Words by Katie Baker
Photos by Chip Kalback
A Sunday afternoon in late winter isn't typically the most festive time of year, but try telling that to the hundreds of folks slipping around the California-side base of Heavenly Mountain in Lake Tahoe this past February. They hugged and they hollered and—in the case of a dozen or so women in matching white and pink getups that said "Sugar & Spice"—they did the Wobble while an aerial tram glided overhead, its passengers staring out the window at the party below.
The occasion was the opening ceremony for the National Brotherhood of Skiers' annual week-long meeting, which drew some 1,500 people this year to the slot-machines-and-lake-views destination of Heavenly. As the largest assemblage of black skiers and snowboarders across the United States, the NBS has been getting together annually, for both business and pleasure, since its first trip to Aspen in 1973. It's an occasion that combines the joy of a bunch of pals arriving at camp; the focus of a workplace retreat; and the unconditional, exasperated love of a family reunion. There are theme parties, board meetings, slopeside picnics, fundraisers, enthusiastic greetings—oh, and a few runs down the mountain, if there's time.
Most of them sported proud flair: sorority sweatshirts; Kappa Alpha Psi hats; clothing emblazoned with the logos and names of the nearly 60 predominantly black ski clubs scattered around the country. The South Floridians wore turquoise parkas that said "Sunshine Slopers." Chicagoans modeled red jackets with a friendly cartoon "Sno-Gopher" on the back. (No one had to ask the people draped in Mardi Gras beads where they'd flown in from.) Diana Starks, the outgoing president of the NBS, stood on an elevated platform raising the roof in a floor-length black fur coat. A DJ played "California Love" and heckled some poor soul who, skiing nearby, had caught an edge in the late-day slush.
It took two gentlemen in their very late 70s to get everyone to pipe down. Art Clay and Ben Finley, who founded the NBS 43 years ago and have held court at events like this ever since, love to talk. And everyone knows to listen.
"The Lord saved my life January 5, 1980, the first day I skied."
"We all dream," said Clay, up on the scaffolding near Starks. He wore two of his specialties: a derby hat and a novelty sweatshirt disguised as a red plaid sport coat with a green bow tie. "Thanks to all of you," he concluded, "I have lived my dream."
Clay stepped back. Finley looked stricken. "That's the shortest speech Art ever gave!" he exclaimed. His own remarks ran longer, and included the observation that being a founder is like being a dad. "You're stuck with it for the rest of your life," he said, "just like you're stuck with your kids for the rest of your life." He turned a bit more serious, a bit more fatherly, as he encouraged members to become actively involved in their NBS clubs. In a tone more motivational than mean, he said, "You've been skating by on the efforts of others."
Since its inception, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been about much more than just scoring group rates for lift tickets. It's an impassioned network of people determined to keep moving toward a pair of long-held and frequently elusive goals: to increase and broaden African-American participation in winter sports, and to "identify, develop, and support athletes of color who will win international and Olympic winter sports competitions representing the United States." This second part has proved more challenging, and as the decades roll on, both the Brotherhood and its purpose have been showing signs of age.
For decades, the NBS has supported ambitious young athletes on the mountain and encouraged tentative not-so-young ones to give skiing a try. The place it occupies in the lives of its members is deep and meaningful—just ask anyone who has attended an NBS wedding on skis. According to a 2014 report from the SnowSports Industries America, just eight percent of winter sport participants are black—up from five percent in 2003. The most common reason given for lapsed skiers not skiing, across all ethnicities, is: "No one to go with." For decades, the local clubs comprising the NBS have sought to make sure that isn't an issue, with their members pouring time, energy, and money into planning trips and supporting local youth. And they've done so with noteworthy success.
But the combination of shifting trends within ski tourism and the NBS's aging core—about 50 percent of men and 44 percent of women are over 50—has made the organization's future path somewhat unclear. Attendance at the annual meeting, which once reached the many thousands, was around 1,500 in 2016. Changes in ease and pricing structure of season packages have lessened the operational necessity of traditional ski clubs. At the same time, one of the NBS's main goals, to put a winter athlete of color on an Olympic podium, remains distant. And so as the NBS's old guard gets to be just that—old—the organization so proud of its past is forced to confront its future.
Finley nodded at the long and notorious bump run that loomed behind him, pebbled and imposing. "I know you all want to get up on that mountain and ski Gunbarrel," he said, then chuckled heartily. "At least, you used to. Nowadays, it's 10 'til 2, and only blues!"
In the lobby of the Hard Rock Casino, near a clear display case in which Michael Jackson's white glove rotates and sparkles like a rare gem, worshipers filed into a small theater for GospelFest, a regular Brotherhood event since the mid-90s. A woman in a "LOVE GOD" T-shirt led a choir in song while a hat was passed to raise money for the Olympic Scholarship Fund, an NBS-sponsored endeavor benefitting promising winter athletes of color.
