Uphill Both Ways?

Climbing the Slope is a shared Big Red memory

When biomedical engineering major Cali Brady ’24 was on her first visit to campus as a gymnastics recruit, she watched her future teammates sprint up the Slope—12 times in a row. “That was very intimidating, because I was out of breath just walking up it for the first time; being from Illinois where it’s very flat, I was not prepared for that,” she recalls. “Once I made it on the team, they told me how hard it actually was for them, which made me feel better.”

Cornell’s landmark hill—officially called Library Slope, more often shortened to Libe Slope or just “the Slope”—has been one of the University’s defining physical features for more than a century and a half, marking the geographic and altitudinal transition between West Campus and the Arts Quad. For generations of Cornellians, trekking up the Slope to class from West Campus (be it the U-Halls, Greek houses, co-ops, apartments, or living-learning residential houses) is a shared experience. Student and alumni memories of the Slope and its place in campus culture are often weather-related—from bracingly cold, icy, or snowy winter mornings to wind and rain to gorgeous fall evenings, languid late-spring afternoons, and postcard-perfect sunsets.

graphic illustration showing people walking up the Slope with an "18%" grade caution sign and a 90-foot measurement of the elevation gain at the top of the incline
One of the most direct paths up the Slope begins just outside Mennen Hall and ascends to the edge of the Arts Quad just south of Morrill Hall. (Graphic by Cornell University)

Over the decades, the Slope has been the site of outdoor Commencements, official physical education activities like skiing—and, of course, Slope Day. Today, it also reflects the times by hosting swaths of grass left unmowed in an effort toward better sustainability, and the Sesquicentennial Grove (dedicated in 2015) is perched at the top edge for Cornellians to celebrate and ponder more than 150 years of University history and its promise for the future.

Ezra’s ‘childhood delight’ 

The Slope itself, and the land comprising central campus, is part of a 300-acre swath of farmland between Fall Creek and Cascadilla gorges that Ezra Cornell purchased in 1857 and operated as a farm before donating to the University. (As the University has acknowledged with a formal declaration, the parcel is located on the traditional homeland of the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫ’, or Cayuga Nation.) According to A History of Cornell by Morris Bishop 1913, PhD 1926, Ezra’s first memories of the region date to boyhood, when he stopped in the area on his way to visit an uncle near Geneva. “He remembered his childhood delight with the view from East Hill,” Bishop writes. “Cayuga Lake had thrilled him, since he had never seen any water larger than a millpond.” 

Decades later—in 1865, shortly after the University’s charter had been adopted—Ezra brought a few trustees to visit the site to decide where to break ground. Despite the logistical challenges, he wanted to build the first “stone row” of buildings (Morrill, McGraw, and White halls) on the upper site of his farmland rather than the lower, as the top edge of the ridgeline offered the best view of Cayuga Lake and the valley below. And the founder got his way. As Bishop writes:

They drove to the hilltop, the present site of Morrill Hall. Ezra Cornell’s three companions agreed that the shelf below them would be the ideal situation. ‘Young gentlemen,’ said Cornell, ‘you appear to be considering the location of half a dozen buildings, whereas some of you will live to see our campus occupied by fifty buildings and swarming with thousands of students.’ 

‘Well, where would you build?’

Cornell turned to the east, swung his arms north and south, and said: ‘Here, on this line extending from Cascadilla to Fall Creek.’

The three demurred and argued—Mr. Cornell’s solution was not practical. The site, beautiful indeed, was inaccessible, far from the village, rough, gullied, roadless. But Cornell wore them down, and at his direction they drove stakes to mark Building No.1. 

How steep is it, really?

So do Cornellians’ tales and memories of trekking the Slope as students in all kinds of weather stand the test of measurement? While Cornellians may not be able to convince future generations that it was “uphill in both directions,” is it exceptionally steep, or does the difficulty of trekking to and from class become exaggerated over time and tinted by nostalgia?

