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Vermont Quarterly

Young Alumni Team Up on Inspiring Film

Vasu Sojitra skiing
Vasu Sojitra, photographed by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

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ALUMNI PROFILES

Young Alumni Team Up on Inspiring Film

by Thomas Weaver

High in Quebec’s rugged Chic Choc mountains last winter, Vasu Sojitra ’13 knew he’d better ski the line below him flawlessly. It had been a six-mile hike in and a steep trudge up thousands of feet — tough for anyone but another level of challenge for a skier with one leg. On a distant ridge, Sojitra’s friend, filmmaker Tyler Wilkinson-Ray ’12, waited with his camera, a long lens and a radio to cue the action.

His awareness that Wilkinson-Ray was “freezing his ass off” in the sub-zero temperatures added motivation to get it on the first take, Sojitra says, laughing. He nailed it. Footage of the run creates a transcendent moment in Out on a Limb, T-Bar Films’ recent short documentary about Sojitra’s skill and ingenuity as a skier who carves turns in backcountry powder better on one leg than most can on two.

The film was well received as a finalist at Banff Mountain Film Festival recently. Audiences applauded mid-film, and Sojitra and Wilkinson-Ray couldn’t walk around town without being stopped for pictures and thanked for the inspiration. More recognition may be on the horizon. The film is up for two Powder Awards, the ski industry’s biggest prize, in the short film and documentary categories.

Wilkinson-Ray, who earned his degree in Global Studies with a mix of anthropology and geography courses, and Sojitra, a mechanical engineering major, first met playing pick-up soccer with UVM Outing Club friends. “He’s pretty good with those crutches,” Wilkinson-Ray says. “Vasu’s got a wide wingspan, so it’s hard to get around him.” He adds that Sojitra’s candor and humor immediately defuse any tension with new friends: “He’s the first to make a one-legged joke.”

Sojitra is matter of fact about how he approaches life. His right leg was amputated when he was nine months old due to a blood infection; basically, he’s known no other way of being. Figuring out a way to jerry-rig snowshoe extenders on his outriggers to climb in the Bolton backcountry without punching through the snow, yes, some mechanical engineering comes into play. But it’s deeper than that. “My whole life I’ve been always trying to solve little every day obstacles, to find different ways of doing tasks,” he says.

The Out on a Limb project was sparked by a Columbia Sportswear contest in which entrants submitted videos displaying their worthiness for a yearlong “Ski Bum Scholarship” at Whistler, British Columbia. Sojitra wanted in and enlisted the help of Tyler Wilkinson-Ray and his brother Elliot ’11, who had very recently ventured into outdoor/ski filmmaking with United We Ski, a documentary about small “mom and pop” ski areas. The brothers grew up in Richmond, Vermont, where Cochran’s classic neighborhood ski hill was their afterschool program for years.

Unfortunately, no ski bum scholarship for Sojitra (he finished second), but the filmmakers realized there was a deeper story to be told beyond the ninety seconds they’d put together for the contest. With funding from Kickstarter, Columbia and others they got to work.

It was an ideal project for the fledgling T-Bar Films. While the majority of ski films boast mega-budgets that fund helicopter shots of skiers on terrain most will never experience, the Vermont filmmakers sought to capture a different world. “I got into it because I really like the storytelling,” Tyler Wilkinson-Ray says, “and I like finding those stories that might go against people’s current understanding of the sport.”

Just back from a six-month-long focus on film work, mostly devoted to mountain biking and surfing video out west, Tyler balances his filmmaking with a full-time job working for The Necrason Group, a progressive public affairs and government lobbying firm based in Montpelier. His brother Elliot moved to California last year, where he produces media for Kitsbow, a bike-wear start-up.

And Vasu Sojitra is living the dream of many an outdoors-loving UVM alumnus, a young man gone west to Bozeman, Montana. Over the phone, I ask him how he likes it. There’s a long pause that seems to beg the question how one could ask such a thing. Then he says, “There are mountains everywhere. Bozeman is surrounded by them. I’m looking at them now.” Point taken.

Mechanical engineering will have to wait as Sojitra tackles other important work with Eagle Mount, a non-profit that helps people with disabilities enjoy the outdoors through activities such as skiing and horseback riding. In the young UVM alum they’ll find a fine role model and a decidedly understated one.

“I’m not trying to be inspiring,” Sojitra says. “I just do what I do. This advocacy role sort of fell into my lap. But if I can help someone else do something that pushes their limits, why not help spread the word about that?”

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