With layers of clothes stacked atop his thin frame, Ahmed Dahir slid into a window seat on the bus. From there, he could watch one of the last chills of winter battle with the spring sun on the approach to his destination, which until a couple of weeks ago had felt as far away and foreign as the moon.
Thirty minutes later, the bus pulled up to Brighton Resort.
Dahir and the other seven people who disembarked were participants in Discover Winter, an innovative program started by Ski Utah this season. Its intent is to diversify the state’s ski slopes, where white doesn’t just describe the color of the snow. Most in this group are either African immigrants or children of African immigrants. All together, the program’s roughly 135 participants included immigrants from 23 African countries as well as Native Americans, Latinos and a mix of others from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Spain.
Their common link? None of them knew how to ski or snowboard.
Dahir, 27, said it’s something he’s always wanted to try, echoing a common refrain among the participants.
“I live in Utah and they are known for the best snow on Earth, and a lot of people travel around the globe to come here to ski and snowboard,” he said. “So I just live 30 minutes away. Eventually, I’ve got to go up and see what the hype’s about.”
But after 23 years of living in Utah, it hadn’t happened. Not until this winter, when the Discover Winter program took away all of his excuses.
Breaking down years of barriers
A month of lessons complete with lift tickets? Check. Transportation to the resort and ski or board, boot and helmet rentals? Check and check. But what about essential gear, like snow pants, socks, jackets, hats, gloves and goggles? Check, check, check, check….. Graduates even receive a Yeti pass, good for one day at each of the state’s 15 resorts, so they have no reason not to return on their own.
“I feel like a lot of people are in the same boat as me, that they don’t have the opportunity to take lessons. Or they feel like, ‘Snowboarding isn’t for me because I don’t have access to a lot of resorts.’ And the price is a big factor, too,” Dahir, a civil engineer for Salt Lake County, said. “With this program, it helps you get lessons free so you can experience it. I feel like getting to experience it changes a lot of people’s minds. So it’s a great program and I think a lot of people, when they try [skiing or snowboarding], they would love it and spread the word about it and get more people coming out.”
And that’s exactly what it was designed to do, according to Raelene Davis, Ski Utah’s vice president of marketing and the force behind the program. The goal is to remove all the barriers — the physical, the fiscal and the societal — and just get people of color on the slopes.
A whopping 87.5% of skiers identify as white, according to the National Ski Areas Association’s most recent data, which was updated in December. In comparison, no other racial group even makes up 10% of skiers. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 6.1% in large part because of inclusion efforts by Southern California ski areas. After that, it’s Latinos (5.8%), Blacks (1.5%) and Native Americans (.7%). Utah’s slopes mirror that same lack of diversity.
Davis has been pushing for more diversity efforts since she began working at Ski Utah 37 years ago. Not until the pandemic blip of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, however, did the organization really start to think creatively about addressing the problem.
“When COVID happened and we all had a chance to sort of rethink everything we’re doing in the ski industry, we formed a diversity committee,” she said.
Last September, Davis heard the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and the Larry H. Miller Foundation were offering CARES Act grants to organizations trying to promote recreational growth. She applied with a plan that would take Ski Utah’s successful fourth-grade learn-to-ski program and adapt it for adults. In November, she received a green light and $70,000.
Snowbasin, Solitude, Alta, Snowbird, Woodward Park City and Brighton stepped up to host the groups. Ski Utah then called upon its other connections within the industry to help supply the winter gear.
“Probably 98% of all the people who are in the program had never seen snow before,” Davis said. “They come from warm climates and so they might have had a jacket because they’d moved to Utah. But if they didn’t participate in any kind of snow sports, they wouldn’t have had, you know, pants or helmets and goggles and all of that.
Next came the diversity element. Ski Utah reached out to Future Scholars of Africa, Weber State University’s Diversity Club and Latinx members of Mountain Life Church in Park City to help source participants. She said more people applied than Ski Utah could actually help discover winter.
For most of them, she said, the biggest obstacle wasn’t the expense.
‘I wish I could come every day’
“We like to say that they weren’t they weren’t economically challenged or disadvantaged, they were socially disadvantaged,” she said. “Meaning they didn’t have any friends who skied or snowboarded. So it wasn’t even in their mindset to go up to the mountains and ski. So we’ve now given them a community of winter sports enthusiasts that they can call and say, ‘Hey, you want to go skiing?’ That was the real key, too.”
Discover Winter officially got underway in January, with sessions extending into March. It’s too early to know if it will make any kind of dent in the industry’s lack of diversity. Anecdotally, however, it does seem to have made an impact.
Odeh Ondoma, 38, who grew up in Nigeria but has lived the last 12 years in the Salt Lake area, signed up for Discover Winter lessons at Brighton with his wife Amanda and his brother-in-law, Freebody Mensah.
He said that since his move to Utah, where he works as a project manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, winter had been something he just had to endure. There was nothing fun about it. Now his perspective is shifting.
“The first day we were right there. It was terrifying,” he said, looking up the bunny slope. “We couldn’t stand, we were falling, but now we can do it. So yeah, if we didn’t try it, I wouldn’t know it was this fun. I wish I could come every day.”
With four kids ages 3 to 12 to care for, Ondoma said he doesn’t expect to make skiing a daily habit. He is, however, seriously considering getting them lessons and making it a regular family outing.
“It’s one of the things we’ll save for. We’ll have to plan for it, save for it and then we’ll bring the kids as a family to come do it,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun. So yes, we will continue to do it. I don’t want to lose it.”
Dahir, his 24-year-old sister, Hawa, and her 19-year-old friend Laila Batar return to the van buzzing about their snowboard session. They’d fallen more times than they care to count. They never left the bunny slope. And, they can’t wait to go back.
Dahir already has plans to buy a season pass for next season. And he plans to spread the stoke to his friends.
“I’m probably going to be the instructor for them and have to show them how to do it,” he said, “but I’ll try to get them going up.”
Davis said Ski Utah plans to stay in touch with the new skiers and boarders to help navigate them through next season and beyond. Meanwhile the organization is trying to navigate Discover Winter’s own path forward by evaluating whether the program can or should be offered in the future. An alternative might be to team up with an already established outdoor-access advocacy group, such as the Share Winter Foundation, Winter4Kids or SOS Outreach.
“The biggest roadblock is funding for the program,” she said. “And the biggest opportunity is growing the sport and doing the right thing. Our industry should be more inclusive, and this is just a very baby step in making that happen.
“Maybe a baby step that could potentially have a giant step.”