An Oral History of the National Brotherhood of Skiers
Since 1973, a groundbreaking organization has gathered thousands of Black snow-sports enthusiasts for a week of on-mountain revelry. But the event has always had a more serious mission, too: changing perceptions about who belongs on the slopes.
In June, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz wrote an open letter to his employees, calling the ski world “overwhelmingly white, with incredibly low representation from people of color,” and pledging to change that. Currently, just 1.8 percent of American skier days are logged by Black people, according to the National Ski Areas Association. That number hasn’t risen in a decade.
But it might be a lot closer to zero were it not for the National Brotherhood of Skiers. Launched in 1973 with the mission of creating a national Black ski summit and attracting more Black people to the sport, the Brotherhood’s biennial event has seen up to 6,000 attendees gather in a premier ski town—Vail, Park City, even Innsbruck, Austria—for a week of revelry. There are giant outdoor feasts, rollicking on-snow dance parties, and all-night celebrations. Skiers in matching parkas perform choreographed mogul assaults. The organization also coordinates discounts on lessons and rentals for first-time skiers—the NBS calls them never evers—while its cadre of experts, the Sno-Pros, provide mentoring and tips.
The NBS acts as an umbrella group that unites 55 regional Black ski clubs scattered nationwide. With an all-volunteer staff and a $250,000 annual budget coming from donations, fundraising, and sponsors like REI and New Belgium Brewing, the group has received considerable media coverage, and has introduced thousands of Black people (both children and adults) to snow sports. It’s also supporting Black skiers and snowboarders hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team.
As the NBS moves into its 47th year, it faces a new set of challenges. Its founders—Ben Finley and Arthur “Art” Clay, now 81 and 83, respectively—have become legends, but the group’s membership has aged, without an influx of younger constituents. In March, the group made news after its summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, had a devastating encounter with the coronavirus—scores of members fell ill, and four died. Now it’s wrestling with how to leverage the momentum of a national reckoning with racism.
Recounted in the voices of its own members, here is the story of how the NBS came to be, its accomplishments, and the direction it’s heading in the future.
The nation’s first Black ski group, the Jim Dandy Ski Club (named after an R&B song by LaVern Baker), formed in Detroit in 1958. By the early 1960s, a handful of U.S. cities had similar clubs, like the Snow-Rovers in Boston and the Chicago Ski Twisters. In New York, there was the Four Seasons Ski Club, run by an NBC cameraman named Dick Martin, who owned a ski shop in Harlem and often played ski evangelist to his peers, screening films and proclaiming that a skier need not be a “blond-haired, blue-eyed Norse god.” Martin organized weekend ski buses that rolled out of Manhattan at oh-dark-thirty to wend their way north to the mountains of upstate New York. In 1964, a 25-year-old New York University graduate student named Ben Finley climbed on board.
BEN FINLEY: On Thanksgiving weekend 1963, just before I started grad school, I went camping in Yosemite National Park with a girlfriend. We spent three wonderful days living in a tent and watching raccoons and bears. On the way home, we stopped at the Badger Pass Ski Area to have margaritas and watch people kill themselves coming down the mountain on seven-foot-long planks. She said, “I’d like to learn how to ski.” What passed through my mind was dollar bills and broken legs, in that order. But being a very suave young man, I didn’t say no. I said, “If you take scuba-diving lessons with me and pass your ocean checkout, I will bring you skiing.” She met the challenge, and six weeks later I was back in Yosemite, on skis. I was raised in the Boy Scouts. So to me it was just another outdoor adventure, this time with a woman involved. And there was something about skiing—the adrenaline rush, the thrill of letting gravity do all the work and then coming to a quick hockey stop.
Those early trips with the Four Seasons Ski Club were real East Coast skiing. I mean ice, and I was a novice skier. We’d ride up to the mountains in a bus singing songs and telling jokes. If you wanted to tell a story, you had to stand up and introduce yourself—say who you were, how long you’d been skiing. It was fun. It didn’t feel like it was a revolution, but unbeknownst to me, I was learning how to run ski trips.
Finley graduated from NYU in 1966 with a master’s in electrical engineering. Around the same time, he moved to Los Angeles and founded his own ski club, Four Seasons West. Over the phone, he befriended Art Clay, a kingpin in the Chicago Sno-Gophers.