According to University landscape architect David Cutter ’84, BS ’85, the Slope—measured from West Avenue to Central Avenue—covers about 90 feet of vertical grade. The most direct path from bottom to top, beginning from just outside Mennen Hall to Central Avenue just south of Morrill Hall (the southwestern edge of the Arts Quad) takes that rise over about 500 horizontal feet, for a grade of about 18%. That’s pretty steep: a 6% grade is the maximum incline allowed on U.S. federal highways; the city of San Francisco, which is no stranger to hills, allows a maximum 23.1% street grade for bus operations.

And as far as hoofing it, the Slope beats out a well-known movie climb: according to Strava (a popular running and cycling app), the 72 “Rocky steps” outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous in the 1976 Sylvester Stallone movie and its sequels, average about a 13% grade over 26 feet of elevation.

Graphic illustration compares the climb up the Slope with the climb up the stairs of McGraw Tower and Schoellkopf Crescent
(Graphic by Cornell University)

Across Cornell’s campus, of course, there is no shortage of steep terrain. Cutter says that for students living on North Campus, a climb similar to Libe Slope would be the path from the Triphammer Dam Footbridge (at the western end of Beebe Lake, near Tang Welcome Center) to Forest Home Drive and up to Reservoir Avenue in front of Martha Van Rensselaer Hall. That’s a vertical rise of 86 feet (although over 760 feet horizontally), for a grade of a little over 11%—“still pretty steep,” he says. In Collegetown, the notoriously steep block of Buffalo Street between Stewart Avenue and Eddy Street also rises 90 feet vertically over about 600 feet horizontally, for a slope of 15%.

A recent test with a fitness watch of two brisk walks up the Slope (by a volunteer who stands 5 feet, 10.5 inches tall) measured two of the most direct routes up the Slope, both starting at the War Memorial archway just west of the Baker Flagpole. The walk up the Slope to the edge of the Arts Quad between Morrill Hall and Uris Library measured 266 steps over 0.16 miles and 95 feet of elevation gain; the other path, from the archway curving to the right of McGraw Tower between the tower and Willard Straight Hall, coming up to the edge of Ho Plaza, measured a slightly more direct 237 steps over 0.14 miles—with an elevation gain of only 79 feet, since Ho Plaza is slightly downhill from the Arts Quad.

This is actually the steepest sustained climb near campus.

Kurt Huebner ’21

The Slope as workout challenge

Kurt Huebner ’21, an instructor with Cornell Outdoor Education, points out that the Slope shows up as a workout on Strava and similar apps. While the statistics vary slightly (Strava lists the straightest path up the Slope as 0.1 miles and 83 feet of elevation gain for a 15.7% average grade), the fastest posted time on Strava’s leaderboard for sprinting that course is 18 seconds for men and 31 seconds for women.

“I always take those times with a grain of salt, as many of the varsity runners are not on Strava and the data is just from one platform, so there is no way of knowing what the actual fastest time ever done is,” Huebner cautions. But, he adds, “this is actually the steepest sustained climb near campus”: many of the climbs famous in local biking and running circles are longer but have a lower grade, with both Cascadilla Gorge and Buffalo Street coming in at about 11%.

Students watch a sunset from a prime Libe Slope viewing spot
Students watch a sunset from a prime Libe Slope viewing spot. (Cornell University)

Memories run the gamut

On a beautiful July afternoon, Harry Fuller ’21, a master’s student in environmental and resource systems engineering, stands near West Campus and the Baker Flagpole and chats with a Cornellians writer about the Slope. Although he never lived on West Campus, he frequently went there to eat during his freshman year—“because the food’s so much better down here,” he says—and therefore often walked the Slope.

A student begins the long ascent up Libe Slope after a fresh snowfall
A student begins the long ascent up Libe Slope after a fresh snowfall. (Cornell University)

A right midfielder on the Big Red men’s soccer team, Fuller also recalls—not so fondly—the sprints his team would do there. And just during the regular commute up the Slope on some warmer mornings, “you’re drenched by the time you’re in a classroom,” he says—and of course, “in the winter, walking up, no matter which way you’re going, the wind is somehow always in your face.”

