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My grandmother, who lived with me while I was growing up, called me kuti kanna, which means “my little eyes” in Tamil, a South Indian language. “Kuti kanna!” she would yell as I ran out to her from my kindergarten classroom. “Ammamma!” I’d call her, as she swung me around and told me stories of the old days.
She was born before India was a free country. She is old enough to remember her father outrunning bandits in a horse-drawn carriage and hearing the announcement of independence in 1947.
But my grandmother was progressive for her generation—a physics professor who encouraged my mother to follow her dreams. So she smiled through gritted teeth when mom announced that she had taken up rock climbing as a hobby, and again when mom announced she was marrying a white boy from the U.S.
I was born shortly afterward, underweight and dusky-skinned, on a frigid January morning in upstate New York. While I followed my family’s footsteps in both physics and rock climbing, I also became addicted to the thrill of skiing, cherishing the freedom and quick movement through the mountains that it affords.
I love skiing and the skiing community, but I have always been aware that as a person of color and an immigrant’s son, I stood out. While I have climbing buddies with many ethnicities, my consistent backcountry ski partners are all white. Frankly, having brown skin in a mostly monochromatic sport motivates me to train harder, be stronger, and ski bolder lines. Most days, I feel like I am representing three-quarters of the planet, and I need to prove to the world that my skinny brown body belongs on a touring rig.
I have learned by now to bite my tongue when people say (without malice) that “skiing/mountaineering/climbing is a white person’s sport.” They are forgetting their history: modern mountaineering was shaped by Asians like Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali Sherpa who was the first to summit Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953, or Asian-American Jimmy Chin, who nabbed the first ski descent of Everest’s South Ridge.
My grandmother loves to hear about my mountaineering adventures, even though the mechanics of the sport (“Crampons for your boots and skis?”) can be difficult to convey. Recreation on snow has been, until recently, mostly foreign to most South Indians who live far from the famed Himalaya. If there is a Tamil word for snow, I haven’t heard it. People just use the Hindi word hima or the Tamil word pani, which means mist.
But through photographs and stories, I can bring my grandmother, who is now 81, to the most inspiring places I have ever been: the icy summits of the Cascade and Sangre De Cristo mountains. I have seen her eyes pop wide at images of the mountain vistas that are so utterly alien to her. I can feel her pulse racing when I sit beside her and tell her about scratching my way up gullies in the Alps before a thrilling descent, and can listen to her chuckle when I show her videos and photos of the time I skied Tuckerman Ravine in a banana costume.
She may have lived most of her life a thousand miles from the nearest glacier, but I can see in her eyes the wonder and awe that I so often feel when skiing in the high mountains; the magnetic, exhilarating, wild joy in feeling the harsh alpine wind; in seeing jagged couloirs and rimed-up rocks fly past me as I ski downward through hundreds and thousands of vertical feet of frozen wilderness.
The appeal of the mountains is universal and deeply human, independent of culture, race, or ethnicity. Even if your language doesn’t have a word for snow, you can still be moved by the existence of snowcapped mountains.
Kuti kanna… I am still my grandmother’s little eyes, and through me, she can see the best parts of this world.
Dr. Avilash Kalpathy Cramer is a polar scientist living in Socorro, New Mexico. He talks to his grandmother and grandfather every week.