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.