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VAIL — Charlotte Mathis’ first time skiing was awful. She fell often during her lessons and struggled to get back up each time she collapsed.

That first time Mathis clicked into skis was at Vail in 1997, where she skied alongside hundreds of other Black people at the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit, an annual event that typically draws more than 1,000 Black people who converge on one mountain to promote diversity, camaraderie and inclusion in winter sports.

At the end of one day, Mathis found herself stuck on difficult terrain. A Black man with NBS who almost skied past her, stopped to help her down the mountain.

“I will never forget. The words are in my mind: He said, ‘Angle down and turn. Angle down and turn.’ I did that the whole way down,” she said. “I was all alone and he helped me.”

Mathis recalled the story this week with a smile, back at Vail again for the 50th annual NBS summit. 

The National Brotherhood of Skiers is the largest Black ski group in the country comprising 57 smaller local chapters that operate separately until they coalesce once a year at the summit for “a party with a purpose” to support the organization’s mission.

Several NBS members interviewed for this story at a happy hour Sunday night said the camaraderie, the epic all-day events, and the ability to improve their skills on the snow keeps them coming back to the summit each year. 

The instant connection NBS members feel when they’re sliding down the mountain with hundreds of others who have something unique in common is an experience they can’t find anywhere else. The group introduces an underrepresented demographic to the sport, helping first-timers hone their skiing and snowboarding skills over the years while also helping to keep the snowsports industry afloat.

National Brotherhood of Skiers summit attendants on the dance floor at the Hythe Hotel in Vail. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“Get lit! Wear your lights!” was the NBS theme for happy hour led by DJ Kutz. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This year’s summit drew almost 2,000 NBS members, according to Vail Resort leaders.

Kyrsten Sprewell, 30, of California, tried skiing for the first time at the summit Wednesday morning. A few days before her first lesson, she said she was excited, but nervous about getting injured. To avoid an injury, she decided to take a lesson from experts on the mountain rather than learning from family at the event.

“I’m not playing any games, because I’m honestly scared of getting injured,” she said. “I think once you hit 30, you’re kind of like, ‘I might be a little old to learn.’”

Fifty years ago, in 1973, when Black peoples’ presence on the slopes was even more rare, the National Brotherhood of Skiers held its inaugural gathering in Aspen, drawing in more than 350 skiers from across the country. 

Sarah Howard-Presley, 78, and Yvonne Pulliam, 84, were at the first summit that year. They were together again Monday at the summit in Vail, giggling about their memories of their first time skiing decades ago, when they learned with a local NBS group from Chicago.

“I’ve had my theories about why it works,” Pulliam said. “It’s something that people really wanted, and they wanted it enough to keep it going and that is significant. Young Black people need to have the same opportunities that others do and this is how they get it.”

Having the same opportunity on the slopes was so important to Howard-Presley that she gave up basic necessities to get her kids onto the slopes.

“Sometimes I didn’t pay the light bill in order for them to go,” she said. “Now, today, they are very excited about the summit because they are recalling what took place when they were children.”

The allure of NBS is so strong that Black skiers from England traveled almost 10 hours by plane to be included in the action.

Natasha Belgrave, who lives in Bromley, England, about 45 minutes outside of London, sat with several other Black British women who attended the summit this year. They attended their first NBS summit in Whistler in 2003 with their own ski club, Nubian Ski, and thought it would be fun to see how the two groups meshed together.  

“We had a blast,” Belgrave said. “It was one of the best ski trips we’ve ever had. It was the experience. It was the people. It was the vibe. And we had never skied before. That was the 10 days we learned how to ski. And everyone was so welcoming.”

National Brotherhood of Skiers attendants get together for BBQ and apres at Vail ski area. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Members of the Sunshine Slopers Inc. club bask in the sun during lunch break. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

This year, they are attending the summit with more than 50 others from Ski Fest, another Black ski group from England.

Colorado has better snow, wider terrain and less-crowded ski areas compared to the ski resorts in Europe, said Tessa Howell, a friend attending the summit with Belgrave. “There is no comparison.”

“You’ve got some diversity here. There is zero diversity in Europe,” she said. “That’s why we like coming to the States, because it’s quite nice to have this. That doesn’t stop us skiing in Europe because they’ve got beautiful terrain there. It’s just a different type of experience.”

The English women said they’ve been skiing for more than a decade together. They’ve skied in France, Italy, Austria. And, in France next month, they’re planning to welcome several Americans from NBS who want to join in on the international fun.

Like Mathis, Robin Carter said her first time skiing was a disaster. She wore jeans, and each time she fell, she got colder and more soaked. But just as Mathis did, Carter said she got up and tried again each time she fell, because she was determined to learn the sport.

Now, 40 years later, she has introduced dozens of family members to skiing, and some of them attended the summit this week. Carter has remained in contact with many other NBS members over the past four decades.

“It takes awhile to get good at it. You can’t just go out and be good just after a couple of times,” she said. “You fall a lot. You walk a lot. You expend a lot of energy. But it’s like a massive family reunion. You come in and you feel a sense of familiarity with everybody.”

Quincy Jones, right, of Denver, and others sing a song with the skier fraternity groups. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
A skier sorority group member dances along in spirit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers summit at Vail ski area. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The culture of NBS hasn’t changed much over the past 50 years, Howard-Presley and Pulliam said. The members are growing older, but the same level of fun, camaraderie and support still exists.

The two women are now cautious in their more senior years, and said after several injuries, they are no longer skiing. But they said they hope to see younger NBS members carry the torch forward by participating in leadership positions to ensure the organization continues to grow for another five decades. 

“With this being Black History Month, we couldn’t have a better example of what has come 50 years ago,” Howard-Presley said.

As a typical NBS member would do, Carter ended her interview with a plea to future NBS members. 

“Just come. Have a good time. You don’t have to ski to come,” she said. “There’s a lot of people here who don’t intend to ski. But they’re here and they want to be a part of this feel-good experience that really generates a lot of positivity.”

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Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, Zumba, learning how to...