ART CLAY: In 1971, Ben and I started talking about bringing all the country’s Black ski clubs together for a national gathering. Black skiers were rare then. When you went to the mountain, you were all by yourself, and it was a strange feeling until you saw, way down the hill somewhere, another Black. Before that day was over, you and that Black down the hill were friends.
FINLEY: In 1972, when our club was in Sun Valley, one of our skiers, a man, was with a white woman in the disco in the basement of the lodge, and the people there were like, “Wait a sec. What are you doing with this white woman?” We had to turn out all the men in our club to go down to the basement to protect our people. I remember another story of a Black woman who was deliberately knocked over mid-run by a white skier who came along and bounced off of her and said, “Y’all don’t belong here!”
Look, skiing is nothing but a microcosm of America. We all expect to run into racists while we’re on the slopes. But incidents like that didn’t happen a lot. Mostly you just felt—
CLAY: Cautious. You think, I’m not going to cut the lift line. I’m gonna respect the guy who’s in front of me. You stay aware of what you’re doing so you don’t accidentally get in trouble.
FINLEY: We held our first summit in Aspen in 1973. It was the time of the Black Power movement, and we were very uncomfortable telling Aspen that we were bringing a large Black contingent to town. In the months before we gathered, each individual club made their own reservations, thereby staying invisible to the Aspen Chamber of Commerce.
Ten days before the event went down, we sent the Aspen Times a press release. No lodging or club names were presented in the release, but still it caused a stir in town. The mayor of Aspen must have called the governor, because soon the governor put the National Guard on standby. We only found out about this four years later, so I have no idea what the people of Aspen felt. I just know they were very happy to take our money.
CLAY: There were at least 350 Black skiers there at the first summit. We had some ski races. We were dancing on the snow. We were doing the Bump.
FINLEY: We had women from California who came in jeans meeting with ladies from New York who came in mink coats, and everybody melded together like jam.
CLAY: Tell them about the pajama party.
FINLEY: The Sno-Gophers, from Chicago, developed a pajama party in 1975, and people came in their actual pajamas. We were young and free back then.
CLAY: The little fast gals from California came in their baby doll pajamas.
FINLEY: And the guys would often come with very little on.
CLAY: And all this would upset the older women.
FINLEY: Not all of them. In 1975, in Sun Valley, there was this 87-year-old white lady by the name of Sun Valley Sally. At the pajama party, during the costume contest, Sun Valley Sally suddenly appeared on the floor and pushed her way to the front and stood there cheering.
Growth— and Continued Racism
The summits grew larger; the 1979 edition attracted 1,300 people. White skiers joined the Brotherhood’s conga lines and even began writing to the Brotherhood pre-summit, so they could learn which dances to rehearse. But the racism persisted.
CLAY: The question you get most from other skiers is, What do you do for a living? What I often say is, Well, I’m a pimp. I don’t like that question. I mean, why would you ask me about my job unless you’re suffering cardiac arrest and are looking for a doctor? Basically, they’re implying that you don’t really belong there.
FINLEY: Sometimes the questions are strange. Once, about six of us from my club were having lunch at Heavenly Valley in South Lake Tahoe, which has a lot of casinos. A couple came up to us and said, “You guys ski so well. Where are you appearing tonight?” They thought we were a musical act getting ready to go onstage at a casino.
CHUCK HARRIS (61; two-time summit attendee; head ski-racing coach at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, in Nevada; and, in 2002, a coach for Argentina’s Olympic ski team): In the early eighties, when I was on my way to Stowe, I got pulled over for following a car too close just outside Montpelier, Vermont. Next thing I know, there’s a voice coming over the PA on the cruiser: “Get out of the car with your hands up.” There were two Vermont state police officers pointing guns at me. They handcuffed me. And then after about 30 minutes, they just left me there by the side of the road to reload everything back into my car. I was shaking so much, they asked if I needed someone to come give me a ride. I said, “No, officer, I’m OK.” If you’re Black, you don’t talk back to a cop. Ever.
