High up in the alpine, team athlete Vasu Sojitra carves through a snowy landscape in Steep Series gear from The North Face.

Redefing Disabled.

October 14, 2021

A Q&A with Vasu Sojitra, an adaptive mountain athlete and The North Face team athlete, bringing intersectionality to the outdoors.

Redefining Disabled with Vasu Sojitra

A Q&A with Vasu Sojitra, an adaptive mountain athlete bringing intersectionality to the outdoors.

Can you introduce yourself?

 

My name’s Vasu Sojitra. My pronouns are he/him/his. I’m a visitor on the land of the Apsáalooke Nation, Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes, Northern Cheyenne Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, and many other tribes, nations, bands, and confederacies more commonly known as Bozeman, MT (Montana, USA). I self-identify as an Indian-American and Disabled person of color with a right leg amputation. My motto is “#ninjasticking through the woods to bring intersectionality to the outdoors.” I’ve also been referred to as “your friendly neighborhood disrupter,” mostly because I tend to stir the pot of complacency when it comes to social change, specifically within outdoor spaces. I’m also a brother to Amir, a son to Rama and Hasu Sojitra, and I continually work to be a good ancestor to those who come after my time, for both humans and our natural world. On top of that, I am a professional mountain athlete, an adaptive athlete, and a Disability Access Strategist helping to elevate the Disabled community in an intersectional way.

High up in the alpine, team athletes Vasu Sojitra and Emilie Zynobia carve through a snowy landscape in Steep Series gear from The North Face.
Vasu Sojitra and Emile Zynobia share a laugh across Jackson Lake on their approach to Mt. Moran.

What plans do you have for this upcoming season?

 

For the 2021/22 season and on, I’m going to continue to support the communities I’m a part of, which includes the Disabled community, the many communities of color, my Native and Black kin, my Queer and LGBTQIA2S+ kin, and so many others through relationship building and shared experiences. This will be through my platform as an athlete and through our organizing with my co-champion Sophia Bielsky within the Inclusive Outdoors Project and the amazing work of the cohort from the Outdoor F.U.T.U.R.E. Initiative.

 

I’m also going to continue to reframe what Disability means not just for me but for everyone. Because when we have access to the support we need, we can achieve anything. I want to keep pushing myself in the mountains and build skills around ski mountaineering by achieving ambitious goals like skiing off of the Summit of Denali, and future ambitions like Cotopaxi, Mont Blanc, Cho Oyu, and Manaslu. With this vision, I don’t just want to focus on myself, but lift up my community in the process by creating expeditions that incorporate more Disabled and adaptive athletes, athletes of color, and athletes that identify within the gender and sexuality spectrum, while making sure an intersectional team is elevating all of our stories.

 

What was your favorite moment of the Mt. Moran trip?

 

My favorite moment from the trip was sharing this experience with Emilé Zynobia, a dear friend of mine. To be in the same boot-pack with her and share her story. Watching her rip down The Skillet flawlessly was so powerful especially in conditions that were pretty survival and subpar. I really enjoyed sharing that with her and I always go back to this quote by Mariame Kaba, a modern-day abolitionist, and grassroots organizer, “Everything worthwhile is done with others."

High up in the alpine, team athletes Vasu Sojitra and Emilie Zynobia carve through a snowy landscape in Steep Series gear from The North Face.
An early start to a long day - Vasu Sojitra, Emile Zynobia, and guide Zahan Billimoria begin their boot pack to the Mt. Moran summit.

What was your lowest point on the trip and how did you stay motivated through that?

 

The lowest point of the trip was to see a party in front of us almost fall at the steepest point. That created a moment of risk reassessment and changed up our group dynamics at the crux of the climb.

 

What were the ski conditions like on Mt. Moran?

 

Oh my god, they were horrible! Ice chunks everywhere, super firm, and the snow was constantly taking me for a ride. I did my best to be a bit more fluid, but it was tricky after doing dips all day.

