Ski It If You Can

By Guest Contributor

The most marked observation I took away from my short-lived skiing experience is the recognition that people of color are not skiing along with me, but rather operating the ski lift, pouring the hot chocolate, and serving the poppy-seed scones to skiers.

“American ski culture continues to exist as an increasingly wealthy culture exclusive of minorities [where] even in the American West, noted for its racial and ethnic diversity, ski resorts have remained as white as snow.” These words, written by Professor Annie Coleman of Notre Dame, unfortunately mirror my brief times on the slopes.

I realized the overwhelmingly whiteness of skiing at Middlebury when a friend greeted me back for J-term by sobbing about how lonely a New York City apartment can get when your parents are skiing Vail. Other friends surrounded me at dinner grinned, waxing nostalgic about annual family ski trips to Beaver Creek and the Swiss Alps. Yet the starkest reminder of my place as a minority comes during J-term by walking through dorms and dining halls festooned with towering skis and snowboards, passing lolling ski poles and snowboard boots, and the sight of zip ties from expired ski passes dangling off coat zippers.

I became apprehensive to speak to this observation, in fear of being pinned as the “angry black man” incapable of mingling with his peers. However, in my hesitation I came to realize that skiing is emblematic of white America, characterized by a classist paradigm that safeguards the social status of well-off white citizens at the cost of everyone else’s.

It is no secret that skiing is expensive. According to the National Ski Areas Association, overall spending at U.S. ski resorts between 2011 and 2012 totaled a whopping $5.8 billion. While published Census data indicates only 12 percent of all households earn more than one hundred thousand dollars annually, the same organization claims that 54 percent of people out on the slopes fall into this category.

Unsurprisingly, the sport continues to attract a wealthy and white demographic, creating a culture that, as Professor Coleman notes, “create[s] [a] culture that exclude[s] people of color.” While some can contend that skiing is becoming more accessible to those with lower incomes, the impermeable elitist culture attached to alpine sports has not.

Though my parents are now able to decipher between alpine and Nordic skiing with pride, thanks to a quick flip through the photos in the free 2014 engagement calendar, this progress amounts to nothing more than seeing from below how long the hike up is, while the privileged few continue on their rotating chairlift to the top.

This culture and disparity of wealth plays out over J-term as some students prepare and head to the Snow Bowl and Mad River Glen, while others head to their dorms. Hearing some students continue to speak about the financial burden of purchasing textbooks while others whimper about the price of season lift passes further highlights this divide.

There is a large population of students that cloak a presumed prep-school status by ironically foregoing traditional cable knit sweaters and pastel-colored bottoms for tattered flannels and boxy Carhartt pants. Some of these students, who zip across campus on bikes that are worth more than some nations’ GDP per capita incomes, are walking examples of the subtle ways in which stereotypical preppy new-Englanders present themselves. Through this image, I roughly sketch the multiple ways that classism showcases itself in the exclusive outdoor scene here at Middlebury.

Nevertheless, I aspire to become a Mountain Club Guide, a role in which I would assist in coordinating and leading hikes and camping trips. Becoming a February Outdoor Orientation (FOO!) leader would fulfill one of the prerequisites to become a guide. While outdoor experience is irrefutably essential to ensure safety for participants, everyone does not have the access and the resources to be qualified, highlighting the privileges that enable some to participate, and render others not.

A feeling of inutility overwhelmed me as I completed the application. Several questions reasonably asked about personal outdoor experience, including snowshoeing and backcountry skiing. While other applicants presumably retold their experiences with real-life accuracy, I was left trying to make up a backcountry ski trip and snowshoeing experience I lacked.

In that moment I thought my hope of becoming a FOO! leader was squashed and becoming a mountain guide would be postponed. Amidst a “large pool of well-qualified applicants,” I was shocked to learn I had been chosen as an “alternate” to fill a spot if one opens. While I am grateful for the potential that this opportunity might bring, I cannot help but be reminded by the classism embedded in winter sports, and the fact that the privilege of participation in outdoor activities is not readily afforded to me.

CHARLES GRIGGS ’16 is from Chicago, IL with artwork by HANNAH BRISTOL and IAN STEWART

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