Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pride shines on Bald Mountain

World’s largest LGBT ski and snowboard group hits the slopes

Express Staff Writer

Thirteen members of Ski Bums, the world’s largest LGBT skiing and snowboarding club, rest at the bottom of the Bald Mountain gondola Saturday afternoon after a full day on the slopes. In the front row, from left, are: Vic Miller, Jean Danao, Mark Armbuster, Billy Berrios, Nat Yordan and group president Chris French. In the back row, from left are: Russell Siddique, Glenn Cadoret, David Rodriguez, Rusty Clark and Glenn Edwards. In the top row, from left, are Allison Drew Klein and Lisa Ayn Klein. Photo by Willy Cook

Ski Bums President and founder Chris French is living the dream. As the leader of the world's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ski and snowboarding club, French leads about 20 trips each year to the world's best ski resorts.

This year, Sun Valley made that list, and 30 of the group's members arrived last Wednesday for a four-day Presidents Day getaway.

"Sun Valley is one of the world's best ski resorts," French said during an interview at the Sun Valley Inn's lobby lounge. "It just is. Sun Valley is in a class of its own."

Customer service

From the beginning, French said, his group has received nothing but a warm welcome from locals and Sun Valley staff, as well as proprietors of local bars and restaurants.

In fact, the Ski Bums visited the Casino nightclub on Friday night, only to be approached by one bartender who thanked them for coming and asked them to alert the staff if any other customers tried to give them trouble.

"We had so much fun," French said. "I knew if anyone was going to be rough or unkind, I could go to the staff."

French said he always tries to call ahead and make sure the resorts that the group visits are welcoming to the LGBT community. It's awkward and uncomfortable, he said, if a couple in his group requests a room with a king-sized bed only to be told there must be some mistake.

"I'm always super clear [about the nature of our group]," he said. "We want to go somewhere we'll feel safe."

French said Sun Valley has been incredibly welcoming, but could stand to market more to the gay community. For example, he said, Sugarbush ski resort in Vermont ran a number of full-page ads in local papers to make it clear that it supported same-sex marriage after it was legalized in Vermont.

Other ski resorts such as Aspen and Whistler have been holding gay ski weekends since the 1970s, with resorts in Lake Tahoe and Crested Butte following suit.

It's smart marketing to target the LGBT community, French said, as the gay community is the only market sector that still travels as much as—if not more than—it did before the recession.

"There's a clearly established market," he said. "I think Sun Valley has more room to grow here."

Despite marketing shortfalls, French said, the group's Sun Valley visit has been nothing short of incredible. He said the skiing is great, but the day lodges and atmosphere are amazing, and the only lodges he's enjoyed as much were in Snowbasin, Utah, a resort also owned by Sun Valley Co.

Jack Sibbach, spokesman for Sun Valley Resort, said the resort's philosophy regarding customer service is simple—to give every guest 100 percent customer satisfaction. He said the resort didn't do anything special for the group.

"We just treated them like we do all of our guests," he said.

As for potential marketing, he said the resort doesn't have plans to specifically target the LGBT community.

"We're marketing to everyone to come to Sun Valley," he said. "We're leaving no stone unturned."

Idaho's anti-gay stance

When asked if he was worried about coming to Idaho with a large group of LGBT skiers, French hesitated.

"Idaho is notoriously anti-gay," he said.

In Idaho, as in 28 other states, it's still legal to be fired or denied housing for being gay, despite efforts in 2009 and earlier this year to add the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Idaho's Human Rights Act.

It's a little difficult to be in Idaho and not be aware of that, French said, citing newlyweds Allison Drew Klein and Lisa Ayn Klien, who were taking the trip as their honeymoon, and having an incredible time.


"Let's say they wanted to settle down here," French said.

They could, but only one of them could adopt a child, their marriage would have no legal recognition and either of them could lose her job simply for telling someone they were gay or mentioning her wife.

However, French said there are obviously LGBT people living "very quiet, very discrete lives" in the Wood River Valley.

"At every meal, at every public outing, someone gay has found us and been like, 'I'm so excited you're here,'" he said. "The warmth we're getting shows that there are LGBT people here."

French said he sympathizes with LGBT people trying to live their lives in Blaine County, as a tiny "blue dot in a red state" that may be more accepting than surrounding areas.

However, he said, one of the group's main goals is to break stereotypes about the LGBT community—hence the group's name.

"As soon as you say an LGBT ski and snowboarding group, people think 'high-maintenance,'" he said. "That's not going to be us. Believe me, in this group, people really relish the low-drama atmosphere."

The group's origins

While it may seem strange to sweepingly define his members in such uniform ways, French said he created Ski Bums with a specific type of person in mind.

He started leading ski trips through New York and neighboring states in 2005, when he realized that as an openly gay man in New York City, he still wasn't meeting people who shared all his interests.

"I wanted to meet people who love the outdoors," he said. "I wanted to find a boyfriend to travel the world with."

So he started Ski Bums, and in its first year, the organization exploded to 150 members, all members of the LGBT community who loved to ski and snowboard and wanted to meet others like them.

French said most of his members grew up learning (and loving) to play in the snow, whether on skis or boards—30 of his 800 total members are ski instructors, while a few are actually ski patrollers who travel with French's group in their spare time.

"We have members who grew up as the only gay kid in Vail, Colo.," he said, adding that Ski Bums gives them a deep feeling of community. "There's something about skiing and snowboarding with people around whom you can truly be yourself. It's really powerful."

He said that powerful community has helped forge incredible friendships within his group. While some join the group hoping to find a partner, most simply join for friendship.

French said people who met on his trips have formed local groups in New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City and other cities across the nation.

Has French found a partner? Ironically enough, no, he said.

"I created Ski Bums because I wanted to find a husband!" he said with a laugh. "Now, I'm so busy running Ski Bums that I don't even have time to date."

No wonder—the group takes roughly 20 trips a year, and after leaving Sun Valley will travel on to Killington, Vt.; Telluride, Colo.; and St. Anton, Austria.

Many of their yearly trips repeat, and the group has visited resorts such as Whistler and Jackson Hole multiple times over the past several years.

French said his group would return to Sun Valley as well.

"We'll definitely come back," he said. "A lot of our members said they just can't wait."

Katherine Wutz:

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