As a kid, Annette Diggs had never been skiing. That wasn’t something anyone in her Memphis neighborhood did. It wasn’t until she was being bused from her predominately Black home school district to a predominantly white district for a program that addressed failed integration that she learned about snow sports. Her family didn’t have the means for her to participate, so she made a pact with herself—when she grew up, she would explore the outdoors.
Years later, after moving to Seattle as an adult, she made good on her promise to her younger self and signed up for ski lessons. She said she immediately felt out of place, like her presence was being scrutinized.
“I remember going to go get a drink from the café, and I overheard someone say, ‘Hey look, a unicorn,’” Diggs said. “I looked around and realized they were talking about me. I was the outlier in the room. I didn’t like that feeling at all. So that day, I decided I was going to bring more women of color with me to the mountain.”
She became a ski instructor and, in 2019, founded Edge Outdoors, an organization dedicated to helping women of color access snow sports through scholarships for lessons, lift tickets, and gear. In doing so, she became part of a growing number of groups formed to break down entry barriers and create community for women, BIPOC individuals, and those with disabilities interested in participating in snow sports.
Snow sports have long had a diversity problem. According to the National Ski Areas Association, today, 88.7 percent of skiers and snowboarders in the U.S. are white, and 63 percent are males. It’s also an industry that inherently favors those who are nondisabled.
One of the groups pushing for more diversity in snow sports the longest is the National Brotherhood of Snowsports (formerly the National Brotherhood of Skiers).
NBS recently celebrated its 50th annual gathering, which saw more than 2,000 Black skiers and snowboarders come together for a week in Vail, Colorado. All told, NBS comprises roughly 5,000 skiers and snowboarders and 57 participating snow sports clubs from across the country. As Henri Rivers, NBS CEO explained, the clubs grow membership by seeking out beginners and offering them mentorship.
“When a new skier comes in, we nurture them, guide them, walk them through getting equipment, and make sure they take a lesson,” Rivers said. “It can be very intimidating the first time. If you’re not guided properly, and you have a bad experience out of the gate, you’re not coming back. We don’t want to see that.”
It seems to be working. Only 7 percent of newbie skiers and snowboarders stick with the sport nationally, but for NBS members, that number is upwards of 60 percent, Rivers says. And that’s within a population that makes up only 1.5 percent of all skiers and snowboarders.
The difference, Diggs argues, is the feeling of belonging.
“It’s not just about giving them an opportunity to participate in snow sports, it’s also about creating a space where they can be authentically themselves,” Diggs said. “That’s what helps promote retention.”
Diggs added that having instructors that come from the same communities as newbies helps show what’s possible.
“Our students are learning from people who look like them, who know their language,” Diggs said. “We create an environment that is familiar to them in an unfamiliar place. There’s a sense of vulnerability there, where people feel OK to make these mistakes and embrace them with joy.”
That’s also why Edge Outdoors and NBS both have athlete-development programs that help athletes of color secure training to compete on a professional or Olympic level. Such visible representation could inspire others to pursue snow sports.
Rivers says that access is another key that increases accessibility and diversity in snow sports. Getting into skiing or snowboarding usually requires an investment of several hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, between lessons, rentals, cold-weather gear, meals on the mountain, and lift tickets (which, alone, typically range from $100 to $250 each day). There’s also the added travel expense for those who don’t live near a ski resort.
“The industry needs to open its eyes and understand it’s not about how much you can get out of the first-time skier dollarwise,” Rivers said. “If we could find a way to reduce the cost, we would definitely see an uptick in participation from communities of color and underrepresented groups.”
Some resorts have partnered with nonprofits to help make the mountains more affordable, especially for children who might not otherwise have the chance to participate. For instance, Vail Resorts, a company that manages ski resorts such as Vail, Breckenridge, Heavenly Mountain, and nearly three dozen others, started the Epic for Everyone youth access program to reach kids who live in major cities near its mountains; the program provides five free lessons, equipment rentals, meals, an introduction to ski-related careers, and two free lift tickets. During the 2022/2023 season, it worked with 9,000 kids.
“The future of our sport is inclusion,” said Kirsten Lynch, CEO of Vail Resorts. “I feel we have a great responsibility to remove barriers and inspire a passion for our sport.”
Roy Tuscany is the founder of the High Fives Foundation, which serves people who have sustained life-changing injuries (ranging from spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries to limb loss) by using adventure as a catalyst to get them back into community.
“Continued access is what fosters long-term success and a lifelong love of the sport,” Tuscany said.
Each of the athletes (a word HFF uses instead of grantee or awardee “because it gives the individual identity beyond their injury and helps them move forward,” Tuscany said) receives grants to help them get from an adaptive skiing or snowboarding novice to the expert level. Those grants can be used for lessons, lift tickets, and the adaptive gear (equipment specialized for their disability) that they can use to continue participating in their chosen snow sport.
“To me, success is when you can give an individual the empowerment to go do it on their own and feel comfortable,” Tuscany said.