Ben Finley’s first exposure to skiing was comical in any telling. He was on a date to Yosemite National Park in 1963 with a woman who, on the way home, suggested they visit the ski area in the park. Finley is from Harlem, New York, and had never seen a ski slope, but he accepted the challenge and the two stopped at Badger Pass.
“The first thing that went through my mind was dollar bills and broken legs, in that sequence,” he said with a laugh on Wednesday in Snowmass, where he was socializing with members during the annual National Brotherhood of Skiers Summit. “We’re sitting out there at the bottom of the mountain, having margaritas in the warm California sun, watching white folks kill themselves coming down the mountain — and she says to me, ‘I want to learn how to ski.’”
A decade later, Finley helped organize the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a group that for nearly 50 years, has helped other people find their way to the mountain, in part by helping them learn how to ski, and by offering membership and long term friendship through the brotherhood’s many local ski groups across the country.
“We were basically introducing Black America to the sport of skiing at a very, very local level, where you could go out and recruit people using social techniques,” said 83-year-old Finley, a skier for 57 years. “It tended to bring people together, and we transmitted that to the ski slope, and from there, we can now find money to support the National Brotherhood of Skiers.”
The brotherhood group now comprises 54 independent ski clubs scattered across America and has grown from 350 people at inception to about 5,000 members of highly skilled, predominantly Black skiers and snowboarders who descend annually on a single mountain to celebrate their unique presence in the ski and snowboarding industry. About 1,000 of those members are at Snowmass Aspen Ski Resort through Saturday for the 2022 summit. The schedule is packed with parties, happy hours, ski racing, game challenges, tours and other events. The mayor of Aspen, the mayor of Snowmass, the head of the regional Forest Service, and Aspen Ski Company’s CEO, all spoke at the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ opening ceremony at the summit this year.
The annual summit is rooted in socializing and having a good time on the slopes, but the gathering also promotes a message that skiing should be open to all, at a time where many Colorado leaders are working to diversify the sport.
The skiing and snowboarding industry has historically been dominated by white and male participants, but industry leaders in Colorado are ramping up efforts to bring, especially, first-time skiers and snowboarders of color to their mountains. They said they want to make it more reflective and inclusive of all Americans.
Many factors contributed to the lack of diversity in the snow sports industry. The sport has historically been advertised to white participants. Many buildings at ski resorts are named after white men. The sport is expensive, which can exclude people of color, who are disproportionately affected by the racial wealth gap, said Hannah Berman, senior manager of sustainability and philanthropy for Aspen Skiing Company, the parent company of all four mountains in the Roaring Fork Valley: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.
A one-day ski trip requires paying for transportation, parking, a lift ticket, perhaps skiing or snowboarding rental equipment and lodging for people living far away from the mountain they’re visiting.
“There are so many components that most white people don’t notice,” Berman said. “When you don’t see someone that looks like you in our advertising or on our Instagram, you don’t necessarily know that you’re welcome or that you’re supposed to be there, if you’re not represented.”
At Aspen Snowmass, during the 2020-21 ski season, 87% of skiers were white, 11% were Hispanic or Latino, around 4% were of Asian, 1% were Black and 1% were Native American, according to survey results provided by a leader at Aspen Skiing Company.
First a promise, then a ski lesson
Skiing wasn’t an easy sell to Finley. Before he and his date left Yosemite that day in 1963, they made a pact. Finley, the president of a scuba diving club in Southern California at the time, told the woman he would bring her back to Badger Pass to ski — if she agreed to take a scuba diving course and pass her open water diving test. He expected her to decline. But six weeks later, both of them were back at Yosemite Park, this time on skis.
Finley hated skiing the first four times he went, but the fifth time, it clicked. He kept practicing, and joined a club with other Black skiers who care just as much about the sport, before co-founding a Southern California ski and snowboard club called the 4 Seasons West, one of the 54 independent ski clubs under the Brotherhood’s umbrella.
Diversifying skiing and educating the public about the brotherhood has become a major part of Finley’s life. Access to the brotherhood gives people an opportunity to experience a different part of life and allows them to contribute to a cause that should run across the entire Black community, he said.
In 2020, 53% of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation at least once, the highest participation rate ever on record. That year, 7 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation than in the year prior, the largest jump on record in any single year. As COVID-19 disrupted communities and forced a national shutdown, outdoor spaces became a place of relief for many Americans, according to the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report compiled by the Outdoor Foundation.
Almost 75% of outdoor participants in 2020 were white. Outdoor activity participation rates declined by 7% annually among Asian Americans for the past three years, stagnated among Black people for the past three years and grew among Latino people in that same time frame. Asian Americans represented 6% of outdoor participants in 2020, Black Americans represented 9% of outdoor participants and Latino people made up 11% of outdoor participants, while white people made up 72%.
The skiing and snowboarding industry has struggled to attract and retain participants of color. The report does not measure skiers and snowboarders by race, but paints a picture of overall participation in skiing and snowboarding across America. Cross country skiing had one of the lowest participation rates measured against many other outdoor sports. The percentage of Americans ages 6 and older who participated in cross country skiing from 2015 to 2020, hovered between 1.4% and 1.7%, according to the report. Participation rates in downhill, alpine and telemark skiing were not measured from 2015 to 2017. But in 2018 and 2019, the participation rate was 4.9% and in 2020, the percentage dropped to 4.7%. Participation rates in snowboarding hovered between 2.5% and 2.9% from 2015 to 2020, according to the report.
The current demographic makeup of skiers does not reflect the current U.S. population and demographic data has not changed much in the ski and snowboarding industry during the last 10 seasons, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. However, more than 30% of beginners and first-time skiers participated during the 2020-21 ski season, suggesting there’s an opportunity to not only attract but retain a more diverse customer base, she said.
