Video: Students stage Norwich’s
premiere Rail Jam on campus quad © March 25, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

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Norwich University has always appealed to winter-sports lovers.

The private military college has long been home to the Mountain Cold Weather Company, which teaches backcountry skiing as a primary skill for winter survival. Students take frequent opportunities to visit the wealth of ski resorts within a half hour’s drive of the Northfield, Vt., campus, and Paine Mountain, a hillside featuring a multitude of ski and snowshoe opportunities, is just across the street.

But snowboarders pulling stunts off a metal rail in front of the math and science complex? That’s a new one.

“Nobody’s really used to seeing a rail-jam competition on campus,” said Corey Hines, president of Norwich’s Ski & Snowboard Club and the primary organizer of the February 2011 event. “It was weird at first. It was different. But it was really exciting when people started to gather.”

The 2011 Rail Jam, where more than 100 students collected to watch 14 competitors test their skills on a narrow rail and wooden box, looked like a spontaneous bit of weekend fun but actually took a lot of work to put together. Long before the first frontside 180 rotation was performed, the contest had been disrupted by weather and [nearly] cancelled over concern about liability issues.

For an event with such a successful debut, the Rail Jam had modest beginnings. Although Norwich’s Rev. William Wick drove van shuttles to nearby Sugarbush Resort on weekends, Hines and roommate Sam LaDuca thought it might be worth it to drum up a larger group of snowboarders, and organize things better. This could lead to more shuttles, more fun and the chance to teach one another.

“We had heard about a ski club, but they didn’t really meet,” said Hines, an engineering management major and Floridian who discovered snowboarding his freshman year.

It was during sophomore year that Hines and LaDuca went before the Student Life Committee and made a case for a formal snowboard club. They were quickly approved, and have since expanded to include traditional alpine skiers.

That first year, the club featured a small, core group of enthusiasts. The next year, things seemed to take off with more than 100 new members. Hines and LaDuca began planning their first Rail Jam as a way to celebrate the club and spark enthusiasm. Unfortunately, nature decided not to cooperate.

“The weather was just horrible,” said Hines. “There was no snow to do anything.”

The winter of 2010/11 was more accommodating, and he and a few others resumed working on the Rail Jam, which turned out to be quite a project. In addition to permission from Norwich, they had to seek out sponsorship help to buy prizes, a snowboard to raffle and T-shirts that would help them raise money for the club. Fortunately, several local winter sports shops and Norwich’s Office of Substance Abuse Education offered support. Sugarbush even loaned them the box, which Hines said weighed four- or five-hundred pounds, and was a pretty big project to haul onto the quad. On event day, he and a team of about eight volunteers worked for several hours shoveling to get things just right.

“Luckily for us, it was warm that day,” he said. “There was plenty of snow; plenty of snow.”

There was one final hurdle, however: Last-minute concern that the Rail Jam might not be safe and presented a liability problem threatened to shut things down. Fortunately, club advisor Meghan Oliver, assistant director at Norwich’s Career Development Center, was able to work with school authorities to ensure they were covered.

A snowboarder herself, Oliver was enthusiastic about the Rail Jam and certain it did not represent exceptional risk to participants. She just wanted to make sure companies involved couldn’t be held liable.

“The worse that could happen would be a broken wrist or a bruised ego,” she said. “ wasn't my concern for the participants’ safety, rather the companies that donated prizes.”

Fortunately, issues were cleared up quickly and the event was on. Things began slowly with a few observers milling about, but the crowd quickly swelled and responded with enthusiasm. Hines, now a senior, is working to appoint a successor to run the next Rail Jam, and hopes the event will become a regular part of Norwich’s annual Winter Carnival.

“We just had a positive response from everyone,” he said.