Often we can’t separate ski programs from the communities they sit in. I’ve been to places as a coach where the resort is great and the ski team is great, but the community makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. In places like that, I won’t go out for dinner. I’ll just stay in the hotel and call Domino’s. I can’t afford to have something go sideways and not be on the hill the next day for my athletes.
The Party Reaches a Peak
In the mid-eighties, the Brotherhood’s snow dance parties rocked to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The summits grew larger, with 1,450 attending in 1983 and 4,500 by 1991. The festivities kept ramping up until 1993, when 6,000 Black skiers gathered in Vail, Colorado. Mike Lanier, then a 24-year-old Philadelphia engineer, attended his first summit in 1985, where he was introduced to ski racing. Later, obsessed with masters and club racing, he’d hit the slopes up to 140 days a year. Now 59, he says his greatest athletic feat lay, arguably, in surviving the parties at the 1987 NBS summit.
MIKE LANIER (22-time summit attendee): That first summit—it was like coming out of the desert into an oasis. You’re so used to being around white people. Almost nobody on the ski slopes looks like you.
I’d seen Jean-Claude Killy on Wide World of Sports as a kid, so I signed up for the races that year, even though I was just a power snowplower in dungarees. I remember this guy in the starting gate giving me pointers. After that, I was over-the-top with ski racing—with the joy of going through the gates, with the speed, with getting timed.
I went to the 1987 summit in Lake Placid with my dad, a jazz musician. My dad was all about partying, but he only lasted three days. The way the summit worked then, you’d ski the whole time the lifts were open, from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M. Then there’d be a happy hour right after that, in the main lodge, and the liquor would be flowing. Back then we had liquor sponsors.
At around 5:30, you’d go back to your condo for a hot-tub party, where you’d have another libation. Then you’d go to dinner, and then you’d go to the main party, which was themed. You’d have the Pajama Party. You’d have Leather and Lace, All White, All Red, Wild Wild West, Batman and Robin. That party would go from 9 P.M. to 1 A.M. Then you’d have the afterparty at people’s condos. There’d be at least four or six different condo parties, and then, at about 2 A.M., you’d go to the real party. Art Clay and the Gang (the name of Clay’s other ski club) out of Chicago, they rented the whole St. Moritz hotel in Lake Placid, so there was no last call. The party would go until 5 or 5:30 A.M. Then you’d go grab an hour and a half of sleep and hit the slopes at eight o’clock. My dad got dressed for the party on Wednesday night, but he never made it. He just slept for a day and a half, in a suit and tie. He was done. But Art Clay, he lasted all week.
National Brotherhood skiers were united behind a dream—to send the first-ever Black snow-sports athlete to the Olympics. The NBS established its Olympic scholarship fund in 1978, and throughout the nineties members kicked in prodigiously, alongside corporate sponsors like GM and Subaru. At the end of that decade, the fund had a budget in the six figures—enough to send a dozen NBS athletes to ski schools like Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. The most promising Black skier was Andre Horton, now 40, from Anchorage, Alaska, who competed on the U.S. national team in the downhill, super-G, and giant slalom from 2001 to 2004, and in 2001 became the first person of color ever to win an International Ski Federation (FIS) race in Europe.
ANDRE HORTON: The first time I saw another Black ski racer was when I was 16. It was 1996. The NBS soon after sent me to South America for summer training with a bunch of Black kids, and that was terrifying to me. I wondered what they were going to say, because I talked funny and listened to the Smashing Pumpkins and Sublime. I was from elite white ski racing, and later, when I showed up at NBS summits—I’ve been to 17 of them—there was a culture clash. I felt like the reaction to me was, “Oh, so you’re gonna come ski with your folks now?” The idea that I’m an Uncle Tom has followed me my whole life.
When I won an FIS race on Mount Hood in 1995, though, I kept hearing, “Did you see the Negro skier?” A lot of Black people would shame whoever said the word, but I think we should give people some grace. I didn’t focus on the outdated language, and the gamble paid off. Skiers who first struck me as total rednecks ended up becoming my closest friends in ski racing. They were at my wedding. They changed the way they view Black people because of me.
My last race, the 2004 National Championships, was on my home hill, Alyeska Mountain Resort in Alaska. After I finished my run in the downhill, I was in the lead. I thought I had it in the bag, as I had already beaten Bode Miller, who was favored to win and was coming off a prolific year of World Cup wins. I ended up a disappointing fourth by .018 of a second.
