Village Talk

Soul Patrol

The National Brotherhood of Skiers carves a 50-year legacy on Vail Mountain.

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Henri Rivers remembers well his first time skiing Vail Mountain. It was 1997, and the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ (NBS) biannual Black Ski Summit was making its third appearance in the valley, after events in 1977 and 1993. “I was a young man at the time, and I’d never really skied with Black people—I skied by myself mostly,” recalls Rivers. “I came to Vail and there were more than 5,000 people who looked like me on the mountain. It invigorates you. It makes you love the sport even more. I’ve never missed a Summit since.”

Rivers, now NBS’s president, will be back in Vail with an expected 2,500 members from February 4 to 11 for the organization’s 50th anniversary gathering—a highlight of the resort’s 60th anniversary season. He’ll be joined by, among others, 85-year-old NBS cofounder and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer Art Clay, a retired Chicago probation officer who amazingly has attended all 48 Summits (there were two years when none was held). In early September, NBS already had a ticking clock on its homepage, counting down to “50 YEARS OF SOUL ON SNOW.”

The organization’s return marks the fifth time Vail has hosted a Summit and the first since 2005; only Aspen-Snowmass, Sun Valley, and Steamboat (six apiece) have hosted more. Vail first hosted in 1977, four years after the inaugural NBS Summit visited Aspen. Due to “uncertain weather conditions in the West,” Black Enterprise magazine reported, the formal Summit was canceled and renamed Black Ski Scene, which took place in March and included about 360 attendees. One of them, now-95-year-old Helen Gentry, confirmed those facts via the Jim Dandy Ski Club’s library in Detroit, where she’s been a member for 63 years.

Welcoming thousands of Summit guests remains a coveted prospect among resorts, and the organization’s 54 member clubs vote to decide each year’s destination. “We increase [resorts’] economic windfall by a couple of million dollars in one week,” Rivers says. When asked why they chose Vail for the golden anniversary, he replies: “Just the status of the mountain. Vail is like ski royalty. When you meet somebody and say you’re a skier, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you ever ski Vail?’ And, of course, Aspen, which is where we were last year.”

Rivers first got involved with NBS as president of the International Sisterhood of Skiers and Athletes, a ski club based in Negril, Jamaica. Now he lives in New York and is one of 4,000 members in 45 states. But while the organization’s retention is strong, its average age continues to rise, a key factor in planning this year’s Summit. Eighty-nine percent of members are over the age of 45. And 68 percent are older than 55. First-timers in Vail get special deals on registration and skiing, and Rivers hopes to entice newbies with musical acts that target younger audiences.

When asked to describe the significance of “50 years of soul on snow,” Rivers says, “It’s family, man. It’s the brotherhood. And that goes across every gender and color—we have a lot of white individuals who are members and ski with us. I tell this to the snowsports industry, but I think this sport can lead our world to open its doors and eyes to inclusion.”

As for his expectations for the week in Vail? “I’m hoping that we have some deep powder days.”—D.O.

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