 

You have spoken about the balance between support and grit.  Can you share a past experience where you felt there was alignment between support and grit and what that looked like to you?

 

I’ve learned that I can’t do everything on my own. My path to success is heavily reliant on the support and care from my community to lift me up as I pave a path for myself and others. This doesn’t go without the internal willpower, grit, strength, etc. that has been fostered throughout my life. This achievement of skiing The Skillet was just that. I had support throughout the approach and climb, from the full team carrying my overnight gear on the 6-mile approach, helping save my shoulders for the 4000 ft. climb the next day, to having conversations with Emilé, Z, Faith, Sofia, and others to feel a sense of belonging in a space that’s typically not celebrating those within the minority communities. To me, support isn’t only physical, it’s emotional and spiritual. How do we lift each other up in these spaces that are either trying to test our survival or our sense of belonging? I would not be where I am without that love and nurturing from so many who I stand on the shoulders of. One day, I hope to be that support for those that follow.

 

Can you talk about the importance of having Emilie and Zahan with you on this trip?

 

One of my favorite things to do is experience the outdoors with folks that look like me and have gone through similar lived experiences. As folks of color, it’s sometimes very difficult to be in many of these majority-driven spaces where on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis we are needing to explain our existence. Many of those insecurities for me do dissolve and I’m more easily able to let my shield down when I’m around others like Emilé and Z, where we can have vulnerable conversations and know that I’m not the only ones going through this experience. It’s a level of kinship that is subconscious and helps me validate my humanity.

High up in the alpine, team athletes Vasu Sojitra and Emilie Zynobia carve through a snowy landscape in Steep Series gear from The North Face.
Vasu Sojitra enjoys the descent of the Mt. Moran. (left) Vasu Sojitra continues up the boot pack on the approach to the summit. (right) A moment of solace and rest on the approach to the summit.

Can you tell us more about the Inclusive Outdoors Project that you co-founded?

 

Inclusive Outdoors Project was founded by Sophia Bielsky and myself in November 2020 during the heart of Covid. As we developed a relationship, we started to notice so many inequities for marginalized folks, especially within the outdoor industry. Many folks not feeling safe in homogenized spaces and the lack of affinity spaces - safe and caring spaces where folks from similar lived experiences and social identities feel welcomed - within the mountain sports world. which primarily included the activities we loved: ice and rock climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry skiing. From there, we created Inclusive Outdoors Project to bridge these gaps.

 

We are where affinity meets the outdoors for BIPOC, Adaptive/Disabled, and LGBTQIA2S+ Communities. We partner with guiding services, festivals, and other companies and nonprofits to build and cultivate intersectional spaces where everyone feels welcome, especially those that have been historically excluded. To learn more, please follow us <LINK TO: https://www.instagram.com/inclusiveoutdoorsproject/>.

 

You’ve said you don’t want to be just an inspiration, but to inspire people to take action. Do you have suggestions on the best ways for people to take action?

 

What I want is for folks to be better stewards to ourselves, to each other, and share the many privileges each one of us has with those around us. Privilege is not a bad thing, as long as we’re able to share and live in a community with one another. Learn what anti-racism is, support Critical Race Theory, know that Pride was a revolution, understand ways folks can provide more access to those with disabilities, whether that be through the language we use to breaking down the stigmas we hold on to. We are all creators, artists, educators, storytellers, bridge builders, disruptors... Feel who you are and work to leverage that to better the lives around you. There are no checkboxes for taking action, only daily habits that will build a culture that is for everyone.

 

What would you want people to take away from this content you created with The North Face and your first adaptative descent of the Skillet?

 

We are more than the sum of our parts. We are so much more to ourselves and to each other. We lift each other up and we continue to climb on the shoulders of giants that came before us. Work to live outside the boxes we have manifested for ourselves, work to live without borders or boundaries. Because walls are meant for climbing and boundaries are meant to be broken.