Anyone present who felt moved to speak was invited to. "Good morning, saints," said a woman named Grace. "The Lord saved my life January 5, 1980, the first day I skied." People murmured appreciatively at news of 50th anniversaries and grandbabies. One man who stood up to declare his recent retirement was met with rousing approval. "I retired, too!" another man called out.
Diana Starks, wearing a gold and burgundy boubou, delivered a warm, wry sermon. (In addition to her day job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, she's also a minister, and was introduced to the crowd as "a Renaissance woman.") She implored everyone to think about the way they treat God. You know those annoying folks in your life, she asked, that only call you up when they want a favor? Don't be like that to Him, was the gist. Near the end of GospelFest, former Brotherhood president Bessie Gay stood up to announce that the hat had yielded $1,281.
Each year, the OSF supports promising athletes of color, and there have been proud success stories. Bonnie St. John, a Paralympic downhill skier, said that 33 Brotherhood members were on hand to support her in Innsbruck, Austria, where she won a silver and two bronze medals in 1984. ("You have a really big family," one of her USA teammates observed.) Seba Johnson competed for the Virgin Islands as a 14-year-old in 1988, and Errol Kerr represented Jamaica in 2010. (He also recently became the pond-skimming world champ.)
Freeskier Zyre Austin was an alternate for the U.S. squad in Sochi, where Ralph Green—who lost his leg after being shot as a teenager—appeared in his third Paralympics. Siblings Andre and Suki Horton were perhaps the NBS's most accomplished athletes. Andre finished ninth overall in the U.S. Alpine National Championships in 2001 and was the first African-American to win a FIS race in Europe, while Suki was selected to compete in the event three years in a row. Both were on the cusp of making the U.S. national team.
The NBS has sent dozens of ambitious skiers and snowboarders to premier alpine boarding schools or on long flights to Europe for international races. (Crucially, it has also sent thousands of less ambitious but enthusiastic newcomers up magic carpets for the first time.) But the organization has yet to directly produce or partner with anyone who has ascended to mainstream, daydream success—their face on the Wheaties box, their name spoken by Morgan Freeman for Visa, their likeness peddling Snickers. And with each Winter Olympic cycle that comes and goes without a black athlete on a podium, Ben Finley said, "it's hard to keep telling people it's gonna happen."
Finley and Clay weren't thinking about Olympic podiums when they first got involved in skiing. "There were more cutie pies out there on the ski slope than there were in the bars," recalled Clay. As a young veteran back in Chicago, he had piled into his brand new 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass with "some very nice-looking young ladies" and drove to a mountain in northern Michigan. Trying to get down the bunny slope, he wound up in the bushes.
Finley, a former weapons systems engineer who in 1962 was living in Southern California, took a girlfriend on a camping trip to Yosemite over Thanksgiving. On their ride home, she tried to convince him to take a few runs on Badger Pass. "The first things that passed through my mind were broken legs and dollar bills," he said. A scuba diving enthusiast, he hedged his bets by telling her that if she took scuba lessons, he'd learn to ski. "Six weeks later I was back on a ski slope at Yosemite National Park," he said.
A mutual friend introduced the two men. They complement one another well: Finley is organized, money-minded, and skilled at logistics, and Clay knows how to have a good time. Naomi Bryson, a former NBS president, knew Clay back in college. "He'll kill me if he knew I was gonna say this," she said. "He was a sophomore and I was a freshman and he was very athletic and had a body that was really built. And a head full of white hair. His head was white, even then! So he was really sought after by the ladies." ("He had a natural out to here!" was how Finley described it, holding his hand a few feet from his head.)
Each of the men knew of a few predominantly black ski clubs and figured it would be fun to assemble them all in one place. They chose Aspen. "We didn't want to scare Aspen," Finley said, "because at this time it was the end of the Black Power movement. We were not sure, frankly, how Aspen was gonna receive an all African-American group.
"So basically, we signed into lodges around town using our club names. People who called and said, 'I want to come,' I said, 'You can't come as an individual, you've gotta have a club.' Which forced them to go out into their own individual cities and form ski clubs. We started out with five ski clubs; we ended up with 13. And we ended up with 350 people that invaded the pristine town of Aspen, Colorado, in 1973." The National Brotherhood of Skiers was born.
Dino White schussed to a stop underneath the Canyon Express lift and turned up toward a group of a dozen or so skiers, raising his poles in the air. "Think of your poles as a picture frame," he said. "You want your upper body always facing down the mountain. The picture in the frame shouldn't change." White, a weekend ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain, was one of several "Bro Pros" who participated in informal, but informative, group skis throughout the week. (At a happy hour later that night, he said that his son, Tanner, used to participate in ski-racing programs with NBS support and is now a college kid in Mammoth with a growing love for big-mountain skiing.)
