In 1973, being a black skier was a lonely pursuit. Ski slopes were white-dominated landscapes of intimidation or hostility, and it wasn’t uncommon to encounter overt racism in the lift line. That year, a handful of small ski clubs from around the country decided to band together and hit the slopes as a group. They formed an organization called The National Brotherhood of Skiers.

“They decided to come together for camaraderie and to be on the mountain with people who looked like them,” said Peggie Allen, the current president of NBS. “It was not only fellowship and camaraderie — it was also safety.”

National Brotherhood of Skiers members make turns during a recent summit. Courtesy of Tyler Wilkinson-Ray.

It struck a chord; what began as a gathering of 300 people in Aspen, Colorado (where city officials were so alarmed they put the National Guard on standby) has grown into annual summits that draw thousands of skiers. Forty-six years later, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has more than 3,500 members in 53 clubs around the U.S., plus one in the UK.

And along with providing a safe space for its members and torching the myth that black people don’t ski, the NBS continues to engender the next generation of black skiers through a network of youth programs.

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A new short film from REI, Brotherhood of Skiing, celebrates the rich history and enduring traditions of the NBS. Through archival videos, interviews with founders and footage of recent events, the film tells a story of building community in what otherwise could be an isolating space.

Tyler Wilkinson-Ray, who co-directed the film with Colin Arisman, said they aimed to offer historical context as to why skiing is such a white sport. “That’s largely the case because it wasn’t a safe space [for minorities] for a long time,” he said.

But, he adds, organizations like the NBS have done a great deal to change that.

Young participants of the NBS’s YouthFest.

“I think the most obvious takeaway is for people from diverse backgrounds to realize that there is a network of organizations to help people get outside,” Wilkinson-Ray said.

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The NBS has been doing just that for nearly five decades through its annual summit and YouthFest events. Allen said the biggest benefit that NBS offers — and what continues to attract members — is the camaraderie it engenders.

“We’re a big family,” she said. “We laugh together, we love together, we argue together. But we come together.”

Through the organization, she said, skiers maintain lifelong friendships, teach their own kids to ski, and watch as the cycle repeats itself. No skier is too beginner to join; and each summit is a fundraiser for the youth development program, which aims to identify and support athletes of color who will stand on international podiums.

“We ski, and then we come off the mountain, and we party. We party with a purpose,” Allen said. “We also make a huge economic impact when we go to a resort.” That, coupled with the great events they put on, has resorts clamoring to host their summits, Allen said.

Despite the general strides of positivity the NBS has seen, Allen notes, not all of the negative aspects facing its earliest skiers have disappeared.
“We still go on mountains and when we get there, we still get the look. Like, ‘what the heck is going on with all of these black folk on the mountain,’” she said. Sometimes it’s benign, a genuine interest, she added. But not always.

“Unfortunately in this day and age, racism is still alive and well in this country. It’s not as blatant most of the time. We have great partnerships with our resorts. They no longer have to call the National Guard on us. But you still run into those walls on occasion,” Allen said.

Still, she’s proud that the NBS has introduced so many to skiing, sparking a healthy lifelong passion.

“It’s a beautiful sport,” young skier Kwesi Etienne says in the film, “and I wish it was more accessible to everyone. I guess that’s where our ski club comes in.”

 

Katie Klingsporn is the content manager for Telluride Mountainfilm. Read more of her writing at katieklingsporn.com