People age 24 and younger make up the highest share of the U.S. population and they’re the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in American history, claiming the highest share of skier visits during the 2020-21 ski season, she said. But adults who were not exposed to outdoor recreation as children are far less likely to participate in outdoor activities as adults, and so it is the job of ski industry philanthropy, marketing, and policies to better promote inclusivity, the Outdoor Foundation report argues.
To help close the gap, Berman and her colleagues are leading different efforts to increase access by bringing more first-time skiers and snowboarders to their Colorado mountains. After George Floyd was murdered, Aspen Skiing Company owners and leaders decided to focus more efforts on racial justice work.
Aspen Skiing instituted a “school ski days” program where students are invited to one of the four mountains in the Roaring Fork Valley and learn how to take part in winter sports. Aspen Skiing Company offers lift tickets and rentals to those students for free and asks schools to pay what they can for students’ lessons at a discounted rate. The company also works with ski groups of color, like the National Brotherhood of Skiers and Ski Noir in Denver, to increase access to the sport.
Once those participants are there, industry leaders try their best to retain them, which is tricky, Berman said.
“I think there’s value in just taking someone up to the top of the mountain and watching them see where they live from the top of a mountain,” she said. “I’ve also gotten the question, ‘Why skiing? There’s so much inequity in society and education and economic opportunity.’ And our answer is, because we’re a ski company. We love it. We’ve got problems in society, and we need to rapidly work to tackle educational and economic inequality in society, but that doesn’t mean we can’t drink champagne and rip down groomers, and be friends with folks on the mountain,” she said. “We need those celebratory moments, too, in skiing or in society.”
Finley, co-founder of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, said resorts should focus on offering internships to students at historically Black colleges to draw in young people who want to work in the ski industry long term.
NBS formed in 1973, after 350 people from 13 predominantly Black ski groups came together in Aspen to ski, socialize and discuss opportunities or concerns that were common among the few Black ski clubs that existed at the time.
The group was formalized the next year in Salt Lake City, when the 13 clubs met again and decided there was a need for a national organization that could actively promote skiing in local Black communities, create camaraderie, and find, select and fund athletes of color, who could become eligible for United States of America Olympic teams.
Naomi Bryson, now 81, learned how to ski when she attended the inaugural Summit in Aspen with a man who would later become her husband. She and her husband attended 48 annual Summit events, before he died last year from kidney failure. Before he died, he asked her to continue helping the organization as it continues to grow.
Bryson became the first woman president of the National Brotherhood in 1994. Years earlier, when she was a board member for the organization, she fought hard to get the group to descend on Lake Placid in New York.
“This was the best political move we could make — to bring the summit to the East Coast,” she said. “Until then, we were ignoring the East Coast.”
After hearing about the event on the radio, Black skiers who were not a part of the NBS made their way to Lake Placid, some by private planes, to learn more about the group and its goals. After the event, many local chapters sprung up on the East Coast. Many of those people are still members today, Bryson said.
Bryson and Finley have introduced scores of first-time Black skiers and snowboarders to the mountain. But some of those introductions did not come without apprehension.
Neither has personally experienced overt racism while skiing but both described a “plowing” trend that happened to Black friends who are skiers when strangers on skis or snowboards intentionally plow into them on the mountain. Bryson said she learned to ski defensively, usually sticking to the outer parts of a slope, to avoid a purposeful collision.
In years past, white skiers or snowboarders at lunch tables or on ski lifts would ask where she’s from, if she could afford skiing and what she did for professional work. Sometimes, when she would sit down at a lunch table with white people she did not know, they would pick up their belongings and leave the area. The climate has improved, Bryson said, as more people of color join in skiing and snowboarding,
“They weren’t used to us. They didn’t know us, they had not seen us before, and many of those people, they hadn’t lived near any African Americans,” she said. “They didn’t know what we were trying to do. They were afraid of them. So that’s why I said, ‘We have to do something to let them know, fear not, we will be kind.’”
Those experiences made her want to ski more, she said. “I saw where the help was needed. They needed the help.”
The National Brotherhood of Skiers will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the next summit in 2023 at Vail Ski Resort. Snowmass leaders said they’re eager to get the group back on the mountain to celebrate that milestone next year, but acknowledged members will likely opt for another experience at a different resort.
While the National Brotherhood of Skiers is working to bolster inclusion of Black people in the skiing industry, Bryson hopes the group will also become more inclusive of people of other races too. Skiing, she said, presents “an opportunity to understand people different from you.”
Each day, there are about 15,000 people skiing or snowboarding at all four mountains run by Aspen Skiing Company. With almost 1,000 National Brotherhood members attending this week, the economic benefits are significant for the mountain, said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications at Aspen Snowmass.
“This is a large group for us. We don’t get too many, if any groups, that are that big, really,” he said. “Because they’re paying for lodging and food, and they’re throwing events, and they’re dining out in town and they’re on the mountain, and they’re renting ski gear, it’s a significant impact.”
In all of his years of skiing, Finley’s best memory is from 1993 in Vail, where the brotherhood held a large event.
“It was 3,000 folks at the bottom of this mountain, at a picnic with the music going, and we had all of the staff there serving the event,” he said. “To see the enthusiasm that came from everybody that walked by that event, Black, white, green or purple, and them all dancing on that snow was powerful.”
His toughest memory is one he is experiencing now. He recently decided to hang up his skis. “I’ve gotten to the point that I can no longer ski physically,” he said. “That is my worst memory. It’s horrible to look up that hill and know you can’t do it.”