Two women, Cheryl Prince and Yvonne Lloyd, peeled away from the group and headed toward the gondola so they could get changed for happy hour. (Everyone was supposed to wear white.) Both women were from Atlanta, a city with a huge NBS presence. Prince began skiing because her kids did—"They went for a day trip with a church group," Prince said, "and came back and said, 'This is great, Mom! You gotta learn, because we fell, and we want to see you fall!'" Even as they moved around the country, the activity remained a constant in their friendship, and in their lives.
Out of 100 people who ski or snowboard for the first time, only 17 will stick around long-term, according to the National Ski Areas Association. This is a statistic Schone Malliet, a Bronx-born bear of a man who coaches ski racers and oversees the Olympic Scholarship Fund, has spent quite some time thinking about. In comparison to the industry average, Malliet says, the retention rate of a skier who first encounters the mountain thanks to an NBS event is as high as 75 percent. He attributes this to the strength and depth of the NBS community: It's easier to keep making the effort to return to the slopes, after all, when you've got friends who'll find lodging and airfare for you and promise to tool around on the greens as long as you need. "My goal was not to ski," Bessie Gay recalled with a laugh about her first few ski trips with an Atlanta ski club. "My goal was to sit by a fireplace and drink buttered rum." She would eventually run the racing program and become NBS president.
Malliet knows that a first ski trip is rarely a smooth one. Raised in the Bronx projects, he said, he didn't grow up skiing. But he was piloting jets in the Marine Corps when his navigator proposed they take a trip to Park City. They took a lift straight to the top of the mountain, and Malliet had no idea how to get off. "It was a miserable day," he said. Back in California, he got involved with the Four Seasons West ski club. "I was still miserable," he laughed. "But the idea that I could go back, and people in the club helped and cared, and we had fun together—that was really sustainable."
It's one reason why everyone talking about the NBS sounds borderline cultish. "This is my extended family," said Miles Maxey, the president of the Jim Dandy Ski Club out of Detroit, one of the most storied organizations in the network. (The club's existence precedes the NBS by about a decade.) "Skiing, to me, is love and family," said Bryson, who has written two books about the history of black ski organizations and, in particular, the NBS.
"I don't care what color you are. Every ski club I know, every fraternal organization even, is graying."
She says this literally. Bryson met her husband through Jim Dandy; they'd been dating for three years when he proposed at the top of Steamboat. Maxey's sister got married at the 2001 summit, at Keystone, with a skiing minister and hundreds of NBS members lining the slopes. "That's when I was introduced to my wife," Maxey said. "We have a lot of stories like that. My second son met his wife in our ski club." Peggie Allen, the organization's newly elected president, summed it up succinctly. "We're like family," she said. "We love each other, and sometimes we fuss at each other."
It was a proud Tahoe morning, the sky and lake in dueling blues, and a Heavenly guide named Jimmy squinted into the day. "OK," he asked, "who wants to ski at a real crisp pace?" The leadership roles within the NBS and in its member clubs have always been thankless volunteer positions, but they do have a few perks: A guided tour of the resort was scheduled for the organization's board members, club presidents, and other VIPs.
Malliet grinned. "You mean crisp?" he said. "Or you mean cooool?"
Jimmy meant both: It was one of those days where the conditions were primed for the suave and mindless destruction of neat corduroy rows. On the way up the mountain, Alphonso Atkins, a retired Atlantan who first took up skiing 37 years ago when he went to visit a friend's newborn in Ohio and got dragged along on a local ski trip by the stir-crazy new dad, lifted his face to the sun like a cat. These were his first clear skies this season, he said; trips to Whistler and Jackson Hole —quite the envious itinerary—had been defined mostly by rain.
"We ski all over the world," said Atkins, adjusting his GoPro. "I've been as far away as New Zealand, I've been outside of Interlaken, I've skied Chile. Part of our group went to Japan."
The group sped from Nevada to California and back again, with the lake shimmering in the backdrop. During a photo-op, Skip Roberts, the president of the U2 Can Ski Club out of Stockton, California, lamented the decline in participation. The NBS was flush throughout the '90s in particular. At the 1993 summit held at Vail, over 6,000 people showed up. Two of them were "New Jack City" director Mario Van Peebles and comedian Sinbad, who performed several sets. Diversity in skiing seemed prime for a breakthrough. A summit in Steamboat five years ago, though, drew fewer than 700. "The recession hit," Roberts said. "Everything just turned."
But it isn't just the economy that's causing attrition in the NBS ranks, it's the demographics as well. Nearly all the folks skiing with Jimmy were retired, and as the membership has grown older, younger members haven't made up the difference (which is an industry-wide issue, not one limited to the NBS; besides climate change, the aging of the participant base is considered the biggest threat to skiing). Part of it seems to be a generational thing; between the ability to make plans on the internet and the rise in heavily discounted season pass programs, like the Mountain Collective or the Epic Pass, there's no longer quite the same incentive to sign up for, and pay membership dues to, a ski club. The NBS has a great relationship with Vail Resorts, which owns both Heavenly and Keystone, where the 2016 summit will be held. But it's hard not to wonder if the ease of programs like the Epic Pass are dooming the NBS model.