Cornell University’s 1912 Commencement ceremonies were held outdoors on Libe Slope
Cornell’s Commencement ceremonies, like this one in 1912, were often held outdoors on Libe Slope. (Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library)

For CALS alum Jackie Sepulveda ’17, one of her most vivid Slope memories is the time she raced uphill to get to a chemistry prelim—at night, in the snow. “It felt like 20-below with the wind chill, and I was literally sliding back down the icy Slope as I walked up it,” she says. “Making it to the Physical Sciences Building at all that night was my victory; I barely remember the exam.” Overall, though, Sepulveda recalls happy times in good weather. “Mostly I just remember chilling on the grass, or trying to study on a blanket,” she says. “I always ended up daydreaming or falling asleep.”

In the winter, walking up, no matter which way you’re going, the wind is somehow always in your face.

Harry Fuller ’21

Engineering alum Daniel Mansoor ’79, MBA 80, spent four years traversing the Slope, first as a freshman housed in U-Hall 4 and then as a brother living in Sigma Phi fraternity. “I loved the challenge of the daily hike,” he recalls. “Reaching the end of the climb near the entrance to Willard Straight Hall, I’d take a deep breath; the rest of the day would be easier.” Scott Pesner ’87, who majored in communication in CALS, lived on West Campus his freshman and sophomore years. “Libe Slope was a big part of my Cornell experience,” he says, “at least at the start of the day, when you’re very tired and look up and ask yourself: ‘Can I go back to bed?’”

Published October 5, 2021


Do you have a memory of the Slope you’d like to share? Please do so below!

Comments

  1. Don Shardlow, Class of 1958

    A vivid memory is leaving Algonquin Lodge on Stewart Ave and arriving at the top of the slope at 7:50 AM on my way to my to my 8 o’clock class just as the Carillon began to play. As much as I love the music of Cornell, I often longed for earplugs at the time.

    • Gay Eng, Class of 1972

      I also lived in Algonquin and trudged up the hill every morning. I remember the vivid sunsets with the lake in the distance.

  2. Kiki Simspon, Class of 1984

    I remember “borrowing” trays from the dining hall and using them as sleds to go careening down Libe Slope. Sort of tricky if cars were at the bottom, given that there was absolutely no way to turn or stop! So many good memories!

    • James A Beemer, Class of 1984

      I lived in Mennen Hall 3 years. Knew the slope well.

    • Brian Duffy, Class of 1989

      Borrowing trays for a ride down the slope certainly was a blast. But for a real adventure, try Libe Slope at night on a 5 person wood tabogaon. Had to ask for one after my first semester freshman year! Truly surprised that none of my friends were ever seriously injured during those days.

  3. Linda Adams Chateauneuf, Class of 1977

    Memory – class of ’77 – freshman lived in UHall 3 – sitting in the laundry in UHall 2 on a Friday afternoon – pouring rain – the door swings open and the whole place stops and looks as a Hotelie, who shall remain nameless, enters in his suit – that is COVERED in mud from head to toe. What happened, someone asked? The reply? He slipped in some mud at the top of Libe Slope and slid pretty much all the way down. Ohhhh – I called my mom that afternoon and asked her to ship extra towels.

  4. Wendy Marx, Class of 1987

    I have fond memories of making a “train” with my friends from U-Hall 3 to the top of the Slope. Everyone would get a turn at the front to be pushed up the hill until they had to go to the back of the line to be the “caboose”. Whatever it takes ;).

  5. Lisa Adelman Taylor, Class of 2002

    I remember being dressed up in a skirt suit for “Donuts with Dittman” in the Hotel School and sliding down The Slope one icy morning since I mistakenly wore heels instead of snow boots. A fellow Hotelie helped me up. Lesson learned: dress for the weather!

    Slope Days we’re the best though! I loved running into people from various parts of my Cornell experience. It was like an episode from “This Is Your Life.”

  6. Harry Buck, Class of 1954

    I lived in Hillside Co-op on University Ave as a freshman. Recall that winter coming down a snow packed path, sliding and hitting the back of my head and seeing stars. No effort in those days to clear the path.
    Was an invigorating walk to the AG campus for an 8 o’clock class.

    • Allan Griff, Class of 1954

      Also 54, see my post below, telling that I slipped and broke an ankle. General lesson: it could be worse. We were tougher then. As for 8-o’clocks, I don’t have a BA in addition to my B Chem Eng because I wouldn’t do 8s every day to qualify in German. I admire your get-up-and-go, for which I compensated by my stay-up-and-cram.

