[This Local Hero story originally appeared in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 74 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
The slow-motion reel plays in my mind, a dramatic rooster tail of snow sweeping over the skier’s head. From the enveloping cloud of white smoke, Vasu Sojitra emerges, carving turns down a Teton Pass descent, on a single ski and two outriggers. His smile beams through sparkling snow. His “Brown Joy”–as he calls it, “a feeling of pride and a sense of belonging for being brown and in my skin; celebrating my ancestors and my Indian culture through a gesture and feeling”–goes everywhere he does: ice climbing in the subzero temperatures of Montana, rock wrangling up the craggy Grand Teton, couloir chasing across the northerly slopes of Wyoming.
VASU SOJITRA HAS ACCOMPLISHED First Disabled Descents (he’s an amputee), and other mountaineering and endurance-running objectives in the Bridgers, Beartooths, Tetons, Chic-Chocs, Adirondacks and Appalachian Mountains. But Vasu’s drive isn’t just about chasing his own fulfillment. As outdoor recreation grows in popularity, Vasu–a staunch supporter of inclusivity and community–works in Bozeman, Montana, to create the world he wants to see. (Bozeman sits on Apsaalooke, Tsitsistas and Suhtaio, Niitsitapi and Confederated Salish and Kootenai ancestral lands.) Dedicated wholeheartedly to shifting perspectives on who belongs and excels in alpine places, Vasu cultivates an oft-missing link in the development of mountain craft: mentorship.
Working with Vermont Adaptive, as Vasu watched a student gleefully schuss down a green run, tethered at their ski tips (to boost control and minimize wobble), he realized, “This isn’t about just skiing or being in the mountains–this is about the feeling we experience through these activities.” He explains that he “wants people to be ‘autonomously interdependent'”: to understand who they are on their own, but also to know that we all need support to find our own successes. In his efforts as a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) strategist and an alpinist, Vasu strives to create realms where individuals can realize how relationships with their selves–as much as with others–can help form multidimensional, i.e. intersectional, experiences for many underrepresented people.
His latest endeavor, the Inclusive Outdoors Project, co-founded with Sophia Bielsky, offers backcountry skiing, mountaineering and ice- and rock-climbing clinics tailored for self-identifying BIPOC, Adaptive/Disabled and Queer participants. According to the Inclusive Outdoors Project, such “Affinity Spaces are spaces where people have common interests, backgrounds, shared lived experiences to center a safe and caring learning environment. Affinity Spaces are healing spaces exemplifying a sense of belonging and safety that is judgment free to build resilient and empowered communities.”
The sense of belonging and freedom that we get from powerful outdoor adventures pushes Vasu to experience more–not just as a mentor, but also as an athlete. In March, Vasu and his team made a ski descent of the Skillet Glacier, after hours of pushing up 5,300 feet of snow and rock to the top of Mt. Moran, a 12,605-foot peak in Grand Teton National Park. From the summit, he grinned as the towering peaks of the Teewinot (Shoshone for “many pinnacles”) Range faded into the background. “I’m so proud of the team for believing in my ability,” he later wrote on Instagram. “That most definitely dissolved any doubt in a successful attempt supplemented by the selfless support I have received throughout my life to be where I’m at today.”
Sojitra described his ski down the Skillet Glacier as a “First Disabled Descent,” not as part of any desire to “‘bag’ peaks for my own selfish individualism,” he explained. “I say this to showcase that with access to the opportunities like representation and mentorship a chunky one-legged Brown kid can see the role model that he needed when he was younger to show joy and confidence in his own skin; to show joy and confidence in being and existing.”
Over the years, I’ve watched Vasu’s adventures unfold with unrivaled energy; he’s a rare find in the mountains, let alone the world. Moments like the one on Mt. Moran, the poignant togetherness of community and support, can be fleeting. But with grace and gumption, Vasu challenges us, as much as himself, to find ways to climb higher, beyond any single summit. Arming us all with the information, tools, and representation to create a more inclusive alpine world, Vasu leads us onward and upward through the woods and over ice, stone and snow, to a vision of a better future. “The more we know…”
The further we’ll go.
[An interview with Vasu Sojitra from 2013 can be found on our sister Backcountry magazine’s website here. This Local Hero story originally appeared in Alpinist 74, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 74 for all the goodness!–Ed.]