Loose Footing

Ragged Mountain stands in a dramatic ridgeline that arcs across Connecticut. It offers a long, challenging hiking trail, some of the most extensive rock climbing in the state, and a view of the vibrant foliage, shimmering lakes, and church steeples of rural New England. It seems a world away from New Haven, yet Yalies can reach the ridgeline in forty minutes—if they have a car. This fall, after a failed scramble for transportation, the undergraduate group Yale Outdoors was forced to cancel plans for a day hike to Ragged Mountain, disappointing the thirteen students who had signed up for the trip. Of all the forest, trail, and river systems in the New Haven area, only East and West Rock are accessible by foot, bike, or public bus. For undergraduate outdoor organizations, most notably Yale Outdoors and the Yale Climbing Club, no car means no hike.

Tired of such let-downs, Eli Bildner DC ’10, Spencer Gray TC ’09, and Bo White FES ’09 are mobilizing outdoor groups and pushing for change. Since outdoor activities require more funds than the average undergrad group, keeping them “separate from the central workings of the college is not particularly well suited to producing good outdoor life,” Bildner explains. He, Gray, and White—representing, respectively, Yale Outdoors, the Climbing Club, and the Forestry School’s 100% Club—hope to persuade the University to support the centralization of outdoor life at Yale. “Our vision is to have outdoor life as a separate program, run out of the Yale College Dean’s office, with an endowment and funding,” Bildner explains, outlining the ambitious plan with his characteristic calm. An umbrella group incorporating his, Gray’s, and White’s clubs as well as the popular Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips (FOOT), would facilitate communication between organizations, increase their scope, and allow for a greater emphasis on teaching wilderness skills. Ideally, the umbrella group would have its own space—perhaps even its own building—in which groups could meet and store their gear. This new organization, the three believe, would reduce trip costs, solve transportation issues, and unify the outdoors community on a university-wide level.

Lack of transportation may seem like a minor issue, but it presents a formidable challenge to Yale’s struggling outdoor scene. Transportation costs drain the fiscal resources of every outdoor-oriented organization at Yale. As the University—with the exception of community-service-oriented Dwight Hall—lacks a fleet of vans for student groups to borrow, Yalies are often confronted with a dilemma: shoulder the costs of renting a van or cancel a trip.

And transportation is only part of the problem. Administrators have failed to provide storage space, so FOOT is forced to stash its gear in the Forestry School’s basement and Yale Outdoors in the Berkeley College music room. Unlike many other comparable schools, Yale has no umbrella organization devoted to supporting outdoor activities. To outdoors-minded students like White, “it’s so obvious that Yale lacks a strong outdoor program.” In cold, blustery Hanover, Dartmouth boasts a centralized, university-supported outdoor education program that has achieved national prominence. In urban Boston, MIT facilitates outdoor life through an independent non-profit organization that offers organized expeditions, educational programs, rental vans, and equipment. Even universities with less of an outdoor focus, like Princeton and Penn, manage outdoor life through dedicated offices and provide students with space to meet and store gear, while at Yale, transportation difficulties are symptomatic of a broad lack of institutional support. Like other student organizations, outdoors groups receive just several hundred dollars of Undergraduate Organizing Funding Commitee funding per year, far too little to fund far-away camping trips.

Many students find this situation particularly frustrating given the rich natural environment just beyond New Haven. Yale owns 11,000 acres of New England forest which it uses primarily for research purposes, as well as a 1,500-acre recreational property called the Outdoor Education Center, less than an hour away and replete with cabins, kayaks, and a lifeguard-staffed swimming area. Most undergraduates know little about these resources since they are not made readily available for student use. Yet Yale College students have demonstrated their interest in outdoor life: Almost one in three Yalies chooses to participate in FOOT, one in six applies to be a FOOT leader, and there are seven hundred names on the Yale Outdoors Club’s panlist.

“Outdoor activities certainly, without question, attract a considerable number of our undergraduates,” says Edgar Letriz, acting dean of Yale College and assistant dean of student affairs. But given the outdoor-friendly reputation of schools like Dartmouth and MIT, he suspects that prospective students who are serious about outdoor life might eschew New Haven. “The students who want those kind of experiences enroll in [other] institutions,” he says. But luring this demographic to Yale is not at the top of his priority list, and he imagines bureaucratic difficulties with Bildner’s plan. “They are organizations involved in physical activities, so it would be a proposal best suited to the Athletics department,” he begins, then rethinks his statement. “Although at Yale, athletics is really more about teams. It’s an odd situation. They are not the typical social or political organizations, they’re not teams, so where do they fit into the scheme of things?”

Further complicating the situation, Letriz explains, since outdoors activities span both undergraduate and graduate organizations, “a University effort would have to be addressed through every dean of those schools.” This could take years.

FOOT remains an outrageously popular program, yet its institutional base is surprisingly flimsy. Unlike Cultural Connections and the FreshPerson Conference, it isn’t fully integrated with the Yale College dean’s office. Other than covering trip insurance and helping with budget accounting, the office does little to smooth FOOT’s path. The program supports most of its costs by charging participating freshmen and manages its logistics through a corps of student organizers. It also relies heavily upon its part-time director, Priscilla “Cilla” Kellert ’74 FES ’81.

“Cilla is the god of FOOT!” exclaims Avani Dholakia TC ’09, a former FOOT coordinator. “She holds the glue of FOOT together between leadership, and she’s the collective memory of the organization.” Involved since the program’s inception, Kellert acts as FOOT’s alumni database, general manager, and collective mother. FOOT even owes its storage space at the Forestry School to Kellert’s husband, a Forestry School professor.

While the umbrella organization that Bildner and White envision would ease FOOT’s dependence upon one individual and make it less expensive for its freshmen participants, FOOT may prefer to maintain its independence. And, according to Letriz, the support of a broad-based group like FOOT might be just what Bildner and White need to get their umbrella organization off the ground. In order for the University to establish a campus-wide Yale Outing Club, he warns, the proposed organization would have to be backed by a majority of the student body. Outdoors groups, he said, must ask themselves: “If you build it, will they come?”

If the history of Yale’s Mountaineering Group is any guide, says White, then the answer is yes. White and Gray have embarked on a mission to revive the now-defunct Mountaineering Club, which they hope to endow with an almost academic philosophy. “At one point,” White says, the club “was the premier mountaineering organization in the US.” Though the club’s reputation faded during the 1960s and ’70s, he explains, the Yale library retains its unusually large collection of mountaineering literature. In the YMC’s glory days, mountaineering was an upper-crust sport, dominated by men with a surplus of money and time; these days, the sport is propelled by commercial and star power, its high-profile participants aiming to conquer the highest terrain in the shortest period of time.

The reincarnated Yale Mountaineering Club, White hopes, would embody both the physical and intellectual sides of mountaineering. “The school might think it’s not academic, but it’s not just a sport—lifestyle and intellect are involved,” he explains. “Precision, risk assessment, cultural sensitivity, conservation, thinking about our relationship to the environment, wilderness philosophy…it can be very intellectual.” On expeditions, White insists, “we should look at social issues, cultural components, and bring back to Yale what we’ve learned.”

This experiential learning is startlingly deficient at a university so focused on environmental sustainability. Armed with its high-profile Sustainable Food Project and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Commitment, the University has hosted state-wide conferences on sustainability and recently sent President Levin to Washington to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Yet somehow, amidst all this green, it can’t seem to muster the resources to send a dozen students out on a day hike.

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