There are many obstacles to snow sports for a range of activities in a wide open winter wonderland.
From the cost of equipment to finding someone to teach you to crossing a snowy freeway to get to a mountain, becoming a seasoned ski bum isn’t as easy as it looks. It is even more difficult for Black, Indigenous and People of Color and LGBTQ+ people.
But out of the isolation of the pandemic, a mutual aid movement has emerged via social media to increase diversity on the slopes. Two new groups — Open Slopes PDX and POC Nordic — have emerged from queer dance party fundraisers and GoFundMe campaigns, and are working to make sure Oregon’s Cascades belong to everyone.
Both groups started in the winter of 2020 when the urge to go outside was strong because being indoors with others could have deadly consequences. But once out there, the group organizers said they found the scene to be fairly homogenous.
Cross-country skiing “is the whitest and least diverse sport I’ve ever participated in,” says Nazanin Ghoddousi, co-founder of POC Nordic, who started skiing four years ago. “It was really discouraging for me. With 2020, people have had time to get outdoors like never before, but there’s also a comfort and security to being a woman, then a queer person, and then a person of color.”
Dallas Haley, co-founder of Open Slopes PDX, says they envisioned their first event as a one-off, a fundraiser for eight BIPOC attendees and their companions to spend an evening at the Mt. Hood Skibowl. Since then, the program has enjoyed growing popularity. Last season there were over 100 applicants for 12 places.
“It’s all based on the principles of indulgence activism and mutual aid,” says Haley. “We had no idea what would become of it. Obviously it’s insanely expensive and difficult to get into this sport. [We] want more queer and black and brown and indigenous people on the slopes.”
Denise López, also of Open Slopes, says she grew up in the Portland area as part of a low-income Indigenous Mexican family. Although she was interested in skiing, no one she knew did. Only with her current partner, who grew up skiing, did she get downhill.
“Even then I felt completely out of place surrounded by white snow and white people,” says López with a laugh.
Open Slopes PDX partnered with Coalition Snow, a women-owned snow sports company, and launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for gear, gear, lessons from BIPOC instructors, and lift tickets. They have organized BIPOC shred events and queer ski meetings. POC Nordic has also solicited financial support through GoFundMe, received ski donations from sporting goods company Salomon and has worked with local retailer The Mountain Shop. Neither group is nonprofit at this time, preferring to take a more down-to-earth approach as achieving 501(c)(3) status can be daunting in and of itself.
“We wouldn’t have been here without Instagram, TikTok, and GoFundMe,” says Haley, 27. “It’s Gen Z and young millennials who are splitting roughly the same $20 on Venmo. We are young people caring for young people.”
All members described their groups as a form of healing – being encouraged, supported and mentored by others who share their life experiences.
“Any experiences I have outside are amplified by having people to share that joy with,” says López, 24. “It’s wild to be in a place where people look more like me and share some of the trauma, fears and anxieties that are not being addressed [basic] ski school. On the spiritual side of the family there is the connection to the land and nature.”
The mutual aid movement is not limited to the Cascades; Many learned about the snow sports groups through other outdoor organizing efforts such as BikePOC, Wild Diversity, and queer climbing groups. Organizers say people who attend a ski clinic often end up trying other sports. But behind it all is the inherent joy of being on the mountain on a sunny day, escaping the Portland rain for some vitamin D and the meditative roar of the skis.
“Being out there is a place where you can feel at peace with the land and everything around you,” says Catherine Jäger, 35, co-founder of POC Nordic, who grew up in Bend. “When you race, there is peace and quiet. You have time to notice things around you and be thankful for them. That’s why I’ve always loved it.”
Jäger, an alternative high school teacher who is part of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, also says she is making efforts to bring more indigenous people to the mountains.
“I had to take some of that colonialist mindset and remember who this area is for: We are on stolen tribal land. Why aren’t there more people of color in these places? How do we take a sport that was so inaccessible and uninviting and make it more accessible?”
POC Nordic’s Ghoddousi, an Iranian, says she makes cross-country a weekday ritual as she works as a nurse at weekends. She goes to the mountains, listens to Iranian music, skis, and then heads home to cook Iranian food.
“It was a way to feel closer to my culture at a time when I felt very disconnected,” she says of 2020, when she wasn’t able to travel to visit her family. “I want people to know that everyone should be able to do this for themselves.”
cross country skiing 101
By Andrea Damewood
Cross-country skiing lacks the panache of downhill skiing, but once you get into it, the benefits are endless. There’s no lift ticket required, the gear is cheaper and less specialized, and for my millennial geriatric retarded, a fall hurts a lot less.
Nordic and cross country are used interchangeably to refer to a type of flat terrain skiing in which competitors move forward because their heels are not attached to their skis as they are in downhill. Gliding through snow-covered trees with a good clip not only gives you a high; It’s a fantastic workout.
“It’s a hodgepodge of about three different disciplines using different types of skis, courses and terrain,” says Collin Edwards-Hill, a Nordic specialist at Northeast Portland’s Mountain Shop. “It’s a very broad collective term for a type of free-heel skiing.”
Edwards-Hill took us through the three main styles of Nordic skiing – classic, touring and backcountry – and shared a few places for the uninitiated to try it. Start with a rental (a $30 basic touring package at his shop gives you two nights’ worth of skis, boots, and poles) to make sure you’re into it, and specialize from there.
With this style, the skis are thinner and lack metal edges, meaning they are less stable and intended for use on groomed areas where tracks need to be followed. Here you will meet many racers and fitness fans.
This is the most common and versatile of the styles. The skis are slightly wider than Classic and have metal edges. “Metal edges are good, they give people a little bit more confidence,” says Edwards-Hill. These skis can be used in sno parks that have no tracks and still slide well.
These skis are wider and have metal edges and tend to be slightly shorter and sturdier. These are for recreational seekers who want to venture into unmaintained areas, says Edwards-Hill, such as circling around Crater Lake.
Edwards-Hill recommends a lesson first, which you can sign up for through Mt. Hood Meadows or through other local groups. (I’ve skied off and on since I was a kid. Having someone show you the ropes works, but a lesson will help you form good habits from the start.)
And where you can take those skis, there are several excellent spots near Mount Hood: Meadows, Teacup Nordic Snow Park, Trillium Lake (which offers epic views of the mountain and you can ski on the frozen lake in the right conditions ), Bennett Pass Trailhead/Sno-Park and Pocket Creek Sno-Park.
“I feel like skis are the best way to experience the great outdoors in winter when snow is involved,” says Edwards-Hill. “If you’re interested in getting out there and covering a pretty big chunk of ground, then skis are a great option for that. Gliding is the greatest. If you like gliding on snow with two sticks, skis are for you.”