• Original Reporting
  • On the Ground
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
On the Ground Indicates that a Newsmaker/Newsmakers was/were physically present to report the article from some/all of the location(s) it concerns.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Aspen-Snowmass ski instructor Kevin McDonald, right, teaches a client, Joe Kanzangu, during a ski lesson Wednesday, Apr. 12, 2023, in Aspen. “What holds us back is, we limit ourselves a lot by the color of our skin, and that’s self-imposed, not to say that there’s not systemic racism, there is," McDonald said of being in a predominantly white ski industry. "But we as an ethnic group, we have to take responsible for our own shortcomings and lack of self-confidence and address those fears and not ignore that.”(Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

About a decade ago, snowsports leaders began meeting in small circles to discuss the importance of diversifying participants, and a few years later, they began launching public campaigns to bring more women, more people of color and more people with disabilities to the mountain.

The goal is to promote inclusion, and increase vitality in an industry where demographic data doesn’t come close to mirroring the makeup of the state or U.S. population.

While industry leaders have worked slowly to attract newer and more underrepresented skiers and snowboarders in recent years, little attention has focused on diversifying the frontline staff teaching snowports, even though they could be a key component in speeding up diversity efforts and signaling who gets to participate, said Darnell Rose, a Black ski instructor in Aspen for more than 30 years.

Rose said he’s “breaking down walls and stereotypes,” by continuing to work as an instructor, even when he’s face-to-face with people who make problematic comments or when he has to answer awkward questions from others on the slopes. When executives at Aspen Skiing Company lead diversity efforts, Rose shares his viewpoints and gives constructive criticism, even if the conversations are uncomfortable, he said. 

Aspen-Snowmass ski instructor Darnell Rose, enjoying the slopes on April 12, 2023, has been teaching for 30 years, 23 of them at Aspen-Snowmass. With the four Aspen mountains combined, there are currently eight Black ski instructors of the approximately 1,600 instructors total. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

These efforts haven’t always gone smoothly, and at times, Rose feels like a thorn in the side of the resort company’s leaders.

“Still, trying to shed light on this issue is another way I think I’m helping and affecting the ski industry, because if we can do it at Aspen, one of the leaders of the industry, then maybe it will trickle down to the others,” Rose said.

Skiing has long been an elite and expensive sport, typically most available to people who can afford it and those who have loved ones who can expose them to it in the first place.

Industry leaders have collectively spent more time and effort working to diversify the people skiing and snowboarding rather than the people who teach them. They explained that if there aren’t enough people of color or people with disabilities who participate in the sports in the first place, for example, it becomes even more difficult to find or recruit qualified instructors who come from those underrepresented groups.

But more diversity among instructors is vital if the industry plans to remain successful and relevant in the future, especially as the U.S. population becomes more racially diverse and demographic data among snowsports participants hasn’t changed much over the past 10 years


“The snowsports industry, like many other industries after the murder of George Floyd, realized how it was not focusing enough on diversity. There had been efforts before then but his death rattled the complete outdoor industry,” said Peggy Hiller, CEO of Professional Ski Instructors of America & American Association of Snowboard Instructors, or PSIA-AASI.

“The snowsports industry, in my opinion, has not historically done enough to make sure that we are reaching out as much as we can to be inclusive and welcoming of underrepresented populations,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do on our end, no doubt. People want to see folks that they can relate to as their instructors if they’re going to get into our sport.”

Two Black ski instructors and two white industry leaders said new participants on the mountain may feel more welcome or included if they have the opportunity to receive lessons from people who look like them. Becoming a ski instructor one day can also seem like a more realistic goal for a Black child, for example, if they have a role model of the same race teaching them on the mountain, they said.

Exposure to Black instructors may also break down any stereotypes or misconceptions their students may have about certain people, Rose said. More diversity among instructors can also provide camaraderie and a sense of familiarity that can help shield them from awkwardness or even discrimination while working on the mountain because they can turn to others for support when those instances come up.

The Unaffiliated is our twice-weekly newsletter peeling back the curtain on Colorado politics and policy.

Each edition is filled with exclusive news, analysis and behind-the-scenes coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Subscribe today to see what all the buzz is about.

Hiring more instructors from underrepresented groups on the mountain is vital, but ensuring they feel valued longer term, is also crucial, he said. Some instructors of color who grew up racing competitively, even skiing in the World Cup, have found jobs in other sectors because they got tired of feeling isolated on the mountain, Rose said. 

“The frustration of living in a white man’s world is magnified here,” he said, “so they teach for a minute and then they find something else.”

“The sport is for everyone and they talk about it, and they want to (diversify), but they seem to be slow in taking the steps to do it,” he said of ski industry leaders. “It’s important because we’re all one people and it’s important to break down walls and stereotypes and show us that we are all the same.”

Tracking demographics

Data gathered by PSIA-AASI, the world’s largest organization teaching people how to ski and snowboard, offers a glimpse into the challenge industry leaders will face while working to meet their goal of diversifying instructors across the state and the country.