  7. Thomas Melendy, Class of 1983

    You can’t talk about Libe Slope without talking about those who snagged a dining tray from the Straight and attempted a slide down the Slope on snow-covered days.

    • Jeanie Kim Carpenter, Class of 1985

      I still have one of those trays, next to my kitchen sink used for drying dishes. Somehow I missed all the “Amnesty Days” to return them (I think I may have two)… (U Hall 4 Freshman Year)

    • Michael Singer, Class of 1968

      And the University wisely placed bales of hay in front of the trees so we wouldn’t kill ourselves.

  8. Charles DeGeorge, Class of 1970

    Cavorting on Libe Slope as a freshman in March 1967 with most of the west campus dormitory students after listening to the radio broadcast of Cornell’s NCAA hockey victory. The weather was unseasonably warm, and the Aurora Borealis made a rare appearance to add to the celebration.

  9. Derek, Class of 1993

    Class of 93. Coming out of the Straight, left to go down the slope in winter I slipped and landed on my butt so hard and slid. I had to lay there a few minutes. Good times

  10. James H Kaye

    Not exactly on point, but when my parents took me to Cornell (Univ. Halls 4) in 1969, my father, a heavy smoker, was 48. He smoked despite being in a bad summer camp fire in his teens. I do not remember the exact route to a bank in Collegetown so I could open a checking account, but he had difficulty with the hill. As soon as he returned home he signed up for a program to stop smoking. He succeeded and volunteered to help out. He still had bad COPD in his final years and died from complications of pneumonia. But he lived to 73. Probably longer than he would have if I did not choose to go to Cornell – ILR 73.

  11. Don Danila, Class of 1969

    One wintry day in early 1966 I trudged up a very, very slippery walkway from the U Halls behind a fellow freshman. Finally reaching nearly the crest he suddenly slipped and fell with the notebook and books he was carrying sliding all the way down the walk to the bottom. He picked himself up, brushing away the snow and ice, shrugged his shoulders, told me “Not coming up again”, and began walking back down the hill. He no doubt spent the rest of the morning in his cozy dorm bed.

    Another freshman memory is after a big snow with many of us “borrowing” cafeteria trays from the Straight for sliding was seeing two classmates from California wearing shorts and T-shirts while surfing down the slope as they stood upright on the trays.

  12. Allan Griff, Class of 1954

    My climb remembered brings tears of fury, tears of joy (from one of my poems, signalling Balance, my life-word). In 1950 I took the overnight bus to Ithaca from NYC, and remember Home Dairy near the downtown bus station. Then I walked UP the Big Hill to 514 E Buffalo where a room awaited me. The Dunlops. Every class day that year I walked up that last “notorious” stretch of Buffalo (15%) even with crutches in a walking cast in winter after I slipped on the ice and broke an ankle. Fifty-four years later, to celebrate my reunion, I walked DOWN the same hill from Olin to the Bus Station.
    I’m still here 17 years later at 88, walking with a cane and proudly vaxxed and masked. And still writing about Balance, the fear of truth, and the childhood-learned need to believe in the impossible.

  13. Bob Cohen, Class of 1977

    First week at Cornell as a freshman, playing fetch with a random Labrador retriever on Libe Slope. Saw a girl walking down the hill and threw a stick so that the dog would cross her path. (Although she still insists that she made the first move when she asked if it was my dog…). Next summer, our labradors will help us celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. 😉

  14. Mary, Class of 1999

    I’m a little embarrassed to admit that in all these years, I never realized Libe was short for Library.

    • Mary, Class of 1989

      You are not alone.

    • Shelley, Class of 1976

      I am so relieved to see this. I learned it wasn’t named after “Mr. Libe” ( almost everything was named after a Mr. back then….) when I overheard a student giving their parents a tour about 15 years ago, decades after my ’76 graduation. I have always thought I was the only one! Thank you thank you.

  15. Melissa Yorks, Class of 1975

    I liked to study in the stacks in Uris, looking over the Slope. In December looking out I saw what had to be an engineering major (who else walked around with a slide rule attached to their belt- this was before everyone had pocket calculators for you younguns out there) slip and fall at the top of the Slope. He slid all the way down to the bottom (he was ok) but the funny thing was watching his slide rule hit the bottom before he did. Checking dates it could even have been Bill Nye as a freshman.

