Mount Noire: Diversity On The Slopes
“We were the only Black girls on the mountain,” says Wenona Barnieh about her first ski trip. Now she and four friends run travel group Mount Noire to help others head for the slopes
By Amy Sedghi
“We could see that we stood out. We stood out for a good reason, because we looked great on the slopes, wearing our bright coloured suits, but what was very obvious was that we were the only Black girls on the mountain,” recalls Wenona Barnieh, 30, of her first skiing trip with her university pals to Chamonix, France.
Wenona has more stories to tell of that defining trip, which would prove to be a catalyst for her and those same friends to launch the community travel group, Mount Noire. “I remember one night, a woman was like, ‘ooh, who’s told you about skiing?’” Wenona says with a wry laugh. “So, we thought next time we come back here, let’s just bring more people that we know with us.” Started at the end of 2019, Mount Noire is a travel company and community, set up by Wenona and four university friends (Simisola Oke, Dee Omotade, Tobi Adegboye and Blessing Ekairia) with an aim to improve diversity and representation in winter sports. Or, as the group proudly put it: ‘bring colour to the mountains.’
As well as organising skiing and snowboarding trips that anyone of any level can book, the group also put on social events in the UK to introduce people to the snow sports at indoor slopes. The group as a whole are passionate about breaking down barriers, of which there can be many when it comes to winter sports. Price, logistics, equipment and assumed knowledge are all potential blocks, points out Wenona: “Just like even knowing, what is a chairlift? What is a gondola? What is a blue slope? What is a red slope? There’s just so much to the sport if you’ve never been introduced to it from a young age.” All of their snow sports packages include ski lessons, whether you’re a beginner or advanced Catching up at the Tomorrowland Winter festival in Alpe d’Huez, Wenona sits across from me in her ski gear, sunglasses on to shield her eyes from the glare of the late afternoon sun. She’s just spent the day on the slopes with Olympic freestyle skier Anaïs Caradeux who has taught her how to ski backwards, she shares proudly. Tomorrow, she’s heading back to the Val-d’Isère ski resort where Mount Noire is currently hosting a group. It’s been a busy year already for Wenona, who’s on her fourth skiing trip since January.
“There are two people on the trip at the moment who had skiing on their bucket list,” she says, explaining how going skiing on your own can be difficult and costly, not to mention intimidating. “[When] doing anything that you’re not used to, you don’t want to look silly and if we’re all falling over together, it’s fine.” She says that the stories from these two (a man and another woman who’s travelled over from the US) really resonated with her. “Someone invited me [on my first ski trip] and I was like ‘I’ve always wanted to try skiing, but now you’ve asked me, I’ll come’.” Simply feeling like you can show up is a huge deal, she stresses. Some of the stereotypes she comes across within the Black and minority ethnic groups are that snow sports are something that aren’t for them or which they feel they won’t fit in with. They think, says Wenona plainly, that “it’s a thing that other people do.” On the flipside, there are the stereotypes she also tries to tackle from the majority white groups: “A lot of people think that Black and ethnic minorities don’t want to do it [skiing]. Because they don’t see it, they think they’re not really interested.”“We’ve definitely tried to break down a few of those barriers that would stop or deter someone from doing it,” she adds.
Marketing by ski brands is another area that could do with some work. Although Wenona acknowledges that some positive strides have been made in this area, she vividly recalls not seeing herself represented when she went to buy her first set of ski gear. “Initially, when I’d go to buy a ski jacket or ski pants, the models weren’t diverse. So, for me, knowing whether a pair of ski pants was going to fit me was very difficult. Also, if you don’t see someone who does it, you won’t know that you can do it.”
The biggest challenge for Mount Noire though, says Wenona, is being based in the UK where there isn’t ready access to skiing and the mountains. Another challenge for the group is juggling Mount Noire with their demanding full-time jobs (three of the five are doctors). A medical registrar, Wenona admits that it can be tough to combine her intense workload with her passion for skiing. On the positive side though, there are transferable skills she can bring that benefit both worlds, she explains: “I am very organised, meticulous and my patients are all very different. And then some of the things that I’ve learned from skiing, I’ve taken into my work life: in terms of being fearless, bold and confident in everything that I do.”
It was on an indoor slope in Bromley in 2014 where Wenona got her first taste of skiing. She’s now ventured far and wide in pursuit of that snow sports buzz: her Instagram shows a collection of snowy snaps from resorts in Bulgaria, Slovakia and France, plus she’s recently dipped a toe into snowboarding. Outside of snow sports, Wenona also enjoys a spot of climbing when she gets some coveted free time.
“I just love the feeling of going down the mountain and seeing beautiful views. When you get to the bottom of a difficult run and knowing that you’ve accomplished something… it’s just that gratitude of knowing you did it.” She’s got a long list of things she loves about skiing and so the benefits keep coming: “the adrenaline that helps me with my mental health… the workout… the après…” Are there any highlights in particular that stick out to her from her trips to the mountains? “Just the amazing feeling of seeing all my friends dancing around in après, all together, having a glass on the mountain. Those are the memories that will always stick with me and I’ll cherish them forever.” She’s also full of praise for the people she’s met whilst skiing: “I always meet loads of lovely people when I come to the mountains and some are now my friends for life.”
Looking good on the slopes is also important to Wenona and the rest of the Mount Noire group. Their love of ski chic has even seen them featured in British Vogue. “You have to look the part, even if you’re not the best skier,” Wenona says with a laugh, adding: “[If] you turn up in that nice outfit and look confident, no-one’s going to remember you falling around. Trust me, I’ve made a fool of myself plenty of times, and then someone will come up to me and say ‘Oh, I love your suit.’” She does, however, recognise the barrier that the cost of ski gear can present. “Initially I had to borrow or ask a friend to lend me their jacket,” she says, describing how she recommends hire companies to those signing up to trips where a whole kit can be rented. She would rather people rent than see people fork out for gear before they’ve even stepped foot on skis or a board. Men and women, as well as all ethnicities are welcome on their trips, explains Wenona, but given that Mount Noire is founded by five Black women, encouraging women of colour is a natural objective. “I think doing something out of your comfort zone is brave, so just promoting that and women empowerment… because it’s very heavily male-orientated. We need to take a bit of the piste back for ourselves.”
The group’s Instagram page has been a key driver in sharing their message and Wenona tells me how at least one of the guests on the current trip signed up after coming across them on the platform. What’s the feedback been like from those joining them? “Most people are just having a great time, love the mission [and] love the fact that someone is trying to improve things in terms of diversity.” She adds: “I think there’s definitely a need for Mount Noire and I think we will grow and evolve as we continue with the company.” With Mount Noire about to wrap up their final skiing trip of this snow season, what’s next for the collective? More trips and an increase in regular indoor ski socials says Wenona, plus some further exciting plans of which she can’t currently share details. If their recent trips are anything to go by, they’ll be bringing a whole load more colour, fun and fabulous outfits to the slopes very soon.