Amputee passionately pursues backcountry skiing, outdoor fun

2014-08-28T06:00:00Z 2014-08-28T15:05:35Z Amputee passionately pursues backcountry skiing, outdoor funBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Perhaps it was because Vasu Sojitra nearly died when he was a child that he has chosen to pursue life with such raw gusto, even though the youthful illness cost him his right leg.

“I just go after it,” he said. “I’ve had that mentality: Try it, and if you like it, keep going. If it’s a little too much, there are other things.”

So Sojitra has tried water skiing.

“I finally got up after 50 tries. I was completely out of control, but it was fun.”

He rides a bicycle.

“I’ve always been active, always been outside.”

Sojitra also hikes and backpacks.

“My hands take a beating, everything else is usually fine.”

He skateboards and has tried climbing, roller hockey, kayaking and yoga.

“I feel like a slug if I’m not active.”

He’s alpine skied since he was 10, learning the sport by following his brother, Amir.

“He’d take me down black diamonds, moguls and ice.”

Amir said he always treated his brother like an able-bodied person, even though he and his parents worried how Sojitra would fit in.

“There were times he wanted to do outlandish things,” Amir said. “And I was like, ‘I’m not going to censor you.’”

That wild streak may have come from their father, Amir speculated, who as a young man used to “do crazy things” like climbing boulders without any safety gear.

“My mother is the exact opposite, very fearful of us and for us,” Amir said.

Filmmaker Tyler Wilkinson-Ray, of T-Bar Films, has worked with Sojitra and is consistently impressed by his boldness.

“He’s just an overall pretty impressive athlete,” Wilkinson-Ray said.

Appearance deceiving

Sojitra’s athletic ability and fearlessness caught the attention of outdoor writers when he was back East. A short film Wilkinson-Ray made of Sojitra for a national competition to be a ski bum for a year placed second, earning him street cred with skiers. When he moved out West this summer, Billings attorney Bill Cole met Sojitra through a mutual friend and was immediately impressed.

“He’s so incredibly comfortable on those crutches, that’s what struck me,” Cole said.

With his heavy black-framed glasses, youthful appearance and slim 120-pound, 5-foot-9 frame, Sojitra projects a bookish, quiet-spoken personality.

“I feel like when I do an interview, I sound more interesting that I really am,” he said shyly. “I don’t like to talk about myself.”

Yet the 22-year-old University of Vermont graduate in mechanical engineering is a fierce backcountry skier. After the success of the ski bum video project, last year Wilkinson-Ray shot another film of Sojitra that he submitted to the 2014 Banff Mountain Film Festival. An online clip of the first film shows Sojitra gliding through the trees, his outriggers clacking noisily as he blazes downhill.

“The kid charges,” Wilkinson-Ray said. “He has a very unique style. He has to keep his speed down, so he makes a lot of quick turns to keep his ski underneath him. And he has to keep his weight out front. If he leans back, it’s game over.”

Sojitra has done 20-mile backcountry trips in a day, although admitting that he “feels like crap” the next morning.

“The amazing thing is that, when I was filming with him, when I’m loaded down with camera gear we travel at about the same pace,” Wilkinson-Ray said.

Sojitra said his big brother can’t keep up with him on the ski slopes anymore, not since he started backcountry skiing through the University of Vermont’s outdoor program.

“Yeah, I can’t,” Amir admitted. “He’s dirty.”

It was because of skiing that he landed in Bozeman with friends about two months ago— seeking an area with great skiing as well as job opportunities that weren’t only in the service industry.

“The main point was to ski and enjoy the outdoors, all the rest is a perk,” he said.

Cole said he went on an overnight backpacking trip into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness with Sojitra and his friends in early July.

“I was hesitant to go backpacking because I hadn’t gone in many years,” Cole said, but he figured he could keep up with the one-legged guy. “Boy was I wrong. But Vasu was very patient and waited for me.”

A crutch

Backcountry skiing requires endurance to climb up snowy slopes on skis or snowshoes, avalanche knowledge to avoid dangerous situations, and the ability to ski ungroomed snow down narrow chutes and through the trees. Sojitra does it on one leg, with no prosthetic.

“I had a prosthetic until I was 10,” he said. “It was literally a pain in the ass. I had to sit in it and strap it around my waist. It was pretty painful because of the nerve damage.”

One day in school the prosthetic’s knee didn’t buckle as he walked and Sojitra fell, hitting his face on a desk. That’s when he decided to ditch the fake leg and just get around on crutches.

“I’m basically walking on my arms, so I’m always working out,” Sojitra said.

He routinely broke aluminum crutches, the only kind his insurance would pay for.

“Playing soccer was really hard on them,” he said. “If a ball hit them in the right spot, they’d crack. So now I’ve got titanium ones.”

That’s right, he plays soccer too — “just like a foosball player,” he joked. “I can almost keep up with everyone. I’ve got quick pick up. I’m pretty good at kicking, as well.”

Wilkinson-Ray played against Sojitra in pickup games at the University of Vermont.

“He’s pretty hard to dribble around,” he said. “He’s got quite the wingspan with those crutches.”

Infant illness

Sojitra lost his leg when he was 9 months old. He had septicemia, a rare blood infection that if not quickly diagnosed is fatal in about half of all cases. He was sick for about six months. His leg was amputated above the knee after a blood clot formed and the infection surged to “a step under gangrene.”

After getting better, his family moved back to the Indian state of Gujarat until he was 5. When his parents returned to America, they settled in Glastonberry, Conn., a white, middle-class suburb of Hartford along the banks of the Connecticut River, where Sojitra grew up following his big brother around.

Traveling between the two cultures, Sojitra has developed a healthy, self-deprecating sense of humor. When he was going to meet a new person at a Bozeman eatery, he described himself as “the one-legged kid with crutches. It might be hard to find me in the crowd haha. Just approach me, I don’t bite.”

Wild West

Now that he’s ventured out West, Sojitra is looking to use his mechanical engineering skills to help other physically challenged people enjoy the outdoors. He’s already engineered his own skiing outriggers to function better for climbing up slopes — by adapting a snowshoe extender that could be quickly attached and released — to his poles.

To spread his inspiring message Sojitra volunteers at Eagle Mount, which helps people with adaptive skiing and other outdoor activities.

Through his website, vasusojitra.com, he’s also hoping to encourage everyone to get outside. Being active can help with depression, he pointed out.

Amir has seen his brother’s future quickly evolve from an original college interest in renewable energy to a new focus on skiing.

“I think he’s just going to be skiing the rest of his life, inspiring other people,” Amir said.

Sojitra is also hoping the ski film may garner him a sponsorship from a gear manufacturer. Never willing to focus on any one activity, he plans to climb Wyoming’s Grand Teton Peak in September with a group of other adaptive athletes.

And as a fallback, there’s always graduate school, possibly at Montana State University. Until then, he’s working part-time at a local splitboard binding company. Splitboards are snowboards that can be broken into two halves so the boarder can walk uphill in the backcountry.

No matter what he does, it seems Sojitra will do it at full throttle with a unique brand of enthusiasm.

“Vasu does more with one leg than most people do with two,” Cole said.

“He’s an intrepid adventurer,” Wilkinson-Ray said. “He’s always trying to find the next challenge that he can do.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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