Five decades of soul on the slopes: National Brotherhood of Skiers returns to Vail for milestone summit
The National Brotherhood of Skiers has introduced tens of thousands of people to snowsports since 1973
The National Brotherhood of Skiers is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its annual Black Summit this week, bringing more than 1,200 predominantly Black skiers and snowboarders from around the country to Vail for competitions, parties, fundraising efforts and world-class skiing.
It is a milestone that founder Ben Finley, 84, said he never imagined when he and co-founder Art Clay, 85, put together the inaugural summit in 1973. As members of two of the earliest all-Black ski clubs in the country, situated in Los Angeles and Chicago, they thought it would be a fun idea to bring Black clubs together for a group ski trip.
“None of it was planned,” Finley said. “I describe the development of this organization like packing a little snowball at the top of the hill and starting it down the run, and it gets bigger and bigger as it goes until you say ‘Oh s—, look at what we ended up with.’”
Around 350 people and 13 ski clubs attended the first summit in Aspen, where Finley said that the energy and camaraderie among the group quickly indicated that they had created something special.
“There was no discussion about, ‘what do you do?’ Or, ‘what’s your profession?’ Or, ‘how much income do you have? The only common denominator was we are skiers and we’ve come here to have a ball,” Finley said.
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What started as a gathering has now evolved into one of the largest ski organizations in the country, with around 5,000 members and 57 participating clubs. The National Brotherhood of Skiers was registered as a nonprofit organization in 1974 and has since introduced thousands to the mountains with an exceptionally high rate of success.
Finley said that the retention rate of first-time skiers at NBS events, which the organization calls “never evers,” is around 60%, well above the national average reported at 17% by the National Ski Areas Association.
The NBS provides group lessons and mentorship opportunities on the mountain to help ease the learning process for beginners, but Finley primarily credits the organization’s retention to its emphasis on fun and community. Some of his fondest memories from his early ski club days were singing and chatting on the bus ride to and from the mountains. Today, that experience is mirrored in the musical performances and aprés events included in every Black Summit schedule.
“We stumbled upon the two magic ingredients: ski and social,” Finley said. “Gee, Texas Ski Week used to have a bigger contingent than we did coming to the mountains, but they never put together the skiing and social aspects. I learned how to do this on a bus to New York City. I did not understand what I was learning, but it has worked marvelously well.”
This will be the fifth time that Vail has hosted a Black Summit since 1977. The mountain is already etched into NBS history for hosting the organization’s largest summit in 1993, with over 4,000 participants, and Vail Resorts Chief Operating Beth Howard said that it is an immense honor to have been selected as the site for the 50th milestone in Vail’s 60th season.
“To have NBS as a partner and to host them for their 50th anniversary during Vail Mountain’s 60th means a great deal to me and to our company,” Howard said. “I believe that inclusion and growth is necessary not only for our sport’s long-term viability but for its vitality. The NBS Summit plays a large part in that dialogue, and we’re honored to push the conversation forward and build on their progress, ultimately creating a more inclusive culture and sport.”
In addition to broadening inclusivity in the mountains, the National Brotherhood of Skiers has a larger mission to develop athletes of color into Olympians and world champions in snowsports. The Black Summit is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year, raising money to sponsor NBS athletes on the long and expensive road of competitive skiing and snowboarding.
Henri Rivers, the current president of the NBS, is a certified instructor who spent years coaching NBS athletes before leading the organization.
“You’re going to see results,” Rivers said. “It’s not going to be immediate because it takes time to develop these athletes, but we’re going to see the change. We’re going to see many more children of color, athletes of color, being guided to that level of elite status of athletes that’s going to allow them an opportunity to make the U.S. team.”
Team NBS has sponsored over 45 athletes since its inception, including two Olympians representing Caribbean nations and two Paralympians representing the United States. In 1984, NBS-sponsored Paralympian Bonnie St. John became the first Black woman to medal in a Winter Olympic competition when she took home a silver and two bronze medals in adaptive skiing.
Today, there are 23 athletes sponsored by NBS, 13 of whom are training full-time in a variety of disciplines. While significant strides have been made in diversifying the competition field, the ultimate goal — to have a person of color representing the United States win a medal at a Winter Olympics — has remained elusive.
“It takes a whole lot to move a kid from a kid to a podium,” Finley said. “The fact that it costs so much money to develop an Olympic-caliber athlete and get them on the U.S. team is very discouraging. It’s hard to expand the number of qualified athletes when it costs so much to get there, so the challenge continues.”
Rivers and the current leadership team at NBS are aware that the challenge is vast, but also know that the impact is well worth the time and money.
“What we’re doing for our kids, what we’re doing for athletes of color, it affects America, it affects all of us,” Rivers said. “If we can identify more talented athletes that can represent and support the United States, that’s good for the United States, that’s good for the underrepresented communities, that’s good for every community.”
As the entry price into skiing and snowboarding continues to climb, finding ways to introduce “never evers” to snowsports requires more support than ever before. Fortunately, the ski industry is expanding investment into diversity and inclusion initiatives and the NBS is playing a crucial role in directing those resources.
In 2021, Vail Resorts partnered with the NBS and 10 other nonprofit organizations for the implementation of its Epic for Everyone youth access program. The program provides five free on-snow sessions for students including ski and ride school, meals, and equipment rentals, plus two additional free lift tickets to continue practicing with a guardian.
The company plans to host 9,000 youth across 29 resorts this season and provide approximately $9 million in product contributions. Through its national network, the NBS is helping the program reach clubs and underrepresented communities in metro areas like Boston, Detroit, New York and Columbus, Ohio.
“Our partnership with NBS has been tremendous,” Howard said. “They’ve helped us learn and grow on our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey, and they’ve been amazing partners as we’ve expanded our youth access programs.”
Rivers said that the organization is also working on ways to reduce or negate ticket prices for first-time skiers during future Black Summits to get more people on the mountain in the uniquely supportive environment.
“We have to try to make it affordable for them to come out and give it a try, because I believe once they try it and they really fall for it, it’s a done deal. You have a lifetime member,” Rivers said. “But we’ve got to at least dangle something out there that’s going to entice them.”
A historic legacy
In 2019, Finley and Clay made history as the first Black inductees to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame for their impact on the ski industry. The Hall of Fame recognized that when the NBS started in the early 1970s, the population of Black skiers was virtually non-existent, and five decades later there are tens of thousands of people that found their way to the mountains through NBS.
”I am very humbled by the fact that we have basically changed thousands of people’s lives by introducing them to something that they never would have experienced on their own,” Finley said. “Out of that experience has come a large family.”
The organization’s longevity is made even more impressive by the fact that it is and has always been run entirely by volunteers. Rivers, Finley and so many others can tie many of their best ski memories and friendships to past summits and are determined to keep the soul on the slopes alive for those that come after them.
“No one is paid to do this,” Rivers said. “That shows you the commitment and the dedication of its members to continue to build on this great organization.”
There is a long road ahead — both to reach a skiing population that reflects the demographics of the nation and a Winter Olympic podium that reflects the potential of athletes of color. But this week is all about celebrating the industry-changing impact of NBS’s first 50 years and continuing its legacy.
“I’m looking forward to getting together with the family again, feeling the camaraderie, and enjoying the experience of another summit,” Finley said. “And gee, my granddaughter will be there! It will be her second time skiing at 5 years old.”