How Black Skiers and Snowboarders Are Finding Community on the Slopes
Both organizations and individuals are working to create more inclusivity in sports that are historically classist and white.
I was not prepared for Montana’s elevation. Sure, Big Sky was the winter getaway I had dreamt of during my early 20s. The fact that I had gotten there would make the younger version of myself so proud. But as a Black woman, skiing and snowboarding were not activities I grew up doing, much less saw any of my peers doing. I had no idea what I was in for as I ascended the mountain in a cable car—first to 7,000 feet, and then even higher. Once I reached the top, I began to wonder if I had what it took to get back down.
My instructor helped me with the fundamentals, and even got me on my first beginner hill. I felt ready but still nervous. My body had just started getting comfortable shifting around the weight of a snowboard properly under Tim’s patient tutelage. But it was now or never. I took a deep breath in, exhaled, and let go.
Finding a safe space
It turns out my observations were backed by actual data: The National Ski Areas Association reports that 88.7% of skiers during the 2021-2022 season were white, and fewer than 2% of the people who hit the slopes every year look like I do. Even for Black people who want to experience the slopes for themselves, actually doing it can feel isolating. Thankfully, there are organizations dedicated to changing that. EDGE Outdoors, which is based in Utah, provides free lessons to Black and Indigenous women who want to learn the ropes. Founder Annette Diggs told me she wanted to create a space where women could learn together in a safe environment in a way that uplifts—rather than downplays—their identities. “There have been traditions centered around the white experience, so when other people step into that space, it's hard for them to see their identities reflected or to find community,” she explains.
And in places without space for us, we will defy the odds and create our own. That’s how the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS) was founded. In 1972, Ben Finley and Art Clay decided to bring a group of ski clubs together for a summit in Colorado. The goal was to socialize and ski, but also to talk about how to get a Black member on the US Ski Team. The contender they rallied behind ultimately didn’t make the cut, but the Brotherhood has massively expanded to include more than 3,000 members and a nationwide network of clubs. Their annual Summit continues to this day—the next one is set for Big Sky, in 2024—and both Finley and Clay have been inducted into the US Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame.
The privilege of access
It’s important to note that a lack of built-in community isn’t the only barrier when it comes to bringing more diversity to the slopes. There’s a financial barrier to entering the sport as well. Ski vacations in the United States have become interestingly more expensive as the costs of lift tickets and accommodations continue to skyrocket.
“You need to have at least $1,000 just to try the sport,” says Diggs, the founder of EDGE. “We're talking about gear and equipment and things like lift access and lessons.” According to the US Ski Price Index for 2021-2022, the average price for a ski pass with accommodations was $201.75 per person, per day. Rentals can range anywhere from $25 to $100 per person—and that’s at a budget-friendly resort. Perhaps counterintuitively, the prices in the United States tend to be higher than those in Europe. For instance, a lift ticket can reach as high as $250 here in comparison to destinations like France or Switzerland, where that same ticket might be $99.
Destinations are also trying to make the sport more diverse. Ski Utah’s Discover Winter program will give people of color warm clothing, lift tickets, gear rentals, and four lessons at no cost. In its two first seasons, the initiative saw more than 140 participants, and it continues to grow. Beyond exposing people to the sport and offering them a way around potential financial barriers, the program also allows participants to network. “A huge component of the program is making friends who are interested in skiing, so that people continue to ski,” says Alison Palmintere, director of communications at Ski Utah.
Inclusion starts from within
Meanwhile, places like Vail Resorts have been at the forefront of trying to make their employees more diverse as well. For diversity and inclusion to stick, industry professionals like Henri Rivers, president of NBS, say it’s also about guests seeing employees who share their same backgrounds. “If you're talking about inclusion into the snow sports industry, that is not just selling lift tickets,” he says. “You change the industry by employing people of color at every level, from parking attendants to the CEO.”
Creating communities, overcoming financial barriers, and diversifying the spaces where people go to ski—these are all going to be uphill battles. As Black people, there are times we have to defend our right just to exist in nature, whether we're birdwatching, fishing, or simply going out for a run. Even our national parks have a diversity problem. The evidence is clear when it comes to the outdoors’ effect on mental health, but for most of my life, I’ve been told that skiing is a ”white” activity. Here's what I want to know: Who has the right to deem an activity only acceptable for a certain group? I will not let anyone define my identity for me, and my Blackness doesn’t simply disappear because I have a snowboard or a ski pole in my hand.
I want to be able to see natural wonders, to experience the beauty of the snow-capped mountains, or revel in the greenery of dense forests. And I want to do it without feeling like I don’t belong, or that I may be attacked. Everyone has a right to experience the outdoors, and thankfully, despite the odds, Black people are continuing to create their own spaces to do just that. That's something Rivers, the NBS president, always tells newcomers who are curious about joining clubs like his. “You're going to get tutelage from other fellow skiers at every level, from novice all the way up to experts,” he told me. “They're going to help you and guide you. You're not going to be alone on a mountain.”
But on that recent trip to Montana, at the top of that mountain, I was momentarily alone. For all the instruction that Tim gave me, I’d have to make the push-off myself. My smile widened as I finally flew across the blanket of snow. I practiced for probably another hour before letting my body rest and recover. After all, being outdoors is about recharging your mental and physical health as much as anything else.
For lunch, I went up even higher—8,800 feet, to be exact. Ascending the mountain in the cable car let me see the vastness of the area from a fantastic vantage point. I ate caviar and savory elk chili at Everett’s 8800, which was in a wooden lodge and featured even more epic views. By the end of the afternoon, I was sitting by a comfortable fireplace back at the Montage Big Sky, enjoying après drinks at the posh Alpenglow. The property was a vision with gorgeous views of the Spanish Peaks from its large windows that came with all the bells and whistles you would expect from a luxurious ski resort stay. I had to say: I quite liked the view from up here.