A weekend with the National Brotherhood of Skiers: Fellowship on the slopes

March 4, 2013

In the past few years, the African American community has celebrated the centennials of several landmark organizations, from the NAACP to several sororities and fraternities. (Shout out to my sorors of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.)

But nothing prepared me for the sight of thousands of black skiers and snowboarders who flooded the slopes of Snowmass, Colo., for the 40th Anniversary of the National Brotherhood of Skiers last weekend. The summit not only served as a celebration but also as a fundraiser for the NBS Olympic Scholarship Fund, which supports athletes of color pursuing winter sports in the Olympics and international competitions.

The summit drew more than 1,000 registered participants and likely three times more in what NBS president Diana Starks called “followers.”

“That’s me,” I told her during an interview, explaining that I had never been to the legendary ski trip before.

NBS is actively trying to recruit those followers, who are often younger and have formed their own clubs. They’re also known as “the renegades.” Though there has been tension between NBS and the enthusiasts who manage to crash the summit in a highly organized fashion, Starks said she realizes “some people don’t want to be part of the club; they want to be part of the experience.”


The Black Ski Club at Snowmass (James Owen/SharpShooter Imaging)

“To me, it’s a testament to the organization,” Starks said.

The District was well-represented as Black Ski, a local club that was one of the founding organizations of the larger brotherhood, had 108 members in attendance. The 800-plus member Black Ski was the largest contingent of registered participants of any of the 59 official clubs, said its president, Vicki McGill.

McGill, a 45-year-old graphic designer who lives in Brookland, said she grew up in the city but “just didn’t know” about Black Ski. She went skiing in 1989 with some engineering school classmates. “I wanted to ski again, but I didn’t know anyone,” McGill said, recalling how she finally connected with the club in 2004. “The other ski members become your friends and family.”

To sustain NBS, there is a “continuing effort to recruit younger people,” McGill said.

“Some clubs have just vanished because they weren’t able to keep young people,” she said. Black Ski’s members in attendance ranged in age from their early 30s to a member in her early 80s, McGill said.

The summit pumped an estimated $500,000 into Snowmass and the surrounding area, Starks said.

Stores throughout the village hung signs welcoming NBS and offered discounts. (I got 10 percent off that souvenir T-shirt and magnet.)

McGill said she does not believe the renegades could have reached out to retailers and the local chamber of commerce for the large-scale event. Retailers “really wouldn’t embrace a random renegade group,” she said.

The renegades, however, managed to take over a local bar and several hotel ballrooms for parties. If the club members are your family, the renegades are the fun, distant cousins at the family reunion.

But I couldn’t tell a renegade from an NBS member on the slopes. There was this incredible sense of camaraderie and unity. Folks who spend all year long climbing the corporate ladder, often alone, were helping each other scale mountains. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, presidents, vice presidents, executive directors, entrepreneurs and others from all over the country transformed as they donned helmets and goggles and ski boots.

And the jackets? Clubs around the country have their own logos. The newest club to officially be recognized by the NBS — Sugar and Spice Snow and Social Club, which has ties to the District — uses pink high heels, while the Los Angeles- area Winter Fox Ski Association uses, well, you guessed it.

I also have never seen a group of people party harder. Renegades, NBS members, whoever. I was told what happens at “Black Ski,” as it is affectionately shortened, stays there. (Single ladies, beware married men.) But let me explain what happens in a typical day. Forget about envisioning time by a fire.

You don’t sleep. You wake up early. Eat a light breakfast. Hit the slopes. Eat lunch. Hit the slopes again.

By 3 p.m., it’s time for happy hour. At the Summit, that hour turns into hours and hours of outright partying. No wallflowers allowed. To quote Marvin Gaye, “No more standin' there beside the walls.”

And my friends and I danced with . . . a bear.

Lil’ Bear — basically a guy in a bear mascot costume who represents a crew from Detroit — had T-shirts, has a Facebook page and enjoyed everything from Chicago house to Dirty South, drop-it-like-it’s-hot music.

After happy hour, it’s time to eat and nap so you can wake up for evening parties that go until at least 2 a.m.

I’m a novice at snowboarding and even more of a novice at “summitting.” I left by mid-week — a move that was chided by my new friends on the slopes.

But I’ll be back. I believe the National Brotherhood of Skiers will reach that centennial some day.

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