Most-recent 2022 data compiled by the nonprofit, which comprises more than 32,000 members including mostly ski and snowboard instructors across the country, found 69% of members identified as male while 31% identified as female. 

That year, 85.6% of members identified as white, 2.7% identified as Asian or Asian American, 1.7% identified as Hispanic or Latin American, 0.8% identified as Native American or Alaskan Native, 0.7% identified as Black, 0.3% identified as Middle Eastern, 0.2% identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 1.6% of people identified as “other.” Another 8.7% of respondents preferred not to answer. 

The organization has been tracking demographic membership data, such as gender, race and ethnicity, since May 2020 to better understand how it can work toward increasing inclusion and diversity strategically, said Susan Urbanczyk, director of marketing and communications for PSIA-AASI. The membership demographic data hasn’t changed significantly over the last two years, she said.

At Aspen Skiing Company, where Rose works, about 20% of employees identified as nonwhite in 2021, a small increase from the year before, according to Hannah Berman, senior manager of sustainability and philanthropy.

More than 30 years later, Rose said he still gets “double takes” from passersby when he’s at work.

“When I think of a ski instructor, I don’t think of someone who looks like me, and neither do most people,” he said. “So it kind of lets them know that we’re here.”

During lessons, Rose works to genuinely connect with students and encourages them to have fun while learning to ski, always aiming to change their — and any of their loved ones’ — viewpoints about Black people  that may be stereotypical, uninformed or unfair.

Shortly after Rose started working on the mountain 25 years ago, a colleague called him a racial slur in the locker room. The two still work together today.

The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes

Some colleagues did not recognize the slur and went on about their day. Others who understood its meaning said nothing at the time and waited to apologize to Rose separately later on. Now, he encourages people to speak up immediately when they witness problematic behavior.

“I had to accept that because we were having an uncomfortable conversation and it’s not easy for them,” he said. “And I have to help them be able to help their friends next time something like that happens. So, I’m helping out and changing lives and affecting lives in this way on the mountain also.”

Rose said he would have never imagined he’d still be teaching skiing decades later. “Every year, I think this is the last of it and I’m not going to do it anymore, but it keeps going because it’s kind of addicting. Now, more than 30 years later, it’s still my story.”

A similar love for the sport is also what led Ashley Owens to start teaching beginners how to ski at Arapahoe Basin this season.

Arapahoe Basin ski instructor Ashley Owens, who is Deaf and communicates using sign language, teaches first-time skier during a lesson at the ski area, Monday, Apr. 10, 2023, in Summit County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Owens is the first instructor who is deaf to ever teach at the Summit County mountain. When teaching, she focuses on improving new skiers’ technical ability and uses the “Otter” app on her cellphone to communicate with students. The student speaks and the app produces transcribed text on her phone. Owens also talks to students when it’s necessary, she said.

“I think in general, people with disabilities can teach anybody,” she said through an interpreter earlier this month. “I know there’s deaf people that have been instructors before and I’ve volunteered at a deaf camp and taught deaf children how to ski.”

The thought of becoming the first deaf instructor on the mountain was intimidating at first. Owens was worried about struggling to communicate with others and afraid that people would “look down on her” for having a hearing impairment. 

“But I have a lot of pride for being deaf and for being an instructor as well,” she said.

Gates Lloyd, the snowsports director at A-Basin who hired Owens, said she’s a good ski professional by any standard and her presence on the mountain has been rewarding for the entire team including by encouraging some other trainers to improve their teaching style.

“We have some trainers who are long-winded. They talk a lot, and having Ashley in the group is great discipline for them to ski more and talk less, which is very important,” Lloyd said. “I know we have a long way to go, and we recognize our lack of diversity, and we’re taking small steps to address it.”

The mountain has done surveys of its employees to determine how they identify in terms of gender and identity and what their racial background is. The numbers are then compared with demographic data for Summit County. The initial goal for the mountain’s staff is to become more in line with the county’s demographic data. 

Ashley Owens, a full-time instructor at the ski area after several years of part-time instructing at Keystone ski area, primarily teaches the adults with using body language, typed messages on the phone, and other visual strategies without the use of voice. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

For example, 29% of A-Basin’s employees are women yet 45.3% of people in Summit County are women. Similarly, 6.1% of employees are people of color, while 18.5% of residents in the county identify as the same, said Lloyd, who serves on A-Basin’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. 

Forrest King-Shaw, a Black ski instructor at Palisades Tahoe in California, has trained and certified ski instructors for the past eight years. He leads NBS Sno Pros, a group that started informally about eight years ago. The club is small and comprises about 10 members, mostly ski and snowboarding instructors of color, who are also a part of the National Brotherhood of Skiers, the largest Black ski group in the country.

When ski industry leaders have job openings, some reach out to Sno Pros to find qualified underrepresented candidates. Ski leaders have also asked Sno Pros to get advice about diversifying their marketing strategies, King-Shaw said.

