By Keme Nzerem, Journalist and presenter Channel 4
It’s a rare thing for me to see another rider of colour during the snowy winter months in the hills. We all know the reasons – it’s eye wateringly expensive, and for many Brits – let alone ethnic minority Brits – skiing and snowboarding just aren’t things that are embedded into our family lives. The physical and mental health benefits of heading out into the hills speak for themselves. But solutions to get a wider range of Brits – and in particular more Black and Brown Brits on the slopes have been around for decades. And it really shouldn’t be that hard to get this right.
Since I was in my early teens I’ve been addicted to the mountains. Last year I went riding in La Grave and the Maritime Alps; the year before I ski toured in the Cairngorms; for a recent (significant!) birthday I treated myself to a week in Gulmarg in Kashmir.
The clean air; the scenery; the camaraderie – and also those moments of solitary calm; the speed; the danger – I’m a sucker for it all.
And it’s all a very far cry from the 15 metre oily toothbrush I was introduced to in an unkempt corner of Woolwich Barracks in the late 80s.
My summers in South East London as a kid were largely spent searching for the next sporting activity to throw myself at. It typically involved my long suffering mother searching high and low for new activities for me to try out.
Greenwich Council ran subsidised holiday sports courses, and late spring we’d eagerly await the flyer dropping through the letterbox with the list of options. I did them all. Badminton. BMX. Table tennis. Squash. The options went on. And one year – skiing!
There aren’t many mountains in SE3 so I was somewhat perplexed. Wasn’t skiing something that posh people did? But I’d seen Ski Sunday and thought the sensation of hurtling through such inspiring scenery looked like a whole loada fun. Where could I learn? How? And how much would it cost?
Turns out Greenwich Council struck a deal with the Army to let kids train on their tiny oil soaked dendex slope tucked behind Woolwich Arsenal. The clincher – the price was exactly the same as the other sports. Picture the scene – a motley crew of local Black, Brown and White kids taking those tentative first herringbone steps on the “beginners” slope before being set free on the “advanced” slope served by a hand shredding rope tow.
Said kids tearing down the slope whooping and hooting with exhilaration – all 10 meters max of vertical – like it was a cold smoke powder day in the Bugaboos.
I loved every second and was hooked straight away.
I badgered my poor mum to let me go on the school ski trip to Couyrmayeur – “if you really want to go that badly”, she said, “get a paper round, and I’ll match you pound for pound”.
Two school ski trips later, and after finishing my A levels I was determined to get to the hills for the winter – so I found a job as a liftie and ski tech in Lake Tahoe, California.
At my first day at Uni I discovered one of my flatmates was a massive boarder – and he’d just come back from a season in Chamonix. So every half term we’d sneak out there by hook or by crook and doss wherever we could with his mates or mates of mates or mates of mates of mates.
Another season post Uni, and then over the years random trips wherever and whenever I could afford it – my addiction to ski-ing has turned my life into a recurring orbit around getting to the mountains and strapping on whatever planks suit the moment.
Skis – reasonably competent.
Snowboard – totally incompetent.
I surprised myself and learnt how to telemark a few years ago, even with my old man knees.
I’ve even given the old monoboard a go (must say I have a sneaking respect for the moustachoied old French dudes who leave everyone in their wake on those massive powpow days).
But one thing has remained a constant – the lack of melanin on the slopes. Ski-ing and snowboarding are still overwhelmingly White pastimes. I’m sad that something that is so much fun – and is so good for you – will never be experienced and enjoyed by the vast majority of Black and Brown Brits.
We all know ski-ing is expensive and exclusive – and we all know getting to real mountains regularly is well beyond the reach of most Brits. But with the proliferation of indoor slopes and what remains of the network of plastic slopes – we need to do better.
If my local Council could crack it in the late 80s – we can do it now.