Barnes is one of 4,000 skiers in town with the National Brotherhood of Skiers (NBS). They’ve come to Salt Lake City for an annual get together they call “The Black Summit.”
When 4,000 Blacks get together in a place like Salt Lake City, the city can tell. Considering I grew up not far from here, there are some things imbedded in my memory. The Olympics just two years away, this is not the Salt Lake City I remember. The skyline has begun to take on a more cosmopolitan look. Businesses, hotels and 2002 venues are sprouting up everywhere.
The one thing that has not changed much, however, is Salt Lake City’s ethnic makeup. In a state where Blacks represent just nine-tenths of one percent of the population, the National Brotherhood of Skiers increase the Black population by as much as 30 percent.
Every year I plan to spend some time at The Summit. Every year I say I’m going to rest up ahead of time. And every year the same thing happens. I get off the plane, check in, take one look at the schedule – and panic. This year because we’re surrounded by so many resorts, logistics pose some problems for Summit organizers.
For a time they take on the role of mountain travel agents to map out the week. Salt Lake City is the only major metro area that claims nine world-class resorts less than an hour from the airport. NBS skiers have booked up housing at practically all of them. If you haven’t reserved a car, hotel or discount ski pass by now, it’s probably too late.
The week begins Sunday with skiing at Park City and Deer Valley; Monday, Snowbird; Tuesday, Solitude and Brighton; Wednesday, Park City; Thursday, Alta and Snowbird. Friday, back to Solitude and Brighton before the races begin at Park City. You get the idea.
I met Joyce Locklear early Monday morning when I climbed onto a crowded bus destined for Little Cottonwood Canyon’s Snowbird. She’s been waiting to connect with old friends since the last time she traveled to an NBS Summit. Her hometown is Washington, D.C., but the veteran skier is also a member of Atlanta’s Southern Snow Seekers. I couldn’t miss her dazzling smile as she sat anxiously in one of the front seats while I was still bringing myself to full consciousness. When I asked how long she’d been apart of the Summit, she describes a contrasting experience from 30 years ago. “I first saw it on TV and assumed it was a sport reserved for Caucasians. That motivated me to try it.”
The hills are more than a hop, skip and a jump from Joyce’s back yard. In fact, the nearest resort is more than 150 miles away. “I figured joining an NBS club made up of people with similar interests, would make it easier to organize trips to the resorts. Irrespective of where you live and where you may move to, when you join one club, you have an instant connection into other ski clubs.”
Together, the eighty-three NBS clubs have grown to become the largest organized group of skiers in the world. You can tell where some members are from by names of their clubs. The Boston Ski Party, Sierra Snow Gliders (Las Vegas), Texas Ski Rangers (Dallas), Alamo Skiers (San Antonio). My favorite has always been Black Ski… D-C.
Snowbird hasn’t gotten any snow in the past few days, but it begins to fall just as we arrive. I spotted a figure at the base of the hill who looked like he might be waiting to give me a ski report. The truth is I couldn’t have missed Marlon Phillips if I’d tried. Dressed like a ringmaster, Phillips is sporting an enormous top hot and red suit. I tried to keep a straight face as he revealed his alter ego is that of an engineering firm owner in Washington, D.C. He makes the unabashed admission that it’s been 10 years since he put on a pair of skis. His knees do look a little shaky. His buddies check in from time to time to see how he’s coming along. We started talking just as he’d gotten up the nerve to venture beyond the bunny hill. “We’ve got excellent skiing here today. It was sunny earlier which is nice for us beginners, but it’s snowing now which makes it a skiers paradise. I’m just glad to be here with all these beautiful people.”
A tram ride to the top of the mountain is where Denver couple Guss Morrison and his wife Joyce Shelby are a little hesitant about making the run from Hidden Peak. By now it’s snowing heavily and the fog is so thick, they’re practically skiing blind. Neither realized there was only one trail that involved navigating a treacherous catwalk to get to the first open slope. Morrison is a 20 plus year skier and instructor at Copper Mountain, but he got stuck in a couple of gullys before he and Joyce were able to make it down.
I first met Guss, a DC native at a ski club meeting in Denver where he now lives. His family came up through the ranks of Black Ski. “Long before skiing I was involved in tennis with the National Junior Tennis League – Arthur Ashe’s old program created to get more Blacks into tennis. It seemed like a natural transition and I’ve long been devoted to getting more Black kids into skiing. Hopefully we will eventually get one on the Olympic team.”
That was the idea a group of friends from Chicago had when they got together and decided to call themselves “The Gang.” One of the NBS founders, Art Clay, has been with The Gang since the beginning. The Gang members have always be able to set themselves apart. As Clay puts it, “Every year we tried to do something different to keep from being redundant.”
The club was the first to come up with the idea of matching outfits. One of the members went through some pattern books and came across a full-length riding coat that caught her eye. It wasn’t a very complicated pattern, but the finished product looked awfully good. In the role of “apprentice seamstress,” Clay describes how he cut out the fabric pieces from the pattern while she (get name) sewed them together. Over a period of about three months, they made more than 150 coats. Fifteen years later, heads still turn whenever The Gang members strut onto the hill in their black dusters.
A combination of great music, Chicago-style hospitality and, Clay says, “a little something extra” has left The Gang with the reputation as having some of the best parties in Summit history. “We aren’t the greatest skiers, but we know how to party.”
Years ago, The Gang designed a small lapel button with the name of the club. It cost practically nothing to make but once members started handing them out at Summits, everybody had to have one. “The button, you see, was your invitation to our party. You got in if you had one. You got in if you didn’t have one.” Every year the design would be just a little different. Now they’re a Summit collectors item.
On Vacation with the National Brotherhood of Skiers