Free Snow Bowl passes bring long lines and new faces

By Florence Wu

Van Barth
Hundreds flocked to the Snow Bowl the Saturday after the college announced that skiing and rentals would be free for Middlebury students this semester.

Middlebury is offering all students free skiing at the Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center during the spring term — including free single-day gear rentals on a first-come, first-serve basis. 

Skiing and rentals for students will remain free until the end of the ski season, which will likely be around March 28, according to Mike Hussey, director of the Snow Bowl and Rikert.

“The decision [to offer free skiing] came from the college administration. We have talked about it for quite a bit over the past few months,” Hussey said. “With the students not being able to ski all winter, the feeling was it would be nice to give them the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors even while on campus.”

After the program was announced, the Bowl saw around 650 students come up to the slopes on the first day alone. On the following Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, roughly 100 students came every day, according to Hussey.

“I’ve always known the Bowl as a place where I really feel at home, and I am really close to the staff. It provided me a way to escape the monotony of a virtual J-Term,” said Jackson Evans ’22, a ski instructor who stayed at Middlebury over J-Term. “The Bowl felt like a place for community gatherings. It was a refreshing way to see the community come back together again after so long.”

To limit crowding and allow for contact tracing, both the Bowl and Rikert require students to make a reservation to ski. Skiers are encouraged to ride lifts with those with whom they shared transportation to the Bowl. 

Budget cuts 

A decrease in ticket sales and cuts in funding from the college during the pandemic has created financial challenges for the Bowl, but Hussey is positive that the Bowl will be able to navigate these difficulties. 

“Our day ticket and student pass sales are down, but in conjunction with that, we also trimmed our staffing down quite a bit and are watching our expenses,” he said. “Overall, I think we are going to be OK. There will still be a loss, but I think we are going to be better than some years in the past.”

The Bowl hired fewer seasonal workers this year, but no full-time employees were cut. Hussey believes that such budget cuts and financial challenges have been felt across the board among other departments of the institution, as it had been a difficult year financially for the college. 

However, he reaffirmed the college’s willingness to keep the Bowl open and running.

“[The effort] is a strong commitment by the college to support the community,” Hussey said. “It makes sure that community members have a place to ski, be outdoors and get a breath of fresh air.”

Long lines for rentals

The popularity of the new program created long rental lines at the Bowl, especially last Saturday. 

Hussey acknowledged the bottleneck at the rental shop but said he and other Snow Bowl staff have been exploring ways to reduce wait times, including getting students to fill out forms ahead of time and creating a separate line for people with ski lesson appointments.

Hussey also said that managing the line and base camp operation has been challenging this season because visitors are not allowed inside the lodge except to use the bathrooms and purchase grab-and-go food.

Cynthia Chen ’22, who went to Rikert last week to try cross country skiing for the first time, reported a more streamlined experience.

“The whole rental process was super fast,” Chen said. “It’s surprisingly not crowded at Rikert. For me, it’s a really big space; even on all the different trails it never felt crowded.”

New(ish) faces on the slope

Hussey is especially glad to see more first-years and sophomores — especially first-timers — hit the slopes. 

“It’s way too often that we see seniors and it’s their first time coming to the Bowl,” he said. “It’s a nice shift to see the first-year and second-year students coming in and understanding that the ski area is up here and it’s a fun place to be.”

Evans believes that while the volume of turnouts has increased, the general demographics of skiers at Middlebury remain relatively uniform. 

“The free skiing encouraged more people to go to the Bowl, though they are usually from the similar demographic that would usually go skiing — the fairly wealthy, white, outdoorsy people who have previously experienced skiing,” he said.

In a March 11 email from the Dean of Students, the college outlined transportation options for students to get to Rikert and the Bowl, including the Snow Bowl Shuttle that has been popular in previous years. Many students with access to private cars have chosen to take them because of the limited lodge access and storage, as well as concerns about Covid-19 transmission.

“All the innovations that have happened in the last couple of years to do the J-term ski lessons have brought a really great group of people to the Bowl, but the fact that it didn’t exist this semester made it difficult for a lot of people who would’ve needed financial assistance for rentals and lessons,” he said.