  16. Alan Goldman, Class of 1958

    I had a fraternity brother named Artie Goldwater from Rochester, NY and thus no stranger to snow and ice. He was often late to our morning American History lecture class and, when asked by the instructor who took attendance (we had seats assigned alphabetically),he explained, honestly I believe, that he kept sliding back down the Libe Slope toward the West Campus dorms as he struggled on the snow and ice. Maybe he had shoes with no treads, but I never asked him or maybe he just thought it was a credible excuse. We can’t ask him because he is long deceased.

  17. Eric Key, Class of 1977

    As a Math major living in Founders as a junior and senior, my fondest memories are of skiing down from White Hall to my dorm on my boots.
    Never trayed it though.

  18. John Speese III, Class of 1977

    I never lived on West Campus (I was in Clara Dickson all 4 years) and therefore never had the Libe Slope experience (can’t say I’m sorry, those winter days walking to class were brutal enough anywhere you had to go!). I am Class of 77 so 18 was the legal drinking age. I thought the Noyes Center Pub (my Friday night hangout) was vastly superior to the Thirsty Bear in North Campus, but rather than tackle Libe Slope I walked whatever road that was that led past the Johnson Museum down to West Campus. It too had a grade but in my opinion nowhere near as bad as Libe Slope.

  19. Janny Kim, Class of 1999

    Besides Libe slope,the climb up the Baker Lab steps from North campus was pretty brutal, especially for an 8AM Friday Chem lab freshman year.

  20. Martin Root, Class of 1973

    I lived in Mennen 70-71. On warm fall nights when I had studied too late, I would leave my window open so that the carillon would wake me at 7:45. I would dash up the slope to get to calculus on time at 8:00. Also, one winter morning we had a snow storm. I dutifully trudged up the slope in mid-calf deep snow for my 8:00 organic lab, having no idea where the path was. An hour later classes were cancelled and I walked down in knee-deep snow.

  21. David Bilmes, Class of 1978

    I lived on West Campus in North Baker my first two years, so I had plenty of practice walking up Libe Slope. We were told that if you slipped and fell on the ice three times trying to go up it in the winter, you could turn around and go back to bed! The worst winter experience I had on it was coming down it once when it was so icy that the only safe way to get to the bottom was to sit down and just slide down the entire way (without a tray to slide on). My calf muscles were in good shape, though!

  22. Richard Foxall, Class of 1984

    A sophomore transfer, I never lived on campus, living first on the lower half of Buffalo Street and later downtown. Since I had already climbed quite a bit farther by the time I got to Libe Slope, it was just the home stretch to the Arts Quad and less daunting. Still, you felt the additional steepness when you started that leg.

  23. Jim Parry, Class of 1972

    It was really fun to read so many memories about Libe Slope. The one about reaching the summit, looking back, and feeling good about having made it really resonated. Thanks

  24. Frann Shore, Class of 1979

    As a freshman living in U-Hall 6. Sperry Hall, I had an 8 am class in the Physics building. This was my introduction to life at Cornell.

  25. Cindy Fuller, Class of 1978

    I was doing laundry in U Hall 1 freshman year in the middle of a snowfall. An enterprising classmate thought cafeteria trays were too small, so he appropriated an ironing board and used that as a toboggan.

  26. David Reynolds, Class of 1971

    In January, 1968, I trudged up the hill from University Halls to Roosevelt in windy, below zero conditions to take my Physics final at 8 o’clock. I remember wasting 10 minutes while my fingers warmed up enough to write. In those days, students returned to campus after New Year’s to take Fall semester finals. Fun times.

    • John Conwell, Class of 1971

      I too remember the January 1968 exams. I lived in U Hall 6 and had an Engineering Physics final in Rockfeller Hall. I remember the temperatre overnight was -25. On the way to the final the next morning, it was very windy and I had to stop halfway in Morril Hall to warm up for the final trek. Also, back then, we freshman were allowed to bring cars to the finals week and every single one had a desd battery. We pushed the manual transmission cars down the hills to bump start them and then used jumper cables to start the automatics. It was, to this day, the coldest temperatures I have ever experienced.