"Every ski club in America has exactly the same problem," said Finley. "I don't care what color you are. Every ski club I know, every fraternal organization even, is graying."
One of the more divisive issues within the NBS today is what to do about the Renegades. Across the street from the Hard Rock, 20 rooms were reserved at the Montbleu Casino by a group of black skiers eager to take part in a week of festivities. They skied Heavenly and Kirkwood in spades. Some hiked nearby backcountry for some powder turns. Sixty snowmobiles had been lined up for a massive group tour of Zephyr Hills, and the waitlist was 25 people long. No one in this group, however, was registered with the National Brotherhood of Skiers.
"Our whole deal," said Reggie Cummings as he stood outside the back door of a subterranean hookah lounge called Xhale, "is we're kind of a ski club, but we don't charge money, we don't have meetings, we don't have politics or drama. We go skiing, we have parties, meet cool people, hang out."
As a kid growing up in the Boston area, Cummings was introduced to skiing through an organization called Youth Enrichment Services. For a time in the mid-90s, he was even president of the NBS-affiliated Boston Ski Party. But he grew tired of internal politics and started the Renegade Kings, one of a small handful of splinter groups who find out where the NBS is planning to hold its summit each year and then plan a week of concurrent events all their own.
Still, there are signs of a truce: Each year, the Renegades make donations to the Olympic Scholarship Fund. Cummings said that the Soulboarders, a snowboarding contingent of Renegades, is applying to join the NBS. And on the final night of the summit, the NBS and the Renegades came together to co-host a goodbye bash.
Meanwhile, everyone involved in the NBS continues to doggedly pursue its two objectives. Several years ago, a small ski operation in northern New Jersey called Hidden Valley was put up for sale, and in 2015 Malliet helped raise $12 million to buy it, update all the infrastructure, and convert it into a non-profit facility for teaching skiing and snowboarding to kids from the greater metropolitan region. The National Winter Activity Center—"just call it The Center," said Malliet—partners with existing youth organizations. Rather than bring them out for one bewildering trip to the mountains, as so many well-meaning programs tend to do, the Center's process is designed for the long term. Anyone involved makes at least seven visits.
And the process has been designed to be as streamlined as possible. By the time the kids return for the third time, Malliet says, "we're able to get the kids off the bus, to a snack, into equipment, and on the slopes in 18 minutes." Last year, close to a thousand kids came through the program. The goal is to eventually serve several times as many. It's this sort of lofty purpose for which the NBS continues to party. "I come from the NBS," Malliet said. "I come out of the NBS. I am a product of the NBS. All of this is part of what the NBS, at its core, really does."
Back at Heavenly's California-side base, a set of 9-year-old triplets—a welcome sight in a sea of skiers many times their age—chattered about their results in that morning's racing series, which had featured competitors ranging from hard-core downhillers in their tight racing garb to more leisurely enthusiasts just happy to make their way down one of the more forgiving courses. The Rivers children had finished in under 29 seconds in the annual event, one boasted.
Their parents, Henri and Karen Rivers, both of whom are ski instructors at New York's Windham Mountain, said they'd taken the kids out of school for the event. Skiing runs in the family. When Henri and Karen met, "the prenup was that I had to learn how to ski," Karen said. "I learned, I enjoyed it, and I loved it. He said to me, six months out of the year —"
"— I'm looking for snow," Henri finished.
"He's looking for snow," Karen said.
Around them, everyone posed for photos in their club colors, with some folks still in the Spandex they'd worn in the races earlier that morning. A pair of women discussed their outfits for the evening's Mardi Gras-themed happy hour. One of them, Rosalind Greene, would later show up at the event dressed in all-white, sporting a set of wings the size of her body. "I thought I'd come as the most gorgeous woman in the world," she explained, "and that's an angel." Paul Goodloe, a meteorologist from the Weather Channel, remarked that this was one of the only years he could remember that the NBS hadn't gotten a snowstorm during the summit.
But it was hard to be too disappointed with the bright skies. Art Clay, who first went looking for snow long ago, had strapped on his skis that morning before the event, and made his way down the mountain, at age 79, in his trademark derby cap and duster coat. He reflected on the trajectory his life, and his legacy, had taken, and he implied that there will always be new mountains to be visited, more work to be done.
"I've started on the bunny hill," he said, reflecting, "and I've done everything in between. And now I'm back on the bunny hill."
This story originally published in the October 2016 issue of POWDER (45.1). Subscribe to the magazine here.