Meet Vasu Sojitra: The Athlete Challenges Ideas About What’s Possible

Climbing and skiing in Denali, Alaska at an elevation of 20,310 feet is grueling. Mountaineers endure blizzards, high altitude and weeks of sub-zero temperatures as they slowly ascend North America’s highest peak. Vasu Sojitra did it on one leg.

When he was 9 months old, Mr. Sojitra’s right leg was amputated due to sepsis, a blood infection. When he was 10, he saw an amputee skiing in Connecticut with two stabilizers – short skis that are mounted on poles to help with balance and turning – and begged his parents for a set. Since then, he has pursued his outdoor passions in the wildest places and encourages others to follow him.

In 2014, Mr. Sojitra climbed the Grand Teton peak in Wyoming (elevation: 13,775 feet) using crutches. Last year, after completing the state’s first disabled ski run on Mount Moran (elevation: 12,610 feet), Mr. Sojitra teamed up with Pete McAfee, another amputee, and skied what believed to be Denali’s first handicapped descent (there are no official records for descents in adapted ski mountaineering). Their feat was featured in Warren Miller’s 2021 film, “winter starts now.” In October 2021, Mr. Sojitra climbed the Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador (elevation: 19,347 feet) with the Range of motion projectwhich raises awareness of the rights of people with disabilities and prosthetic care.

Mr Sojitra, 30, said his mission was to make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible. He co-founded Inclusive outdoor project, which promotes outdoor sports and runs clinics by and for people with disabilities, people of color, and members of LGBTQ and other communities often excluded from participation. He is one of only two adaptive athletes to represent The North Face, the outdoor gear brand, and appeared with other underrepresented outdoor athletes in the independent film, “The approach.”

Mr. Sojitra, a professional athlete and disability access strategist, was interviewed from his home in Bozeman, Mt. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It’s a way to build community and connect with the landscape I find myself in, especially now that I’ve learned more about Indigenous issues and culture. This is what creates joy for me.

There are so many people of color and people with disabilities within the LGBTQ community who participate in all of these sports, but their stories are not shared. That’s why I keep doing it and why it’s important to show something as outrageous as skiing in Denali and knowing that even people with disabilities are here to do it.

At the top of Denali, which rises to over 20,000 feet, it’s like breathing through a coffee straw. Breathing and moving is super heavy and hard, like walking through concrete. But the views are indescribable. You feel so small next to all those massive bergschrunds and crevasses, overhanging glaciers and massive cliff bands. I felt very humbled by the scenery.

It’s scary to have the potential for death. But above all, it’s knowing that when we die, we will miss the people we love. One thing I don’t want to do is let them down that way.

Credit…Sophie Jaramillo

Me and Pete (McAfee) hiked to the top together. We were super happy, crying and hugging. We were dancing and waving a pirate flag (a black flag with a skull and crossed swords).

Just me and Pete being amputees. It’s kind of the ironic version of us being pirates because we both have amputations – like a pirate with a peg leg.

Summiting Denali was a combination of everything my body was capable of in the mountains and in our world. The amount of effort we all put in to be able to be where we are – it was super powerful. I feel very honoured, privileged and grateful to be in this space and to be able to access it as a person with a disability.

Many. I know I stand on the shoulders of giants. Skiing the highest peak in North America symbolizes what is possible when you are given access and opportunity, especially as a marginalized person who is seen as ‘other’ or pitied as a disabled person. The fact that we were able to accomplish this shows that when people have access to these opportunities, we are able to achieve these incredible successes. I definitely had a smile on my face, even through my frozen nose and fingers.

It’s access to resources and opportunities, whether it’s transportation, scholarships or mentorship programs, or simply ways to integrate different cultures into a very seamless space. Addressing all of these things can help not just one community, but all communities. Everyone has different issues and oppressions that affect them, even if you are a white person.

We strive to provide affinity spaces in mountain sports, primarily in cross-country skiing, ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing and trail running for people with marginalized identities – communities of color, disabled communities, queer communities. We’re trying to create these more intentional spaces that focus on these communities and involve them more in the sports that I love. The idea is simply to expand that population and that opportunity and provide mentorship and growth to those communities that have typically been left out of the mainstream outdoor narrative.

I hope to inspire people to break down barriers so that I’m not the only person making first-time disabled descents on Denali and other peaks. I want to help inspire people to show up not just for themselves, but for others.

David Goodman is a journalist and author ofBest off-piste skiing in the northeast(AMC Books) and host of The Vermont Conversationa public affairs radio show and a podcast.

About Catharine C. Bean

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