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In this issue of Desert Companion, science writer Alec Pridgeon takes a sweeping historical look at Southern Nevada’s many precious Indigenous rock writing sites, with an eye toward the threat posed to them by increased outdoor recreation, as well as vandalism. Also: Six local thought leaders in healthcare share what they’d do to improve healthcare if they were in charge; and 2023 Writer in Residence Meg Bernhard kicks off her six-part series of reported essays on people and climate change.

Uphill Slope

An illustration of a Black man skiing down a slope
Ryan Vellinga
Desert Companion

Are Black ski clubs the key to making the mountain accessible to all?

The midwinter sky above Carolyn Haywood Wright made the ski slopes in Lee Canyon look blue-tinted. It was 1980. Wright, in her mid-30s and skiing for the first time, accelerated through the lessons. She enjoyed feeling the undulations in the snow with its shallows and grooves.

“They usually say Black people don’t do snow; they don’t ski,” Wright says. “Skiing down the mountain and ending my day sipping on a hot toddy while listening to music and conversation with friends seemed like heaven on earth.”

Wright grew up going to Mt. Charleston and wanted to go skiing, but time and energy were scant. It took another impetus to connect her feet to skis. That came when Wright attended a Lake Tahoe gathering organized by the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS), a group that helps get Black people on the slopes.

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Founded in 1972, the NBS brought together 13 Black ski clubs around the country to identify and discuss problems and subjects unique to Black skiers. The Las Vegas chapter — Sierra Snow Gliders, Inc. — was created in 1991 to further the goals of the NBS, which wanted to channel and develop snow-sports athletes.

“I thought it was so awesome to see all those Black folks skiing and all that,” Wright says. “Growing up in Las Vegas, we had our part of town, but as far as being with adult (Black ski) professionals on a ski slope and in parties and meeting new people from all over, it was very exciting.”

Wright’s experience with NBS put her at ease while skiing. She joined the Sierra Snow Gliders, where she currently serves as the president and is guiding the club back from pandemic dormancy. In this, she faces an uphill climb. Members are aging. To entice younger members, the club has expanded to include all winter sports, as well as travel. Yet it, like many Black institutions formed as an armor against racism and discrimination, confronts a larger question: Do Black ski clubs still need to exist, since skiing is marketed to anyone who wants to participate?

Participants in winter sports are predominantly white, but the National Brotherhood of Skiers has been trying to change that for 42 years. More than 50 regional clubs came to this year's gathering.

Though skiing and the outdoors are represented as free and open to all, many Black people feel apprehensive entering a predominantly white space. Data from the National Ski Areas Association’s 2021-22 participant demographic survey indicate that 88.7 percent of ski resort patrons are white. Asian and Pacific Islanders and Latinos represent 5.7 and 5.5 percent, respectively, while African Americans account for a mere 1.5 percent of overall participants.

According to Adrienne Saia Isaac, the association’s director of marketing and communications, skiing and ski resorts’ history play a part in the lack of diversity. In the 1930s U.S., skiing was done by “primarily white men,” Isaac says. A post-World War II boon in skiing and the creation of ski resorts were prompted by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops. They trained at Colorado’s Camp Hale for combat in the Northern Italian Appenines.

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“They came back and decided to open ski areas,” Isaac says. “I think it’s actually kind of clear that systemic inequity took over from there, just given the timing of where the country was at that point.”

Black people weren’t legally allowed to be wherever they wanted until segregation laws were struck down in 1964. Lackluster implementation of civil rights laws contributed to slow integration of the slopes well into the 1970s, right around the time the NBS formed. The number of Black skiers at NBS’ first gathering in 1973 in Aspen caused so much panic among the white patrons that the National Guard was placed on high alert.

As for the future, Isaac says that, from an industry perspective, diversity is a fact, especially among people age 25 and younger. They are both the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history - and made up the majority of visitors to ski slopes last season. To increase participation, ski resorts are trying to combat the perception of exclusivity.

“Representation matters,” Isaac says, while acknowledging that one patron feeling welcome in a space doesn’t mean everyone will.

Retired Los Angeles pharmacist Michael Washington joined the NBS to help others get into skiing. He found safety in numbers. Washington started skiing in 1969, at age 21, when his University of Southern California fraternity brothers invited him to Mammoth Mountain. He was the first Black member of the fraternity and had never skied before.

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“They invited me to go with them as a joke, and I didn’t know that,” says Washington, who viewed the invitation as an adventure. “The guys could have signed me up for a lesson, but they took me cold turkey up to the top of the mountain and left me there. I could have been killed or broken a leg. I lost one ski over a cliff while they were laughing at me at the bottom of the hill. That’s like putting someone who had never driven a car to drive the Indy 500,” he recalls.

Washington made a goal to learn how to ski and signed up for lessons with experts. He got good enough by his second year on the slopes to consider skiing professionally and soon joined the NBS.

“When I found out there were (dozens of other) Black skiers, I joined them,” Washington says. “They didn’t look at me like I was an anomaly. I was with people who were looking out for me.”

Black people expect mixed reactions when they venture outdoors, including on ski slopes. In the book, Black in White Space: The Enduring Impact of Color in Everyday Life, Yale professor Elijah Anderson documents the unique challenges facing Black people as they navigate “white spaces — a perceptual category, defined by the overwhelming presence of white people and the relative absence of Blacks — and their struggle to overcome stereotypes that continue to stigmatize them.”

The assumption of a natural Black space being a ghetto persists, despite the growth in a Black middle class. It explains the proliferation of videos on social media where white people question a Black person’s presence. Black people, Anderson adds, anticipate racial profiling and know that disproving imagined negative presumptions falls on them. Black ski clubs provide a buffer for these experiences.

Like Wright and Washington, Denver-based snowboarder Quincy Shannon gained confidence and a sense of belonging by attending NBS summits. “In a space as redlined as skiing and snowboarding still is, I’m very much conscious and aware that I am a Black skier,” he says, “not only because of how people treat me, which could be good or bad, but just by the identity in which you see others who look like you or the lack thereof.”

Shannon remembers being sponsored by Ikon Pass to record his experience at Aspen Snowmass for Black History Month. He posted a weekend spent with his daughter on the company’s social media, and it was met with racial animus.

“In the comments section, we had people saying, ‘I guess we should turn the snow black now, because this group wants to come up here, so that they’ll feel more comfortable,’” Shannon says. “We got over 300 comments, but I would say 70 of those were ignorant and very nasty.”

This is one reason he started Ski Noir 5280, a nonprofit that partners with companies and local governments to lend ski gear, offer free or discounted lift tickets, and even provide ground transportation to ski areas. More than 200 people signed up in the first two days of Ski Noir’s first trip this season, Shannon says. Based on demand for Ski Noir’s services, he believes Black ski clubs are still very much in demand.

Both Wright and Washington say they often go skiing by themselves and wouldn’t allow anyone to stop them. They don’t need Black ski clubs or the wooing of ski resorts, though it does help. But Shannon says the clubs are still relevant, not only as a shield against racism, but also because race isn’t their focus; skiing is. On the slopes members are just skiers, burning down a mountain, ignoring the arcs of white snow sprayed in their wake, as they look straight ahead.