; only one athlete was wearing Carhartts, and they were clean. Christine had a pretty good deal.

The occasion was the annual ski team banquet. After hors-d’oeuvres, which mostly consisted of athletes talking to the same people they’d be spending time with on campus, we were served dinner. With my classmates Courtney Robinson and Audrey Weber, I joined Trevor Leafe and Peter Ankeny, freshmen alpine skiers. We told them they were lucky to get to hang out with senior ladies.

After finishing our chicken, pasta, and vegetables, the awards were presented. They ranged from obvious honors like various M.V.P types to more personal ones such as the Schneibs-McCrillis Award for “Skiing as a way of life”, the Class of 1978 Inspiration Award, and the Development Team award.

The presentations were often emotional for the coaches, Christine, Ruff Patterson, Peter Dodge, and Cami Thompson. In explaining how they chose recipients, they invoked stats (Peter cited exactly how many carnival points each of his alpine men scored over the season) and stories from their athletes’ earliest days on the team (Ruff pointed out that Brett Palm never talked as a freshman – how things change!).

When Development Coordinator Martin Benes presented his award, he said that he kind of wanted to take the giant silver cup home and eat Fruit Loops out of it.

Then the results of the voting for captains were announced. In some cases there were surprises, but mostly not: Haley Jones and Tina Roberts were re-elected after doing a great job leading the women’s alpine team, and, Ruff said of Pat O’Brien, “The only one who didn’t vote for this guy was me!” (He was joking.)

After that, there was only one thing left: senior speeches. While some of these speeches are always excellent, by the time ten or fifteen people have gone to the front of the room, they start to blend together. So this year, we nordies decided to do it differently.

All twelve of us went up together. Sean Jones brought his accordion, Max Hopkins grabbed his viola, and Brett had a hand drum. As they played a simple tune, we took turns pronouncing two-sentence summations of our time on the team, handing an old ski around with the speaking privileges.

Hannah Dreissigacker: “Last year, there wasn’t any snow, and the Dartmouth Carnival races were relocated to Stowe. Then it snowed about a foot. During our morning run, we built a snowman in front of the door to Cami’s house so she couldn’t open it. We were excited when Carnival was moved back to Hanover.”

Dakota Blackhorse-von Jess: “I’ve had a lot of nicknames over the years, but my favorite is from Ruff: Bam-Bam.”

Sean: “Ruff says, ‘We’re not here for a good time, we’re here for a long time.’ Well, I was here for a short time, and I had a great time.”

Sarah Van Dyke: “One time, it snowed two feet and we skied right out of Robinson Hall for practice. It was the best ski of the year.”

I said: “Cami, I’m really sorry for all the times I skipped yoga this fall. I promise I’ll make it up next year.”

Pavel Sotskov: “I think you all know that when I got here I was Russian. Well, now have my American citizenship. It’s been great to be on this team; nobody will ever tell me again, ‘For you, deefrint sport!'”

Hannah: “At our first captain’s practice sophomore year, we went to the rope swing in Pine Park. I fell in the shallow water and hyperextended my knee, and my teammates took turns carrying me piggyback all the way back to campus.”

Sarah: “As Cami always says, make sure you get in a really good warm-up, and if you’re doing a marathon, you should make sure to gorge yourself for a week first…”

Courtney Robinson had three pieces of advice: “First, bonk. You all carry anti-bonk, but you can’t appreciate it until you know what it’s like at the bottom. Second, when you fall when you’re rollerskiing, break your fall with your hands rather than your chin, although it is fun to have the same doctor stitch you up twice. Finally, jump in the river after morning practice.”

Brett: “When I got here, at the first team meeting, we had to say our names, where we were from, and an interesting fact. I was really worried about thinking of an interesting fact, so when it came to me, I said, ‘I’m Brett, I’m from Sheboygan [chorus: ‘where!’], and skiing is the best sport.'”

Dakota: “Another Ruff-ism, and I think this is particularly applicable given how this year went: Enough of this ****, I WANT MEDALS!”

Hannah: “Ruff, is there hope?” [NO]

Glenn: “Ruff, there is always hope!”

Finally, Max and Sean talked about how the ski team runs on R.S.T., or Ruff Standard Time, which is different than the time you find on most clocks. If you are late (even if you are on time by your own watch), you get told, “You’re late!” or, occasionally, you get left behind. In honor of R.S.T., they broke into a rendition of “Clocks” by Coldplay.

