In Vail, 2,000 Black Skiers and Snowboarders Hit the Slopes

In the weeks leading up to my February trip to snowy Vail, I was told by several people — promised, really — that I would “feel the magic” of the 50th anniversary gathering of the National Brotherhood of Skiers before I even arrived in Colorado.

“There’s a palpable excitement in the air,” said Mackenzie Phillips, 46, a fitness instructor and avid skier and snowboarder who has attended Brotherhood gatherings, which they call summits, since 2001. “Just seeing the faces in the airport and people coming in is really something magical,” she added. “I hope you’ll feel it.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what everyone meant, but I was looking forward to finding out. I quickly came to understand: At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, I saw Black skiers and snowboarders checking in their skis, boots and boards. When I landed in Denver, there were groups of mountain-bound people in their matching ski club jackets. By the time I got to the Hythe Hotel in Vail, I had a sense of the vastness of the event I was attending.

“There’s something special about this week and the way we all gather here,” said Michele Lewis, 72, a member of Philadelphia’s Blazers Ski Club, as she stood atop Vail Mountain on the second day of the summit. “When I started skiing, I didn’t know that so many Black people skied, but here we are.”

This year’s gathering, called Soul on the Snow, drew 2,000 people to Vail from Feb. 4 to 11. Newbies took lessons, while the old-timers got their regular runs in. Some people broke off into groups for snowmobiling and tubing. There were chances to participate in ski races, learn about new gear and try different kinds of skiing.

The hub of the weeklong gathering was the Hythe, a short walk from the Eagle Bahn Gondola and the Born Free Express and Pride Express lifts. Its lower level hosted banquets and dinners throughout the week. Happy hours and panels on the main floor were hard to miss, and families gathered in the outdoor firepit area every evening to make s’mores.

Outside the hotel, the Tavern on the Square, with its large outdoor patio, seemed to have a constant waiting list of people hoping to go straight from the slopes to the bar. Before skiing, after skiing and even after the parade kicking off the week’s celebrations, where each ski club showed off its jackets and spirit, Garfinkel’s bar was the place to be. This year, the singers Ne-Yo and Anthony Hamilton popped into town to perform, too.

In the 1960s, Benjamin Finley, who goes by Ben, hoped to go on a ski trip to Yosemite. Mr. Finley, who is now 84, figured that if he could rustle up a group of 12, the trip would be much more affordable, so he asked the people he played volleyball with at a community center in Los Angeles if they would be interested. To his surprise, more than 30 people said yes. And instead of car-pooling to Yosemite, the group chartered a bus. That was the beginning of the 4 Seasons West Ski & Snow Club. Similar stories led to the founding of the Jim Dandy Ski Club in Michigan and the Sno-Gophers in Chicago. The Brotherhood now consists of more than 50 clubs and has about 5,000 members.

With most African Americans living in cities without easy access to snowy mountains, group trips made it easier to participate in the sport, something that remains true. In the 1960s and ’70s, going to ski towns in groups also ensured a sense of safety in numbers. In New York, people would hop on buses from Harlem to Hunter Mountain; in California, they’d go from Los Angeles to Tahoe and Yosemite.

In 1972, Mr. Finley heard about Arthur Clay, who goes by Art. Mr. Clay, who is now 85, was a fellow Black skier and member of the Sno-Gophers. The men got on the phone and talked about bringing together Black ski clubs from around the country. They drew 13 clubs to Aspen in 1973, more or less accidentally giving rise to the National Brotherhood of Skiers.

“None of this was intentional,” Mr. Finley said. “This whole journey is like a snowball running downhill. We started going and it just got bigger and bigger.”

Days before that first gathering, which a member of the Jim Dandy Ski Club in Detroit suggested be called a summit, Mr. Finley and Mr. Clay decided to send a news release letting the world know that Black skiers were coming to Aspen. The announcement made Aspen residents nervous, and the governor at the time, John Arthur Love, put the National Guard on alert — “just in case we acted up,” Mr. Finley said.

“It wasn’t until four years later when we were sitting down with people from Aspen planning another summit that they revealed precisely what had happened before the first one,” he said. “I do know that Aspen was happy to take our money.”

At that first gathering in Aspen, which was attended by 350 people, members of the group talked about their experiences, sharing information about which ski towns had been welcoming, which ones hadn’t, what kind of fee or dues structure worked, and what kinds of clothes and hairstyles worked best on the mountain. Most people said they rarely experienced racism on the slopes, something that has continued to surprise them. But they often hear from people in their lives who are nervous about encountering microaggressions, racism and judgment for participating in a sport that hasn’t historically been the most accessible or welcoming to Black people.