Decline and Reinvention
By the early 2000s, skiing was in trouble. The cost of lift tickets was skyrocketing, and the industry was failing to recruit young people. Skiers under age 34 were getting out five days a year on average, about half as much as their septuagenarian elders. Younger skiers tended to find their ski discounts—and often their rides to the mountain—online. Ski clubs everywhere suffered, and the 2008 recession hit the NBS hard. In 2011, only 700 people came to the Brotherhood’s summit. The Olympic scholarship funds dropped precipitously soon after, along with sponsorship money.
Onetime NBS vice president Schone Malliet, a private banker and veteran Marine pilot, envisioned a different future for Black skiing. In 2015, with some large grants from foundations, Malliet established his own separate nonprofit. Spending $20 million, he turned an abandoned ski area in Vernon, New Jersey, into the National Winter Activity Center. Today more than 8,000 kids, most of them low income and nonwhite, visit the mountain center each year to try alpine and nordic skiing, as well as snowboarding.
SCHONE MALLIET: Kids come to our mountain for six days of four-hour sessions. They get two hours on the snow and then two hours of mentoring and life skills. We go off a Norwegian model. Instead of directing kids, we teach them through play. They put puzzles together by skating to the pieces. They go over rollers and around banks on cross-country skis. They’re getting physical activity in the dark days of winter, and we serve them wholesome food—soups, salads, nothing fried, no soda. They look at our solar-powered buildings and learn about renewable energy.
You’re not even allowed to ski on our mountain if you’re an adult. Why would we let you? You can’t swim at your kid’s summer camp, can you?
HORTON: Schone’s got the right idea. You’re not going to create a Black ski champion by sponsoring a handful of stars. You need a huge funnel. You need to promote the skiing lifestyle for thousands of kids. If you do that, 15 years from now you won’t just have one U.S. Ski Team prospect. You could have six or seven.
I just wish the NBS was working as hard as Schone to reach a new generation of Black Americans. They should be getting those kids into Black ski clubs, but they’re not doing that. And they need younger officers. If you want to become the NBS president now, you first have to be a member of the board. By the time you’re in office, you’re just old.
HARRIS: On the racing side, the NBS is not in the fight right now. We never see them at the big races. They’ve got to forge alliances with coaches who are already in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard pipeline. Or they could make an alliance with Schone, help him add top coaches to his staff and nurture the athletes he’s created.
HORTON: NBS membership declined because the local clubs were run by elders unable to bring in my generation, and also afraid of change. I have an MBA in entrepreneurial finance, and in 2006, I had a vision for nationalizing all the local clubs of the NBS. I’d heard in passing that NBS sponsors wanted more demographic data. I thought that, as a national group organized under U.S. Ski and Snowboard, we could collect that. If we had data, then maybe we could get discounts at ski resorts or with airlines. But the local presidents didn’t like my idea. They didn’t want to lose their autonomy.
HENRI RIVERS (59, current NBS president): We already partner with U.S. Ski and Snowboard, but Andre’s not wrong. We need to reach out to the 25-to-40 age group—we’re going to hire a marketing consultant to help us with that. And we’ve got a convoluted structure. We’re reevaluating our bylaws.
And Then the Pandemic
When the NBS hosted its 2020 summit in Sun Valley in early March, many of the 600 attendees were over 70. And it was a grievously opportune moment for the coronavirus to spread. The virus was ramping up at the time, but social distancing and masks weren’t yet part of Americans’ repertoire.
NAOMI BRYSON (79, former NBS president): By the time I got home from the summit, I had no sense of taste, no smell. I had no appetite. I was unable to walk. Then I couldn’t breathe. I have never been sicker in my life. I was hospitalized for two weeks. From Detroit, we had 60 people who attended, and 17 got the virus.
FINLEY: Two weeks after I got home, my breathing deteriorated. I was diagnosed with pneumonia and COVID, and I spent three days locked in a solitary hospital room.
BRYSON: We’re all very sad. There are people we looked forward to seeing every year, and suddenly they’re not going to be there anymore. The grieving will be really bad when we get back together next time.
