QUEENSBURY, N.Y. — It was nearly time for lessons to begin, but
Marcel and Kwesi could not be found. The West Mountain ski school
director hurried into the rental shop looking for the missing students.
Other members of the Nubian Empire Ski Club filled the benches, snapping
stiff buckles into place.
Omoye Cooper, the club’s president, stood among the bent bodies,
sorting tickets and fielding questions, including this latest: Where
were Marcel and Kwesi?
Ms. Cooper pointed out the window toward the base lodge.
“You’ll see them,” she said, laughing. “They’re probably the only brown boys in there.”
At the small mountain about an hour north of Albany, the faces
buried beneath helmets and neck gaiters were mostly white. But scattered
among them were the Nubians, whose mission is to coax more
African-Americans onto skis.
When Phil Littlejohn moved to the Albany area around 2001, he
immediately saw what was missing. Mr. Littlejohn, 74, who first skied in
the Poconos when he was 28, had joined black ski clubs wherever he
“In Albany, there was no black ski club, and this is the gateway to
ski country,” he said. The problem, he said, was “lack of exposure.”
“So many African-Americans don’t know what a great, great addition to their life skiing becomes,” he said.
In 2001, he and a skiing novice, Peggie Allen, persuaded a dozen
people who had never skied to try. They named the group in honor of the
black people of southern Egypt, and so began what Mr. Littlejohn
described as a “labor of love.”
The Nubian Empire Ski Club, which is based in Albany, has since
grown to more than 40 members: experts and beginners, first graders and
retirees, professors and accountants. They have skied most mountains in
New York and as far away as Chamonix-Mont-Blanc in the French Alps.
This season, despite a lack of snow, the club’s youth program has
drawn nine participants. On a recent Sunday they gathered on the bunny
trail at West Mountain for their second lesson of the season. Brown
grass edged the trails, but no one seemed to mind, soon caught up in the
silly language of learning: Pizza stop. Duck walk. Sit low to slow.
“Do you remember when we couldn’t even turn?” one little girl shouted to the boy beside her. “When we used to fall and fall?”
Nisha Thomas, a 31-year-old employee in the state comptroller’s
office, was one of three adults in the group of beginners. That Ms.
Thomas ignored an oncoming cold to do so was as surprising to her as was
the fact that she let Ms. Cooper, her mother-in-law, talk her into
skiing at all.
“I’m from the Caribbean,” said Ms. Thomas, who lives in Albany. “I
didn’t grow up dreaming about snow. I think this club helps because it’s
a sort of mentorship.”
The Nubian Web site
brims with instructions that people accustomed to winter sports take
for granted, like layering on synthetic clothes and sunscreen, as well
as the reason for buying water-resistant snow pants: “Your first day
will acquaint your butt with the snow. Keep it warm and dry!”
Off-season, club members appear wherever they might find new recruits, visiting Kwanzaa
and Juneteenth celebrations and setting up information booths in Walmarts.
When skeptics tell them “black people don’t ski,” Ms. Cooper notes that the National Brotherhood of Skiers
, a black organization that formed in 1973, has 3,000 members. It has 59 member clubs, including three in New York City.
Kimberly Barksdale, executive secretary of the group, said that for
people who did not grow up with snow sports, the clubs provided
“Our people in the clubs love to ski, and they also love to help
others learn to,” Ms. Barksdale said. “They walk them through everything
and really make sure they have a good time. And that sense of
camaraderie makes it so much more likely that people stay with the
Of 67,000 skiers who responded to a question in a survey conducted
by the National Ski Areas Association at the end of the 2010-11 season, 2
percent identified themselves as African-American.
Audrey Bennett, a communications professor at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in Troy, said she heard about the Nubians through
word of mouth two years ago. Though her son Marcel was sure he would
hate skiing, Ms. Bennett, 40, pushed him to try it. Now, Marcel, 14,
races giant slalom and is applying to ski academies.
“I loved it after the first run,” he said. “I felt like I was free,
like I was flying down the mountain. All my stresses disappeared.”
By noon, most everyone on the beginner slope at West Mountain had
turned toward the lodge for lunch — everyone but three small children
who scooted back for one more run.
“Look, they snuck back up,” Ms. Cooper said, smiling. She watched the three, remembering her own beginnings on skis.
“I wanted to conquer that hill, not let it conquer me,” she said. “And then I was going to quit.”
But it was too late. “It was too addictive,” she said.
The children snaked down the hill. Wide smiles filled their faces
as they reached the bottom without falling. Before they could jump back
in line, Ms. Cooper glided toward them.
“Do not go back up,” she said. “We are going in for lunch. Exit stage left. Don’t worry. We’ll be back out.”