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National Brotherhood of Skiers Brings Soul to Sun Valley’s Ski Slopes
Friday, March 6, 2020


It was a girl who dragged Ben Finley to the ski slopes.

She talked the California scuba diver into giving up his flippers for a day to slide around the snow at Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park. And Finley not only fell headfirst for skiing but co-founded a national movement embracing black skiers.

“When my girlfriend suggested we try skiing, all I could think of was dollar bills and broken legs,” said Finley, who designed circuits for the Apollo space craft, guidance systems for laser guided weapons and helicopter collision warning systems. “But I ended up loving the exhilaration of flying down a slope on skis made out of wood. And six weeks later I was back at Badger Pass enrolled in ski lessons.”

Finley and Art Clay, a former child abuse investigator from Chicago, convened 11 black ski clubs at a so-called Black Summit in 1973 at Aspen/Snowmass. And today the National Brotherhood of Skiers is the nation’s largest organization of black skiers and snowboarders.

About 600 NBS skiers from across America are in Sun Valley this week to do a little skiing and a lot of partying. They’ve brought with them a little more swag, a little more attitude, a little color to the slopes. They’ve got Motown in their earbuds and they party hearty.

They held a gospel fest in the Sun Valley Opera House, a Black Beach Day at the Limelight Hotel, a celebrity comedy jam featuring the likes of Damon Williams, and a game night complete with poker, blackjack and Family Feud—following a Relationship Seminar, no less.

And the River Run Lodge has been rocking wall-to-wall day by day as Sun Valley locals join the black skiers in doing the Wobble.

Naomi Bryson has written two books telling the Brotherhood’s story—"The Day Snow Turned Black” and  “Mountains of Memories and Myths.” She learned how to ski 46 years ago on a small bunny hill 35 miles outside Detroit where she worked as a government employee.

“I always wanted to ski and the Detroit Free Press newspaper sponsored Learn to Ski classes,” she recounted.

Bryson has been involved with the Brotherhood since the beginning as a member of the Jim Dandy Ski Club, the oldest black ski club in the country.  She met her husband on one of the ski trips 44 years ago and they held their honeymoon in Steamboat Springs, site of the 1978 gathering.

“I have a special place in my heart for Steamboat because of that,” said Bryson, a past president of the NBS. “But I love to come to Sun Valley because of all the sunshine--we don’t have sunshine like this in Michigan. And we love the people in Sun Valley. They ski with us, party with us—they have a warmth here you don’t always see.”

The NBS sponsored one trip to Austria and one to Lake Placid to appease its East Coast members. But it has based its other gatherings in the West.

It held its second gathering in Sun Valley in 1975, bringing 750 skiers to America’s first destination ski resort.

“I remember Sun Valley was not doing that great,” recounted Michael Manning. “We dropped a few million dollars and that gave everybody here a big boost. I love skiing here. I want to return when you have another powder bonanza like last year--powder on 23 days of 28 during the month of February.”

Sun Valley has hosted the NBS gathering five times since--in 1979, 1998, 2012, 2014 and now 2020. The Vail gathering in 1993 drew 6,200 skiers—the biggest ski gathering on record. Sun Valley’s biggest was 1,300 in 1979.

“The nice thing about Sun Valley is that the altitude is not too high. It’s easy to adapt to, said Kelvin Shelton. “But your green runs don’t look like any green runs elsewhere,” he added, noting that Sun Valley’s easy greens tend to resemble other ski resorts’ intermediate blues.

Today the NBS has about 3,000 members in 60 ski clubs across the United States. But black skiers still comprise only about five percent of all skiers and boarders, when they comprise 12.1 percent of the U.S. population. But NBS members says they’re able to retain more who try the sport because of the community and camaraderie they build around it.

“It’s just so much fun to come here and see old friends and make new friends,” said Bryson. “Every year we look forward to catching up with friends from California to New York.”

The NBS has a mission of introducing black youth to winter sports.  And members dream of the day one of their own will compete for the United States in the Winter Olympics. So far, two from Alaska have made it to the U.S. Junior Ski Team. 

“We haven’t done too well,” admitted Finley. “But, hopefully soon.”

Tony Bell of Milwaukee said skiing has not only gotten himself and his friends out during winter but introduced them to things they might not have experienced otherwise.

“One time we skied a mountain so high the clouds were below us. It took our breath away,” he said. “You can’t explain that to someone when they ask us what we did on our ski vacation. You have to see it for yourself.”

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