Hundreds of residents and visitors fell ill to the coronavirus in Sun Valley, and on March 20, a newspaper, The Idaho Mountain Express, appeared to lob blame at the Brotherhood. “There is evidence,” wrote reporter Alejandra Buitrago, “that some cases of as-yet undiagnosed illness in the Wood River Valley could be linked to an annual summit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers.” The story went on to note that according to the Brotherhood’s Facebook page, “at least 126 skiers from different chapters of the national society have been ill.”
On March 27, the mayors of Ketchum and Sun Valley released a joint letter condemning the allegations against the NBS as “baseless and unmerited.”
RIVERS: I was disappointed that a news source could state misleading information as if it were fact.
BRYSON: Nobody talked to me, and I know where I got the virus from. There was a group of emergency-room physicians there at Sun Valley with us, and they invited me to come in and eat breakfast. They didn’t know that they had the virus, but then suddenly three of them had to go home, they were so sick.
A Changing Landscape
Vail’s Rob Katz sent his open letter a week after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by police officer Derek Chauvin. He noted that racism “might feel removed from the ski industry,” and that “it might not feel like our problem, but that is the problem.” U.S. Ski and Snowboard, meanwhile, circulated a letter in which Mt. Rose ski coach Chuck Harris discussed the “moments of blinding rage” he’d experienced because of ski-world racism.
HARRIS: In the marketing materials for most resorts, there’s nobody who looks like me. There’s a dog whistle going on there, and also a red flag. The dog whistle is telling white people, “Hey, this is the perfect safe space for you and your kids.” The red flag is waving at anybody who’s Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Black, or Native American, and it’s saying, “Maybe you’re not quite welcome here.”
RIVERS: We’re talking with Vail. We’re asking, “How do we expose African Americans to your resort?” You have to work to reach African Americans. Skiing is such a white sport that Black people have no knowledge of it. Like they don’t know where to ski. They see it on TV and think, “Wow, that’s a cold, rough sport. Why would I want to do that?”
Everybody in the industry is taking the posture that racial discrimination is no longer acceptable, but I want to see more than just lip service. We’ll have to see what happens.
HARRIS: The NBS has incredible clout with resorts. If a resort was competing to get an NBS summit, and somebody from the NBS said, “I looked at your website and it made me uncomfortable,” that would resonate. If a ski resort took a hard look at police misconduct in a ski town and said to the police, “Hey, we’re the biggest employer here. Knock it off!” that would change things. I think the time is right for change. I’m more hopeful than I’ve ever been.
Meanwhile, the NBS is keeping its eyes on the club’s latest prospect. Fifteen-year-old freestyle snowboarder “Flyinbrian” Rice II, a Jim Dandy Ski Clubber from Farmington, Michigan, is now living near and training in Vail, perfecting his triple cork 1440 thanks to an NBS scholarship, and also benefiting from the pioneering work his NBS elders did to gain acceptance for Black winter athletes. And though the pandemic has postponed the ceremony, Ben Finley and Art Clay will soon be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Michigan.
BRIAN RICE: Nobody in snowboarding has ever thrown me any shade for being Black. People in the industry are open-minded, and they’re very grateful to have people like me coming up and trying to boost the sport for other ethnicities. And I’m inspiring people, like this seven-year-old African American boy who just got his first snowboard and wrote me about it. Maybe I’ll be the first African American snowboarder in the Olympics.
RIVERS: There are more than 400 people in the Ski Hall of Fame. None are people of color. Ben and Art were rejected when we sent the first application in 2017, and then rejected again in 2018. But it doesn’t matter anymore. They’re in now, and that’ll bring thousands of African Americans to the mountains.
FINLEY: I never even heard of the damn Hall of Fame until a couple of years ago, but it’s an honor to know that what Art and I did is being appreciated. Because we changed people’s lives. I knew that back in 1993, when we had a big lunch outside at Vail. All the people serving us were there in their white garb, and when the music came on all of a sudden the entire bottom of the hill was in this huge dance. I was totally excited. I mean, you’re hosting the largest ski convention in America, and you happen to be Black and you pull this shit off? I was just like, Wow, look at this. It’s quite a sight.