Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 43° Partly Cloudy
News >  Pacific NW

This Bothell woman is working to make the world of ski instruction more inclusive

Dec. 7, 2022 Updated Wed., Dec. 7, 2022 at 5:16 p.m.

Annette Diggs of Bothell is a ski instructor and founder of EDGE Outdoors, a nonprofit that teaches snow sports to people of color and aims to diversify a sport that is often overwhelmingly white.  (Kevin Clark/Seattle Times)
Annette Diggs of Bothell is a ski instructor and founder of EDGE Outdoors, a nonprofit that teaches snow sports to people of color and aims to diversify a sport that is often overwhelmingly white. (Kevin Clark/Seattle Times)
By Gregory Scruggs Seattle Times

When Annette Diggs arrived at the slopes in the winter of 2017-18 for a Pacific Northwest rite of passage – a beginner ski lesson in the Cascades – the experience was not what she had anticipated.

“The first time I stepped on snow, I saw how exclusive and homogenous that space was,” Diggs said. As the only Black person in her group lesson, she said, “My presence and ability was scrutinized by the people I was learning with.”

Rather than remain discouraged, Diggs saw the experience as motivation to make a change. “I decided I wanted to become a ski instructor,” she said. “I knew I wanted to provide that representation for people who look like me.”

Five winters later, the 42-year-old Bothell resident is a part-time ski instructor at Stevens Pass and the founder and CEO of EDGE Outdoors, a nonprofit working to diversify the stereotypically white, male space of snow sports – from the first timers on the magic carpet to the faces working in the rental shop and the powder seekers heading into the backcountry.

This season, EDGE offers scholarships to cover ski and snowboard lessons, instructor training, avalanche education and freeride camps (skiing ungroomed terrain) for women, nonbinary or gender nonconforming people of color.

“We take people who’ve never slid on snow and give them a safe learning environment, then offer them ways they can maintain access to the mountain,” Diggs said, with opportunities that rise to the upper echelons of snow sports. “Inclusion has to hit every level.”

From Memphis to mountains

Resolve in the face of adversity might just be Diggs’ defining trait. That mindset turned a first-time skier into a ski instructor. It also got her on skis in the first place.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2017, Diggs was making her way – painfully – down Mount Adams on foot. As she continued what seemed like an endless march down the snow-covered southern flank of the volcano, three skiers zipped past her.

“It made me so livid. My toes were hurting. My back was carrying this big backpack,” she said. “And they were down the mountain in seconds.” Watching backcountry skiers make quick work of the vertical descent on Adams kindled a drive. “I’m going to learn how to ski,” Diggs said.

Growing up in poverty in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1980s, where she was bused across town for school desegregation , Diggs had little exposure to snow sports beyond white classmates returning from vacation with goggle tans telling tales of exotic destinations like Mammoth, California.

“I was this Black girl and my parents couldn’t afford to take me to these places,” she said.

Diggs’ family later moved to Las Vegas, where she spent hours in the library immersed in National Geographic and adventure magazines.

“I was inspired by it all: seeing someone hanging from a cliff by their fingers, dropped off by a helicopter and sliding down a massive mountain, hiking in faraway places and beautiful almost unrealistic landscapes,” she said. Again, resolve: “I carved out a place in my mind and heart as a child that I want to go after those things.”

But the outdoor media of the 1980s and 1990s featured few women, much less people of color. “I had no role model,” she said. “I became my own sense of inspiration.”

After graduating from the University of Memphis with a degree in biology, Diggs eventually took a laboratory job in Seattle as a microbiologist testing with foodborne pathogens in 2013. A colleague invited her to Mount Rainier for her birthday – Diggs’ first visit to a national park.

“I didn’t even know you can go and visit national parks,” she said. “My mind was completely altered.”

That up-close-and-personal encounter with the mighty Tahoma led her to hiking and nontechnical mountaineering with local clubs including Seattle Outdoor Adventures and The Mountaineers.

As with skiing, though, expensive gear was prohibitive. Diggs recalls wrapping her shoes with zip-close bags in lieu of proper mountaineering boots.

Regardless of the gear, the experiences were rewarding.

“Every time I went outside, I saw how strong my body was and what I was capable of doing,” Diggs said.

School’s in for winter

When it came to instructing, Diggs dug into that resolve once again. Eager to start on her quest to diversify snow sports, she applied to teach at Stevens Pass the same winter she learned to ski.

“I’m an athletic person. I could ski greens and easy blues,” Diggs said, referring to the least challenging downhill ski slope classifications. “I thought I’d be a good fit for youth programming, teaching first-time kids as an assistant.”

Alicia O’Donnell, manager of seasonal programs and private lessons at Stevens Pass, is used to a pretty standard answer to her question about motivation when interviewing prospective ski instructors: “I like to ski and ride.”

So when Diggs shared her life story, O’Donnell took note. She still recalls the interview nearly five years later.

“I remember her being very bubbly, open and honest,” O’Donnell said. “The fact that she had a larger vision than just, ‘I want a free season pass,’ was refreshing.”

From that first season, Diggs availed herself of employee skills clinics and ample time on the snow.

“The growth has been exponential in my skiing,” she said. Although she eventually became a certified instructor, personal growth was not the only goal for Diggs. “When I was hired at Stevens Pass, they believed in my vision of bringing more people out there,” she said.

People like Victoria Ochido, 30, a nursing aide in Everett originally from Kenya. Her first ski lesson didn’t go well, either.

“It was a very awkward and uncomfortable situation,” Ochido said. “All I wanted to do was learn how to ski but I felt like I had to go through a lot of hurdles that took away the joy. I was one of the first Black people to ever take lessons from there. I got weird questions and felt a sense of loneliness.”

In 2021, Ochido gave it another shot under Diggs’ tutelage. “Annette is very wholesome in her teaching style, very easy, free, you can breathe,” Ochido said. “I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. She would always encourage you to a higher potential. If you fall, she would give you time to get it together.

“Her spirit is so vibrant it consumes your fear and exhaustion.”

This winter, Ochido plans to work on weekends in the rental shop at Stevens Pass to get a free season pass and push herself to spend more time at the ski resort. After making the effort to learn something new as an adult, she said, “I don’t want to disappear from the sport.”

Denver-born Lizzy Lane, 24, learned to ski two years ago at Oregon’s Willamette Pass while studying at the University of Oregon, then moved to Seattle for a tech marketing job. Lane, who identifies as mixed-race, was fortunate to have a positive learning experience and wants to pay it forward to other people of color.

She stumbled across EDGE Outdoors on Instagram and attended a fundraiser over the summer at Reuben’s Brews in the Ballard neighborhood. Diggs greeted Lane at the door with glitter – not your typical ski bro move.

“Ski culture, especially in Seattle and Denver, is very gatekeep-y,” Lane said. “Annette made me feel super included and validated.”

Diggs is also persuasive. When Lane dismissed the idea of teaching because she only had two seasons under her belt, Diggs countered with her student-to-instructor trajectory in one season. This winter, Lane will be on the roughly 250-instructor roster at Stevens Pass. O’Donnell estimates that 15%-20% of the 90 or so new hires this season are people of color.

“I want to continue the work of changing the culture of skiing – who looks like a skier and who doesn’t,” Lane said. “I want people to feel comfortable asking me for advice and tips because I’m someone they can potentially relate to.”

For Diggs, these small wins are part of a long game.

“The success of the ski industry was built on white supremacy,” Diggs said. “We’re talking about a culture shift, but I believe one day we will have a more diverse workforce and be able to retain it. Ski areas are actively working on it.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.