The group is not only for instructors but rather any professional in the snowsports industry.

There’s been a “noticeable shift” in marketing at organizations such as REI, Patagonia and Burton. “You crack open a ski magazine and you’ll see a half-dozen ads with brown people in it, which you didn’t see two years ago,” King-Shaw said.

“I think there’s progress but progress is a tricky word. And I don’t like that progress thing to be co-opted, because people will put their feet up and say, ‘It’s better than it was,’ and onto the next thing.”

Ski companies that struggle the most with diversity are the ones mostly focused on outward-facing public relations campaigns or communications strategies, such as updating graphics on their ski gear or revising imagery on their marketing materials to appear more diverse. The companies that are more focused on changing the culture within their organizations, seem to have more success when diversifying their staff internally, he said.

“You don’t have to be an elite skier to become an instructor,” he said. An entry-level instructor, who becomes certified to teach beginners, trains at a resort and learns the fundamental techniques, such as how to turn and move on skis, and how to effectively communicate with their students. They also participate in co-teaching exercises before taking a certification exam.

Organizations should focus on internship programs, part-time jobs or other strategies to get people from underrepresented groups into the building. Few jobs at resorts require employees to be elite skiers already. If that is unclear in a job description, people from outside the neighborhood won’t apply, and ski resorts will continue to have difficulty recruiting and enticing people to come to the mountain in the first place, King-Shaw said.

If mountains can encourage people to take jobs in other roles at the resort, those employees will likely eventually click into a pair of skis for the first time and get on snow.

Owens started working as a server at A-Basin before she decided to apply for a ski instructor position. Her path is a good example of how resorts can diversify their instructor talent pool, King-Shaw said.

“It requires some different thought, and that diversity of thought only comes from a diversified workplace, and that’s why some entities are struggling and some have been able to adapt,” he said.

“You’re not going to fix it in two years, or five years, and I think some people panic and aim for a quick hit,” he said. “Get people in the building some way.”

People in the millennial and Gen Z cohorts will soon make up most of the workforce and they are more seemingly focused on diversity than their older counterparts, he said. As they move into higher levels at workplaces, diversifying will be a requirement rather than an option for ski resort leaders, he said.

Kevin McDonald, a Black ski instructor in Aspen, has been teaching the sport for 27 years. He wasn’t a very good skier when a friend encouraged him to become an instructor. But a love for the sport led McDonald to approach the owner of the ski school at Wilmot Mountain in Wisconsin.

The owner said McDonald would have to take lessons to get better, and after a season of practicing, McDonald got certified and began teaching beginners. Now, he teaches all levels of skiers, including experts, and some of his clients have been learning with him for more than two decades. 

Since 2015, McDonald has led UPportunity, an Aspen-based mentorship foundation that works to build confidence and reduce fear among at-risk Black young people by introducing them to travel and adventure.

“In the at-risk Black kids community, there’s a lot of fear, and their confidence level can be really low, and I’ve found that skiing is a very good vehicle to build confidence and reduce fear,” McDonald said.

The goal is not necessarily to increase diversity on the mountain, though it can be an unintentional byproduct. The program is funded by some of McDonald’s wealthy clients and ski industry organizations. This summer, the students will travel to Egypt.

“In the at-risk kids Black community, there’s a lot of fear, and their confidence level can be really low. And I’ve found that skiing is a very good vehicle to build confidence and reduce fear,” Kevin McDonald said. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Participants are selected from a pool of students from Chicago and Texas who are performing well academically and in school attendance and have a positive attitude. As many as 12 young men a year are chosen to spend a week skiing with McDonald in Aspen.

On the trip, they’re required to describe themselves in 30 ways that don’t involve the color of their skin and start conversations with other people on the chairlift to break down racial barriers and bond over a new commonality: skiing. 

“It really gets them out of their fear of seeing other races as a barrier. Everybody out here is out here for the same reason, to ski and enjoy the mountains, and if you let your mentality accept that, then you’ll be able to really grow,” McDonald said.

“If you’re always looking around to say, ‘I don’t see any Black people,’ then you’re just limiting yourself,” he said. “Not to say that there’s not systemic racism — there is — but we, as an ethnic group, have to take responsibility for our own shortcomings and lack of self-confidence and address those fears and not ignore that.”

As another ski season comes to an end, some resort leaders might be feeling pressure to more quickly diversify their staff.

But McDonald said he hopes industry leaders won’t ever rush that process. The successful instructors he meets are those who do the job because they truly love the sport and enjoy teaching it. Those are the instructors resort leaders should focus on finding, training and hiring, he said.

Aspen-Snowmass ski instructor Kevin McDonald leads a ski lesson with two clients, Wednesday, Apr. 12, 2023, in Aspen. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Tatiana FlowersEquity and general assignment reporter

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment 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, intense exercise, working as a local DJ, and live music...