SNOWMASS, Colo. – During the first full week of February, more than 2,000 Black skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes in Snowmass for the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) 49th annual summit.
“Right now we have about 3,500 members and 54 clubs across the United States and the U.K.” said Henri Rivers, president of the National Brotherhood of Skiers . “We've had summits all over…Utah, Idaho, New York.”
The organization's very first summit was in Colorado, according to Rivers.
“Our founders, Art Clay and Ben Finley, they had the vision to put this all together. It started out with 13 clubs… they got together in Aspen, Colorado, in 1973,” Rivers said.
NBS co-founder Arthur “Art” Clay says times were different then.
“There weren't many of us,” he said. “We had the first summit in ‘73. We had about 500 people there. It was the first time I skied in Colorado, at Aspen, at Ajax. It was really a mountain because where I'm from, we only have small hills… coming out here, I found that the best skiing in the world is right here in the Rocky Mountains.”
Clay, who is originally from Chicago, says according to fellow NBS founder Ben Finley, Aspen wasn’t always welcoming to the organization, especially in 1973.
“Finley tells a story, that I can't really attest to, but he says that the State of Colorado called out the National Guard when they found out a bunch of us would be in Aspen,” Clay said.
But almost 50 years later, circumstances have changed.
“Instead of the National Guard being called, we've had two different mayors show up from both Aspen and Snowmass,” said Quincy Shannon, founder and president of the NBS Chapter Ski Noir 5280 in Denver.
“We're the youngest of the ski clubs that has been initiated within the National Brotherhood of Skiers,” Shannon continued.
Shannon says he hopes to get more young people interested in the sport.
One of the brotherhood’s missions is to “identify, develop and support athletes of color who will win international and Olympic winter sports competitions representing the United States and to increase participation in winter sports."
But Shannon says he understands age and feeling unwelcome aren’t the only barriers to skiing. Skiing and snowboarding are expensive.
“Regardless of your race, color, and creed… your equipment costs money. Your lift tickets cost money… one of the great things when you come with a group though is we're able to leverage the fact that it's going to be over 1,000 people, or 10,000 people,” he said.
Shannon says group discounts and partnerships with companies have helped the NBS overcome economic challenges, but the stereotype that Black people don’t ski is still a barrier.
“Whenever I talk about skiing, people say, 'One, you’re from Texas, and two, Black people don't ski,' and I'm like, 'Oh, quite the contrary,'” said Deandrea Staes, Rocky Mountain region director for the brotherhood and the chairperson for the Houston Ski Jammers.
“I envision that not only are we filling the mountain with people once a year for a week, but we're seeing Black people on the mountain all year long,” Staes said.
Even if that happens, Staes and others National Brotherhood of Skiers members say attending this yearly gathering is like a homecoming of sorts. Rivers describes the summit as a family reunion, while Clay says it’s where so many important life events have happened for him.
“I met my wife skiing, many of our friends,” Clay said.
At almost 85-years-old, Clay isn’t quite ready to give up the sport that’s brought him so much joy.
“I tell them all just to keep skiing, keep skiing,” he said.
Clay says that’s exactly what he plans to do, and he hopes that a few thousand of his friends will continue to join him every year on a different slope.
In March, Clay and Finley will be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. They will be the first Black Americans to be inducted.