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Vasu Sojitra and Pete McAfee are not the first adaptive athletes to climb Alaska’s 20,310-foot Denali, but on June 30, 2021, they claimed the first disabled descent on skis. With a four-man film crew and 1,000 pounds of gear between the six of them, including both athletes with amputated right legs, the team slogged 150- to 200-pound sleds up the 13,000-foot West Rib route. They endured heavy, wet snow with temperatures as low as -30°F, and summited in whiteout conditions with a narrow weather window.
On the ascent, McAfee used a prosthetic secured with ski straps and mounted to the sole of a touring boot with pin inserts. Sojitra stuck with just one ski and “outrigger” poles (he called them ninja sticks) with little skis on them. All day long, he’d use his arms to lift his body while gliding his ski up the hill beneath him. Both athletes boot packed up steeper sections, dragging their 120-plus pound sleds hooked into their harnesses. They’re all smiles in most of the footage, which was shot for Warren Miller’s new film, “Winter Starts Now,” which goes on tour October 22 and runs through December.
Their weather window was small, however, and they almost didn’t attempt the summit after spending two and a half weeks getting to high camp at 17,000 feet and preparing. But after watching the National Park Service’s weatherboard, which showed an intermittent and unreliable forecast, they decided to go for it, threading the needle before a low-pressure system moved in.
The rest of their crew consisted of filmmakers Erich Roepke, Stein Retzlaff, Ted Hesser, and Ben Farrar. “None of us could have reached the summit alone,” says photographer Ted Hesser, who documented the mission. “There’s often a tension between the group and individual objectives on mountaineering expeditions. That wasn’t present on this trip. The whole team worked together to succeed.”
“That individual bootstrap mentality, you’re going to have to dig deep and find some of that, but you’re not going to be able to do it alone,” McAfee says in the film before they summit. “It’s going to have to be a team effort.”
After ditching most of their food up at high camp to lighten the load, the team made use of their skis to race down the skiable parts of the mountain on a 30-plus hour push and catch a last-minute air taxi out of the Alaska Range before the arrival of a big storm that would trap them in basecamp. With their stumps hanging down, Sojitra and McAfee made the highest-elevation powder turns of their life.
“I love skiing because for me it’s turned into this equalizer,” Sojitra says in the film. “Going uphill or downhill, I’m not too far behind or I’m ripping a line the same way.”
Witness their historic mission in the new Warren Miller film, “Winter Starts Now.” Join Outside+ for tickets to local shows and more at warrenmiller.com.