Photo by Sofia Jaramillo
Pro skier Vasu Sojitra turns hardship into opportunity for a more inclusive outdoors.
BY DAN EGAN
“[Six] dudes, 1,000 pounds of gear, 17 days, a 6,000-meter peak and 10 legs.” -Vasu Sojitra’s Instagram story during his historic climb and descent of Denali, North America’s highest peak. June 20, 2021.
Writer’s note: If you do the math, that’s two legs short of a typical expedition because Sojitra and Peter McAfee were the first two amputees to ski from the summit of Denali in Alaska. The expedition is featured in Warren Miller Entertainment’s new film Winter Starts Now.
“Consider my your friendly neighborhood disrupter,” Sojitra says, “bridging gaps between abled and disabled, communities of color … what public access is and where our public lands came from.”
Backcountry skiing is challenging. There’s the skin and bootpack up, the cold, the danger of avalanches. And then there’s the ski down. Add a whole new layer of skill and complexity, such as accomplishing it on one leg, and it’s downright overwhelming. Vasu Sojitra brushes off the momentous effort. “I have a simple saying I like to repeat to myself during big climbs and adventure races,” he says. “I’ve done hard things and I have the capacity to do harder things.”
Sojitra lost his right leg at nine months old when he contracted life- threatening sepsis. His parents, who immigrated to America from India in the late 1980s, had only hours to act when doctors informed them that their second son would lose his life if they didn’t operate immediately. “There was no choice in the matter for us,” says his mother Rama Sojitra. “The decision saved his life. He has never once complained, and my husband and I have never tried to hold him back at anything.”
As a child, Sojitra tried to use a prosthetic leg, but found it slowed him down as he played with his friends. The same was true when he and brother Amir were on the same hockey and swim teams. “He just came home one day and said he wasn’t going to use it anymore,” Rama says. “He learned to ski with friends, not through a program.”
Sojitra, who was raised in New England and attended University of Vermont, gained notoriety while ripping local ski areas with his college buddies, and his story began appearing in magazines like Powder, Freeskier and Backcountry. Then film companies such as Teton Gravity and T-Bar Films featured him. Then came the sponsorships—Ski the East, Columbia, Red Bull—and his story went global.
Now, Sojitra is the first disabled athlete to be sponsored by global gear giant The North Face. The relationship began when he met famed mountaineer Conrad Anker at the Spire climbing center in Bozeman. “Vasu has ignited the conversation at The North Face about inclusion, disabilities and what can be done,” says Anker, who oversees marketing for the company’s Global Athlete Team. “This is important stuff.”
Sojitra has harnessed more than 46,000 followers on Instagram and is using the platform to advocate for inclusion, diversity, the disabled, public lands access, and Native peoples.
“[Vasu] summited Denali faster than my able-bodied climbers.”
“Consider me your friendly neighborhood disrupter,” Sojitra says, “bridging gaps between abled and disabled, communities of color … what public access is and where our public lands came from. If we understand we are stewards of the land, that can elevate the conversation in a way that protects and saves our planet.”
Sojitra is also encouraging broader segments of the population to get involved in outdoor sports and inspiring others in the process. Joe Stone survived
a 2010 speed flying accident that left him a high- functioning quadriplegic. Since then, he’s been fighting alongside Sojitra for inclusion for disabled athletes in marathons, mountain biking, skiing and paragliding.
“It’s hard to change culture,” says Stone, the current director of mission at nonprofit Teton Adaptive Sports in Jackson, Wyoming. “Vasu is using these major accomplishments to shine a light on inclusion and access. He’s playing the slow game and has a big mission; people are taking notice.”
One is mountain guide and activist Don Nguyen. Founder of Seattle-based nonprofit Climber of Color, Nguyen is of Vietnamese descent and sees Sojitra’s efforts as inclusionary and impactful. “There are so few Asians, Black and Brown people in the mountains and the barrier for access comes down to exclusion,” Nguyen says. “I started my company to provide access for people like me. Vasu is amplifying that by using his platform to show people of color and disabilities what can be done.”
Nguyen was guiding clients on Denali last June when Sojitra was making his own ascent.
“As a guide, my main instruction to clients is efficiency, don’t waste energy; but for a one-legged person like Vasu, I don’t even know what to tell him because he has had to develop his own pace and climbing system,” Nguyen says. “He summited Denali faster than my able- bodied climbers.”
Roy Tuscany is founder of the High Five Foundation, which specializes in preventing life-changing injuries and provides resources— and hope—should the worst happen. High Five has raised more than $4.5 million for injured athletes and veterans since 2009. Tuscany knows how hard it is to find influencers who will magnify a message but sees a groundswell of support of late.
“In the advocacy world there are no products,” Tuscany says. “Rather, we trade in words and services and our value is equated in trust and in time. Vasu, Joe and me, we have all been doing this for a long time and now we have able-bodied influencers leveraging our voices which helps to ramp up diversity and access to the outdoors. And that changes lives.”
Sojitra believes in the Golden Rule 2.0: “Treat others as they want to be treated.”
When asked what he would say to a room full of outdoor industry leaders, his answer is straightforward: “Help us by providing the resources for the underserviced communities of color and disabilities,” he says. “Build relationships with these communities by hiring a diverse staff within the leadership of your companies. Research shows the more diverse leadership, the more profitable the organization becomes.”
And it takes a village. “These are not just my achievements, they are the achievements of my community, my parents, my brother and so many others,” Sojitra says. “I’m just trying to expand the narrative for [people with] disabilities and people of color by promoting access and how we can help each other.”
Sojitra’s next adventure will be a summit attempt of Cotopaxi, an active volcano rising to 19,347 feet in the South American Andes.
A 2017 inductee of the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Hall of Fame, extreme skiing Pioneer Dan Egan has appeared in 14 Warren Miller films and lives in Big Sky, Montana. His new book, Thirty Years in a White Haze, documents the evolution of “extreme skiing.”