And that was it. Our time on the Dartmouth Ski Team had run out. Martin drove us back to campus for old times’ sake, doing a few laps around the roundabout before depositing us at Robinson Hall one last time.

Back to the Grindstone

With the ski season over, there’s only one event left in my Dartmouth career where there will be spectators. Well, two if you count graduation. But I was thinking of was my thesis defense in the ecology department: The Effect of Soil Metals on Pollination of Subalpine Wildflowers.

I don’t know when it is yet, but I am going to do a great job. The specter of possibly not doing a good job is guaranteeing it.

There were many occasions this winter that I did not rise to, the most important being Nationals, the Stowe SuperTours, Dartmouth Carnival. But a skier can do everything right to prepare for a race, and it can still go wrong. You can spend a year preparing for race season, but training hours are not linearly correlated to results. And in fact, their effect differs greatly from athlete to athlete. There are too many confounding variables.

It’s one of the mysteries of athletics: how two competitors who did the same preparation can get different results. And then the next year, the tables can be turned.

Academics, to me, seems a little more straightforward. It is usually pretty clear what you have to do to succeed, and you know exactly how close to being done you are. Working hard now will have a direct effect on how well I do in my defense.

Yes, people will ask me questions which take me by surprise, which I was not expecting to answer, which maybe I will do a bad job answering. But at least I should have a good sense going in about whether I’m well-prepared or not.

And so I am creating contingency tables for whether sample mass and run order affected detection of metals in my plant tissues.

I am feverishly learning how to analyze nested and crossed variables with the statistical software I bought, and repeatedly asking my statistics professor for help (he must be getting sick of me).

I am reading more and more papers – each useful one seems to have five new references I should check, which in turn have three more new references, et cetera, et cetera.

I am trying to use my statistical software and Microsoft Excel to make graphs, tables, and figures, which always takes an incredibly frustrating amount of time.

The thesis holds an interesting place in Dartmouth culture. Unfortunately, it’s often a culture of holing up in the library and becoming a social recluse. Many people attempt theses; those who don’t pity us and say something like “I’m glad I’m not spending my senior spring doing that!”

Why do so many people want to do this despite the fact that they have spent three years watching senior friends stress out in their last spring? Well, we’re Dartmouth students. We got in here. We’re pretty smart and we’re pretty well organized. Somehow, all of us look at the poor souls holed up at their desks and think, “I could be more organized that that. It wouldn’t be so bad for me.”

And despite the fact that some people inevitably think that athletes are only here for sports, avoid hard classes, and are lousy students, we don’t evade the thesis any more than the general population. We accept the challenge. After all, we’re used to testing what we can do, and we obviously expect a lot from ourselves. There are at least four of five nordic skiers working on senior projects right now.

But everyone, athletes and otherwise, end up stressed and scrambling during in the last few weeks, even though we were sure we could do a better job managing our time than the last year’s seniors. I only know one person who finished his thesis well ahead of its due date. I don’t know how he did it.

At dinner last night I wondered out loud whether every thesis was good. After all, just attempting a thesis doesn’t make you a good student.

As my friend Mark Davenport replied, “There seems to be sentiment here that, by taking on a big project or responsibility, a person automatically will ‘rise to the occasion.’ When really, what makes rising to the occasion such a big deal is that most people don’t. So if you take for granted success, you’re either being overconfident, or you’re mistaking something trivial for a challenge.”

I think I was as prepared for my thesis as any other student. I got the idea for my project a year before I started fieldwork, and I had plenty of time to prepare. I had abundant resources, both in grants from the college, my advisor’s funding, the support of the field station where I worked, and a very full complement of professors and researchers willing to consult on the project.

But just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I realized how much work it was going to be. I didn’t realize how many steps backwards I would be taking for every step forward. I didn’t realize that multiple times, I would want to break down crying as my analysis fell apart in front of my eyes.

This morning, I listened to my statistics professor tell me, “If you have nested data and your replicates are not balanced – you don’t have the same number in all parts of your study – then it’s a nightmare. I think you’re in nightmare mode.”

I am? Shoot, and I didn’t even know it. Back to the drawing board.

But no worry. Somehow, I’ll be ready when I have to defend myself.