  27. Bruce RICH, Class of 1965

    Freshman year lived in U.H.#2-following 3 years lived at 660 Stewart Ave. Climbed the “slope” many times altho some of the members in my fraternity (Zeta Psi) had cars so I could “bum” a ride to my 8:00 or lab after lunch. After graduating I worked part time for Cornell Police and helped chase winter time students off the slope with their “borrowed” Straight food trays.

  28. John A.D. Sabelli, Class of 1978

    My wife and I had an apartment on E Seneca St, about halfway between downtown and campus. I usually walked to class, but my wife and I drove around town in our 40 horsepower ’64 VW Beetle. If we had to stop at the bottom of Buffalo street, we never worried about getting a speeding ticket going up the hill!

  29. Andy O'Neill, Class of 1976

    I was in Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at the corner of Stewart and University, so we had to gain some elevation just to get to West Campus. Three of us engineers walked up together for an 8:00 AM class on the E Quad in the middle of winter, and so religiously followed the “Slide Rule” – if any one of the three of us slipped and fell on the ice on Libe Slope – all three of us had to turn around and go back to bed.

  30. Lei Liu, Class of 2013

    I remember watching the sunset at the libe slope. It was one of my favorite spot on campus. Looking at the sunset and the Cayuga lake makes you feel transcendental.

  31. Augustus (Gus) Uht, Class of 1973

    Once, walking up the Slope from U Hall 4 at top speed, as I passed a group of several fellow students I found myself suddenly slowing down. Turning around, I discovered that the lead student had put her finger through one of my belt loops to help herself up the hill! She yelled “keep going!” but then released me, we smiled, and I was gone….

  32. Michael Singer, Class of 1968

    I may be the first person to attempt skateboarding down libe slope. This was early fall, 1964. I quickly realized it was a dumb idea because I was gaining too much speed, had no brakes (homemade skateboard), and couldn’t turn because the paved path was too narrow. I jumped off onto the grass and slid a long distance before finally coming to a stop. I was totally unhurt and laughed my head off.

  33. Tom Soriano, Class of 1982

    Lived at 110 Queen Street on the flat below the Ithaca Gun factory and walked up and down to the Ag Quad each and every day. Was never in better shape!

  34. Jon Shields, Class of 1980

    Early in my Cornell life there was a freak cold front that blew down from Canada. Having grown up in Queens, “below freezing” was “cold”, below 20°F was “bracingly cold”, and below 0°F was practically unheard of. On this fine winter day, the forecast was for -30°F, with a wind-chill expected to be in the ballpark of -60°F. Realizing that this was a rare opportunity indeed to experience what that might feel like, I bundled up extra-warm, in down jacket and hiking boots with Vibram soles (relatively newfangled items in those days), two pairs of ragg wool socks, wool scarf, etc. to make the trek up Libe Slope to the Arts Quad. By the time I reached the top there were icicles from condensed breath hanging from my mustache and beard, and I could scarcely breathe. Needless to say, all classes were canceled (not at all unexpected). When later asked by less-insane students what it had felt like, I recall saying, “When I tried to breathe, it felt like there were gremlins inside my lungs trying chip their way out with ice picks…!” I have never experienced anything like that, before or since!

  35. Stuart Baron, Class of 1982

    I lived for two years in Sperry Hall (we sucked best!), one in Theta Chi fraternity at 519 Stewart Ave., and one in McFaddin Tower. Since the incline from West Avenue near Sperry to the back of the Straight is quite gradual, I found it easy to go that way before climbing the steps to the lobby.

    As for traying in winter, the best ride was down from the slightly steeper area at the top, where the Uris Library underground annex was later built around the time we graduated.

  36. Tracey Austin, Class of 1985

    I lived on Stewart Ave my Freshman year and had an 8am class in the greenhouses past the Vet school. I remember trudging up the hill by 7:15am before the sidewalks had been plowed. I was usually soaking wet up to my hips(I’m 5’1″) and freezing all day long because I had pushed through snow almost as high as me!! But I was in the best shape of my life!

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