SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The snow gods were smiling last week as more than 1,000 people arrived in Snowmass Village for the 40th anniversary Summit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers.
The Brotherhood, which has 3,000 members nationwide and has events in different ski resorts every year, started after some black ski clubs convened in Aspen in 1973. Returning to the area in an anniversary year was "a historic event," said co-founder Ben Finley.
"When we came here in '73, Aspen was a little scared of us," Finley said. "I mean if you go back to 1973, it was the end of the Black Power era, and African Americans were not skiing. And then (when we sent) The Aspen Times a press release saying that 300 African Americans were going to descend upon Aspen, they got a little bit concerned about that. They actually put the Colorado National Guard on alert."
Co-founder Arthur Clay said things have changed for the better since then.
"Originally, there were 13 clubs. There are now some 80 clubs," Clay said. "Especially at the time that we started this, it was difficult to go to a ski area and find another black. So when you did see a black, by the time you left the area you'd be friends. We've grown clubs like that."
Clay also commented on how well-known the Brotherhood is now. At one time, 5,000-10,000 people were coming to the Summits, so now some of the clubs hold their own events.
"Some of the clubs have started to do their own thing," Clay said. "Now a black skier can ski at maybe five different events that are really under the umbrella of this thing. Then we have the one big event where everybody comes in, and that's what this is."
Now, communities welcome the Brotherhood with open arms.
"We don't tear things up, we spend a lot of money, we tip good, and we have a very good time on the mountain, as you can see," Finley said. "It's not only a ton of people, it's a different type of event. In other words, you're not going to find this event duplicated in any other ski associations that come here."
A primary goal of the Brotherhood is to develop black athletes who can represent the U.S. in the Olympics and winter sports competitions. One of their most promising young athletes is right here in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Zyre Austin, 19, of Glenwood Springs, competes in women's skiing halfpipe. She has been traveling to some World Cup events, and she is currently ranked 18th, according to the Association of Freeskiing Professionals. She is 32nd on the FIS Freestyle World Cup leaderboard.
She is aiming for the 2014 Olympics, but is optimistic about her chances if she doesn't make it next year.
"I'd love to make that Olympics, but definitely if it doesn't happen I'm going to keep on trying to make the next one," Austin said. "I ski with girls who are like 40 years old, so I'm on the younger end of it right now."
Summit attendees all agreed that the snow conditions last week exceeded their expectations. Highlights of the weeklong event included the opening ceremony with a torchlight parade and fireworks, a picnic on the hill on Feb. 27, and interclub races and a freestyle exhibition.