Both right-leg amputees since childhood, Vasu Sojitra and Pete McAfee have become leaders in the world of access and inclusion for people living with disabilities.
By Jack Reaney EBS STAFF WRITER
In 2021, weeks before setting off to make history as the first adaptive athletes to climb and ski from North America’s highest point, right-leg amputees Pete McAfee and Vasu Sojitra first met and prepared by attempting to climb Mt. Rainer.
It was a rehearsal-trip with the full team of six, and they nearly reached the 14,410-foot summit before changing conditions turned them around.
“It was the safe call,” they told a crowd gathered at Montana State University on Sept. 26. The audience applauded as they watched a follow-cam shot of Sojitra skiing a 50-degree slope to descend Mt. Rainer, making jump-turns on one leg and using specialized sled-poles.
Still, despite technically not completing the full trial mission, the team felt ready to climb Denali, an imposing 20,310-foot Alaskan mountain.
In the Strand Union Ballroom, a few hundred students, outdoorspeople, and interested Bozemanites gathered on that Monday night for a presentation and a Q&A on accessibility and inclusion.
Lights dimmed in the almost-full ballroom, and student facilitator Madi Weber from MSU’s Leadership Institute introduced Sojitra, an eight-year Bozeman resident, who walked casually on one leg with support from specialized crutches.
Before inviting McAfee on stage to discuss the expedition, Sojitra challenged the audience to recognize factors of diversity—ability, age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and class—and the true meaning of disability. Throughout the event, Sojitra emphasized the need for empathy and sincere effort with regards to these topics.
“I’m a skier, but I don’t like ski culture,” Sojitra said later during the Q&A, when asked if he felt supported by mountaineering and skiing communities. “There’s a lot that could be worked on, with access and inclusion. There’s always an opportunity for growth there.
“Treat others how they want to be treated,” urged Sojitra.
Sojitra then introduced McAfee, who strode on stage on his prosthetic leg and shared photographs of his custom ski mountaineering gear. After moving to Oregon in 2009 and picking up skiing at Mt. Ashland in 2010, McAfee said he didn’t have access to an adaptive skiing program.
“I didn’t really know it existed,” he said, so he started on two skis with the prosthetic leg until he fell and suffered an open fracture of his tibia. After surgery, he realized it was a lot easier to control one ski than two, and the West Texas native fell in love with skiing around 2015.
“You know what?” McAfee told Explore Big Sky after the presentation, “I think I have an advantage, because I never have to think about crossin’ tips.”
‘We had made history’
In early June of 2021, their journey began in southern Alaska.
The six-person team packed 500,000 calories, including 50 pounds of condiments like an industrial-sized bottle of Franks Red Hot sauce. They joked that the sauces were worth it, adding flavor to repetitive, high-calorie meals at elevation. And they almost used all 50 pounds.
Each climber carried over 170 pounds of gear, with Pete and Vasu pulling 105-pound sleds up steep and precarious terrain, avoiding crevasses deep enough to fit the Empire State Building.
More than halfway into the record-breaking sufferfest, they had an unexpected encounter at 14,000 feet. McAfee recalled the story, bringing laughter from the crowd.
“You know, if we summit this mountain, nobody is gonna remember us,” McAfee recalled hearing from a Colorado crew who had carried hot dogs and a charcoal grill to the camp. “But they will remember hot dogs.”
At this 14,000-foot camp, they spent a few days acclimating and having some fun by climbing 3,000 feet and skiing back.
When the team finally made the steep, technical hike along the West Buttress to camp at 17,000 feet, they slept only a few hours before recognizing their weather window was closing. As they closed in on the summit without any restful darkness during the Alaskan summer solstice, they knew they had to make the final push.
“By the time we got to about 18,000 feet, you could see the clouds rolling in and snow coming,” McAfee said.
At 20 below zero, in a whiteout with gusting wind, each mountaineer took their turn posing for a video shot at 20,310 feet above sea-level holding a Jolly Roger flag attached to a ski pole.
“In that moment, we realized we had made history which was super cool,” said Sojitra over the calming music of the compiled video, “and became the first people with disabilities to ski off the summit of Denali.”
‘Realizing what I was capable of doing’
Dr. Flynn Murray, MSU civil engineering professor who suffered a broken neck in a car accident driving back from Big Sky as an MSU undergrad, joined the panel to help answer questions about living life with a disability to the fullest. She praised the university for commitment to accessibility, telling a story of the time when she requested a button on her door which could help her get Red Bull more easily.
“There was a button on the door very promptly,” she said, met by laughter.
A higher-than-typical contingence of Monday’s crowd at Montana State shared disabilities with the keynote speakers, a testament to the importance of the work they’re doing to open doors to others in an often-marginalized community.
“It’s more about proving yourself right than proving others wrong,” McAfee said.
The two speakers didn’t talk much about the descent off Denali’s summit. It was only after the formal Q&A had ended that they explained the descent wasn’t a three-hour ski run to base camp along dreamy powder spines.
“The snow was sunbaked, sun-hit, with pockets of powder, pockets of wind-buff—literally every possible snow condition you can think of,” Sojitra said. “All of the ski lines of Denali itself were bulletproof ice, like, three inches of blue ice.”
They camped and slept for around five hours at 17,000 feet, before descending directly to the airstrip.
McAfee said he felt stronger as he descended from high-altitude, despite the fatigue building from the long trek.
“It was almost a 36-hour push from when we went from 17,000 to summit and back to true base camp,” McAfee said. “We only stopped maybe twice—you’re just going, redlining, running and trying to beat the storm. I guess, just being able to raise the bar for me physically, realizing what I was capable of doing.”