WORDS: Johnny Sudekum
Anyone who's slapped a skin to ski understands what it's like to ascend a hill, carrying each foot, kick-turn after kick-turn. Vasu Sojitra knows the feeling, although his methods are different from most. Sojitra skins throughout the East Coast backcountry, step by step, on a single leg. In touring to areas such as Tuckerman's Ravine and the Chic-Chocs, Sojitra shows a determination to skiing powder most skiers can't fathom, while inspiring others to pursue their dreams, regardless of circumstances.
"The goal is to spread the word," says Sojitra. "To send a message not only to adaptive athletes, but also to people who are doubting themselves or think they are unable to do something."
Doctors diagnosed Sojitra, at 9 months old, with Septicemia, a disease that would ultimately require his right leg to be amputated above the knee. Since then, he hasn't let his condition slow him. Sojitra adapts himself to any sport that sparks his interest--from skateboarding to soccer--without the use of a prosthetic. At 10, Sojitra decided he wanted to try skiing. He grabbed a boot and ski and made his way to Ski Sundown, Connecticut, with his brother.
"I'd try to follow them down the hill," says Sojitra. " It was pretty rough at first, just because none of us knew how to ski at the time, but it's also a hard learning curve when you're an adaptive skier."
Eventually, Sojitra fell in love with the sport. He got his driver's license so he could get himself to the mountain. When Sojitra went to the University of Vermont, he had access to East Coast mountains like Mad River Glen and developed the urge that most skiers eventually acquire: to ski the backcountry. Accordingly, he applied to the UVM Outing Club's Backcountry Skiing/Boarding and Avalanche Awareness Program (BSAAP), which teaches college students to tour and ride the finest the East Coast has to offer beyond resort boundaries.
"I was definitely skeptical about skinning at first, just because I've never done it before," says Sojitra, who skis as fast as his partners. "I'd hiked a lot during the summer and warmer months but never done hiking and skiing combined. I figured that I loved the two separately so I'd love them combined no matter what."
Anyone that's spent a day with Sojitra will tell you, he doesn't have a disability. He prefers the term, "adaptive." Sojitra experimented with a number of different methods to make skinning on one leg manageable. At first, Sojitra jerry-rigged skins to the bottom of each outrigger ski to add stability while touring. This, however, resulted in a post-hole filled battle the entire skin up the mountain. A number of experiments later, Sojitra found the ideal set up--a pair of MSR snowshoe extenders equipped to the bottom of each outrigger ski. This innovation provides Sojitra enough surface area to successfully skin.
Three seasons later, this homemade combination still remains the set-up of choice for Sojitra. He has skinned and skied lines such as Hillman Highway at Tuckerman's Ravine and the Chic-Choc Mountain's Mur des Patrouilleurs. With the 2014 season coming to a close, Sojitra has 20 days in the backcountry, 91 total days on snow, and hopes to reach 100 by traveling to Montana this summer.
"Backcountry skiing is the simplest form of what I love to do," says Sojitra. "And because of my difference in ability, I always make subconscious goals. To be able to accomplish those really gets me one step closer in finding myself, and personally shows me what the human body is capable of."
This winter, Sojitra paired with T-Bar Films to produce a short edit for Columbia Sportswear's Ski Bum Scholarship, a contest that crowns its winner with a three-month trip to Whistler Blackcomb. The crew filmed the video over the course of a single dawn patrol at Stowe Mountain. Sojitra finished second in the contest, and the response from the video inspired T-Bar Films to create a short film to be released this fall, highlighting his 2014 season.
"The film highlights that Vasu only has one leg, but also it shows his insane attitude about it," says Tyler Wilkinson-Ray, co-founder of T-Bar Films. "He's a whole different type of backcountry skier."