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Black skiers come together in Vail for 50 years of 'Soul on Snow'

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VAIL, Colo. — Representation matters.

And when it comes to people of color participating in and sharing predominately white spaces, there are few examples better than the 2023 National Brotherhood of Skiers' summit in which thousands of Black ski and snowboard enthusiasts, including professionals, ventured to the mountains of Vail to celebrate their love for winter sports.

“It’s only when we are able to see people who look like us doing these sports, that we get somewhere in the back of our mind, ‘Maybe I’d like to try that,’” said Ben Finley, who is in his 80s and cofounded the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS). “And so that’s why it’s important organizations like this exist.” 

Finley and his friend Art Clay founded NBS in 1972. Finley said he and Clay did not have a clue of what they were getting into, describing the early days of the organization as “rolling a packed up little snowball on to top of Aspen Mountain and rolling it down the hill with no plan.”

In 1973, NBS held its first summit. What started out as a gathering of just over 300 participants has now, half a century later, turned into an annual event that attracts over 2,000 skiers each year.

This year, the NBS gathered in Vail to celebrate “50 years of Soul on Snow.” This year's festivities are taking place from Feb. 4-11.

Colorado VoicesNational Brotherhood of Skiers 50th Anniversary

“It feels to me overwhelming because of the respect that I get from having rolled that snowball down that hill, that’s all I did! Art and I have the credit for that,” said Finley.

Sondra Scott, who proudly shared that she is a product of NBS, said she has been taking to the slopes since she was 5 years old. Growing up, Scott often noticed she was the only person of color out there shredding, which concerned her. “And so, I really wasn’t exposed to other people skiing that were my color. When I went to my first ski summit it was eye-opening because I never saw any one of my color,” Scott recalled.

In the 2021-2022 ski season, nearly 89% of visitors to U.S. ski areas identified as white, according to the National Ski Areas Association. Black and African American skiers, by comparison, accounted for only 1.5% of visitors.

Both Scott and Finley said that cost is one of the biggest barriers that prevents people of color — and many people in general — from participating in winter sports. Scott explained that the average price of skis, on the lower end of the spectrum, is about $2,000. Add on boots, pants, gloves, helmets, lodging and lift tickets and the price becomes prohibitively expensive for many people, even if they’re renting equipment.

Scott said one of the many reasons why NBS is so important is because the organization helps people of color overcome financial barriers through discounts, and that it works on outreach to young people of color.

Scott and Finley reiterated the importance of Black representation in predominately white spaces.

“We’re uniting and making it feasible and it’s so exciting to get the younger kids out there skiing,” said Scott.

NBS has in has more than 50 participating chapters in 43 cities across the U.S. Three of the chapters, including the BIPOC Mountain Collective, are based in Denver.

Ben Finley, co-founder of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS).

For Ben Finley, he said people like Scott and the many young people who visited with him over the course of this year’s summit make him hopeful for the future of NBS.

“Where do we go in the future? I can’t prophesize that. That very much depends on what the younger generation wants to do with their lives,” Finley said. “We need young people to reincarnate this organization because we are graying.”


Lindsey Ford is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at lindseyford@rmpbs.org.

William Peterson is a senior photojournalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at williampeterson@rmpbs.org.

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