Most of the skiers at Heavenly Mountain Resort are white. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Diversity and skiing are two words that do not go well together. That’s because the industry is still dominated by white people.

Sierra-at-Tahoe and California are doing much better attracting people of color than the country as a whole. Sierra last ski season reported a 30 percent diversity rate, while the state came in at 29 percent—the highest percentage of any state. Across the U.S., whites dominated skier visits at 88.1 percent.

“Nationally, numbers-wise we don’t see a lot of change over the last decade,” Adrienne Saia Isaac with the National Ski Areas Association said. “With the most racially-diverse generation in our nation coming of age, it is critical that young people feel welcome playing and working in our mountain spaces. The Pacific Southwest sees slightly more racial diversity than other regions of the country, specifically from visits by people identifying as Asian/Pacific Islander.”

Sierra is seeing an influx of Asians as well, sometimes with families coming who enroll their kids in school, with the adults hanging out in the plaza area.

“We don’t do targeted marking by race or ethnicity. We do it by location with a lot of major marketing efforts,” explained Shelby Dunlap, spokesperson for Sierra. “A lot of marketing efforts are in the South Bay. That typically has a high Asian population.”

Sierra also focuses on the greater Sacramento area, with its diverse population being a key factor, as well as proximity to the resort.

While Vail Resorts, which owns Heavenly, Kirkwood, and Northstar, would not reveal skier demographics, it acknowledges there is a problem.

“Vail Resorts and the broader ski industry have incredibly low representation from people of color. We believe that to address this, we must make changes internally before we can lead externally with authenticity and value,” Cole Zimmerman, spokesman for Vail’s Tahoe resorts, said. “We’ve established a roadmap for a multi-year journey to address the lack of diversity on the slopes. We are focused on driving inclusion in three ways: 1) fostering a welcoming culture, 2) diversifying our talent, and 3) broadening access to our sport.”

Sierra and the local Vail resorts believe a huge step to diversifying the slopes is to have employees of color. It’s been proven over and over that until people see people who look like them—be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or some other distinguishing factor—people see barriers and not opportunities.

That is why hiring is a component local resorts are paying more attention to.

“When you come to Sierra, even from the staff perspective, there is diversity across different departments,” Dunlap said. The head of snowboarding is African American, as is the woman running the pub.

Dunlap didn’t provide the racial or ethnic breakdown of all employees.

Zimmerman said, “In 2021, we started a career program introducing Colorado youth from SOS Outreach to career opportunities in our retail stores and at resort properties, with the objective of introducing youth to careers in the outdoor industry. That pilot program has expanded from Colorado to Park City and the Tahoe region this year and is informing the way we address building diverse talent and career pipelines for youth in our access programs.”

While the goal to have a diverse payroll is applauded, it might not be easy.

“I think we do face a unique challenge in trying to be more diverse in the workforce. We are limited by the community’s where we exist,” Mike Reitzell, president of Ski California, said. “Where do the employees come from? We may need to wait for communities to catch up.”

Ethnicity breakdown of skiers/snowboarders at U.S. resorts, with some people reporting more than one category

                                                                            2021-22 season                            2022-23 season

White                                                                   88.7 percent                                      88.1 percent

Asian/Pacific Islander                                   5.7                                                           6.5

Hispanic/Latino/a                                           5.5                                                           5.6

Black/African American                              1.5                                                           1.5

Native American/Alaska Native             0.6                                                           0.8

Another race                                                      1.6                                                          1.5

Source: National Ski Areas Association

Eliminating barriers

Those in the industry acknowledge the sport is not cheap, which is a huge obstacle for newbies of any color.

Beyond the price of a lift ticket, there is the cost of clothing, gear, and having a vehicle that is capable of handling winter conditions to even reach the slopes.

Ski California, which has 35 member resorts in California and Nevada, recently hired a consultant to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion issues.

Things like having goggles available that fit different faces, helmets for various hair types, clothes for all sizes—those are barriers not always thought of at first glance.

The study also found there is a perceived ski culture that is neither welcoming nor inclusive.

“As an industry we are trying to break down that perception so they can see skiing and riding for what it is,” Reitzell said. What it is, he said, is fun and inclusive once people make it to the mountains.

“Part of what we do know is there is a large part of the population that is diverse that has not experienced snow,” Reitzell said.

His organization’s goal is to the have the ski slopes be more representative of California’s diverse population.

It doesn’t matter the race or ethnicity, getting kids interested is critical. Sierra and Vail Resorts both have for years focused on ski school.

“We have the largest youth outreach program of all the mountain resort operators, and have invested more than $16 million in youth, adaptive, and continued access programs across our resorts to inspire the next generation of skiers and riders,” Zimmerman said of Vail Resorts.

But it’s more than that. Resorts also know people want access to the snow, and may never ride. They might forever be content on the tubing hill, sledding, snowshoeing or having fun in the white stuff in some other manner.

Having those entry points to snow, though, might be the first step to getting converts to skiing and snowboarding.

Trend setters

When Tere Tibbetts and Gary Bell started skiing they didn’t think about breaking barriers, stereotypes or being part of any sort of movement. They were participating in a sport that was fun. That was the only statement they were making.

The 80-year-old Tibbetts, who was born in Cuba, first skied at Heavenly in 1970. In 1971, she was hired as a ski patroller.

Tere Tibbetts at Heavenly Mountain Resort in the 1980s (Image: Tere Tibbetts)

“I was the diverse person on the ski slopes in those days and I think in all of Tahoe,” she said with a laugh. “I used to joke I was the only member of the Cuban ski team.”

While she went on to teach in Lake Tahoe Unified School District and at Lake Tahoe Community College, Tibbetts continued to ski until three years ago when her eyesight made her hang up her gear.

She said when she was teaching full time hardly anyone in the Hispanic community was skiing or snowboarding.

“The only barrier I see now is price. It is an elite sport for sure,” Tibbetts said.

The 67-year-old Bell has been skiing since he was 3.

The only discrimination he felt on the slopes has been as a telemark skier, not because he is African and Native American.

“Admittedly, I don’t remember way back as a young child when where was probably more discrimination,” Bell said. “I have pictures of my parents and their friends at Alpine and Homewood. I bet they had a tougher time because there was more discrimination at that time in the ’60s.”

He doesn’t believe it’s the responsibility of the resorts to have initiatives to attract people of color, nor does he believe they are even trying to change the demographics.

While he said it’s great to get new people to ski and snowboard, he questions whether “we really need more people standing in line at any given time up there.”

Bell said, “It is expensive sport. There are lot of people who are just not going to try to become part of it. If they want to diversify and invite more people into the sport, they need to make it more affordable.”

Other ways Tahoe is embracing diversity:

The California Tahoe Conservancy board in December 2023 voted to spend $409,000 on diversity projects in the Lake Tahoe Basin:

• $150,000 to Environmental Traveling Companions for an outdoor adventure and education course for under-resourced youth that will include backpacking at Lake Tahoe, and a program to teach safe paddling skills to people with disabilities at Emerald Bay.

• $84,000 to the Lake Tahoe Waterman Foundation to provide transformative paddling experiences for under-resourced youth, people confronting physical disabilities, and those facing mental health challenges.

• $60,000 to the Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association for a year-round program to provide Latina girls with instruction and equipment for cross-country skiing, mountain biking, and other outdoor activities.

• $115,000 to the Tahoe Rim Trail Association to upgrade trailhead kiosks along the California side of the TRT. Kiosks will include improved trail and accessibility information and maps, and an acknowledgment of Tahoe as the homeland of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. All will be in English and Spanish.

Source: CTC

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the Tahoe Mountain News.

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