After the first summit, the group became concerned not just with getting Black people on the slopes, but also with creating and supporting a pipeline of Black skiers and snowboarders who could make it to the national team and the Olympics. The organization set up a scholarship fund for young skiers and gave financial and moral support to Bonnie St. John, the first African American to win medals at the Paralympic Winter Games in 1984, and Andre Horton, the first Black man to compete for the U.S. Alpine team.

The opening weekend of the summit was the first time I’d ever been on skis. The founders had some advice for me: Take a lesson. “Don’t just go by yourself. Talk to the other people that are up there with you — Black, white, brown, blue, green, purple,” Mr. Finley told me.

I took it to heart. I knew I would thrive at après-ski. That part seemed to call only for a great warm outfit, a drink in hand and the ability to converse with others. But to get to the après, I first had to ski. That’s how I, a hater of winter, snow and the discomfort of puffy clothing, found myself inside Epic Mountain Rentals being fitted for ski boots and a helmet on a 19-degree day. I signed up for a lesson through Vail Ski & Snowboard School and was coincidentally joined by six other Black women skiing for the first time.

My instructor, Deanna Henry, said that she assumed I would do well because of the ease with which I’d stepped into my skis. She soon realized that had been mere luck. I learned about basic ski positions like pizza-ing (to stop, you create the shape of a pizza slice with your skis), about the right skiing posture and what to do with my knees. I tried to remember everything “D” had explained, but as I headed the very short distance down the Practice Parkway, I felt that the most important thing to remember was how to stop.

Once I began my descent, I couldn’t go straight or master turning, so I kept going in the wrong direction and falling. A few times I went left and fell into the Magic Carpet lift, a kind of escalator on the snow. Other times I went to the right and fell there. At one point, a child no older than 12 came over to me as I lay in the snow and gently asked if I needed some help. “No, thank you,” I said, less because I didn’t need help and more because I didn’t want to hurt someone’s child.

After getting myself up, falling again and making my way to the Magic Carpet, I heard another child, this one about 5, simply say to her instructor behind me, “I think we should give her some space. She’s also learning.”

I appreciated the thought.

That kind of thoughtfulness on the slopes permeated the entire gathering. At breakfast one morning, three people came up to me and asked why I was sitting alone. They invited me to sit with their groups. As I was leaving my lesson, the women in my class invited me to après ski with them. I understood that promise of fellowship and camaraderie that so many people had sworn I’d experience. At Garfinkel’s, at the Tavern, at the Hythe and even on the lift, people showed me photos of their significant others, their first ski trips and more. Most of my interactions began and ended with hugs.

Mr. Finley asked me why I’d never skied before. I told him I didn’t like the snow, had lived in cities my whole life, hadn’t really seen many people who looked like me skiing, and that the cost, even for a short weekend trip, was exorbitant. He pointed out that those are the exact reasons so many other Black people don’t ski.

According to the National Ski Areas Association, 87.5 percent of skiers during the 2020-21 season, the last one for which it has data, were white. Black skiers made up 1.5 percent of the group.

The first time Ja’ Saint-Tulias, who took her first snowboarding lesson during the summit, skied, she had no idea what she was getting herself into, but she’d been curious.

“I was naïve about what to expect and showed up in two pairs of sweats, a huge hat and long coat and I didn’t realize how much ski-specific gear I’d need,” Ms. Saint-Tulias, 28, said. Years later, she joined Jim Dandy in Michigan. This year, she and her husband, Patrick, went to Vail with a mission.

“We want to create a tradition that allows us to connect with people who are like us, who we can share in our Christianity and the outdoors with,” she said.

Younger people like the Saint-Tuliases are exactly whom the National Brotherhood of Skiers is hoping to attract.

In 2019, Mr. Clay and Mr. Finley were inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, becoming the first Black skiers to receive the honor since the organization was founded more than 60 years ago. As they walked around Vail, in matching blue and black ski jackets with their names emblazoned on them, they could barely go a few steps without people coming up to thank them for creating the organization.

“I’ve been doing this for so long, I used to say, ‘Everyone raise your hand, so I can see you,’ and now I say, ‘Raise your cane,’” Mr. Clay said. “We might be older and not able to ski anymore, but it makes us real proud to see all these people out here.”