Climber conquers disability, mountains

Posted: Friday, June 28, 2002

In late May of this year, Skyview graduate Justin Montague strapped an 80-pound sled to his waist, threw a 50-pound pack on his back and spent the next eight hours climbing 5,000 feet over 2.5 miles.

"It was one of the most physically demanding things I've ever done," Montague said.

But, amazingly, Montague's not the story. His expedition is the story.

On June 1, a four-member disabled climbing team, which included 21-year-old Skyview graduate Keegan Reilly, became the first paraplegic climbers to reach the 14,162-foot summit of northern California's Mt. Shasta.

Montague, who has known Reilly since he was 16, was part of the 16-member support team that aided the four disabled members on the expedition.

But "aided" may perhaps be too strong of a word, because the four had to use specially designed snow pods to hand-pedal their way all the way up the mountain.

"I was mostly a Sherpa, a pack horse, and I had to carry obscene weights up the hill," Montague said. "But nobody did half as much as (those four) did.

"I really want to say how great those four athletes are and how tough it was for them. People don't realize what they went through."

A bit of history

Reilly, now a computer science major at Oregon State University, was 16 years old when he lost the use of his legs in a car accident. Born and raised on the Kenai Peninsula, he had spent his childhood doing popular area hikes such as the Skyline Trail and Mount Marathon.

To those close to him, it quickly became apparent that he was not going to let the accident keep him away from the things he loved.

"He was amazing," said Montague, who graduated from Skyview with Reilly's brother Levi, another member of the Shasta expedition. "I went to see him in the hospital after the first weekend, and you could tell he was beginning to adjust in his mind.

"He was upbeat and in amazingly good spirits for what he had gone through."

The ascent of Mount Elbert

In July 2001, Reilly made his first major mark as a paraplegic climber when he summited Mount Elbert, which at 14,433 feet is Colorado's highest peak.

"A lot of it was just telling myself that I was not going to be stuck just doing city life stuff," Reilly said. "If you can prove to yourself that you can conquer something like a mountain, it makes you feel good.

"Growing up in Alaska, you're always outdoors doing things like that. It felt good to get out there again and go off-terrain."

In order to make the climb, Reilly and his uncle, John Nelson, altered and improved a four-wheel bike for climbing.

Most people make the four-mile trip up Mount Albert, which was all on dirt, in a day. Using his bike, Reilly made the trip in four days.

"My uncle John is a major inspiration and a major mountain climber," Reilly said. "He got me involved in a lot of these things.

"It was something to do. I didn't have too much to do last summer, so I figured I'd go and try to conquer a mountain."

The Pete Rieke factor

Pete Rieke, 48, is a climber who was injured in a climbing accident in 1994.

"When I was injured, I was thinking of ways I could still go Alpine climbing," Rieke said. "It was while I was still on morphine. Maybe that helps."

Rieke set about trying to build a hand-powered vehicle that -- unlike the four-wheeled bike Reilly used on Elbert -- could maneuver on snow. That meant a disabled climber didn't have to have somebody rig up ropes for them so they could pull themselves up on a sled.

"Basically, I invented the snow pod, which is really a human-powered tractor," Rieke said. "The key that most people miss, and one I like to emphasize, is that the problem with being disabled is you often have to have other people do things for you.

"The snow pod gives the disabled climber the maximum amount of freedom to do what other climbers do."

It took Rieke three years to figure out how to build the snow pod, then three more years, and three attempts, to get to the summit of Mount Rainier on June 18, 2000.

Getting involved with Rieke

When Reilly's uncle was designing the bike that would take Reilly to the summit of Mount Elbert, he got in contact with Rieke for some ideas. Reilly also mentioned that he admired Rieke in stories done on his Elbert climb.

Meanwhile, the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation became interested in Rieke's snow pods. Rieke received money to build four more snow pods and decided to organize a climb on Mount Shasta.

Rieke immediately thought of Reilly as a potential member for the climb.

"I think he proved himself on Mount Elbert to be a capable athlete," Rieke said. "Frankly, there were not a lot of choices out there. There's not that many people who are very motivated and athletically inclined, and willing to try something brand new based on my word."

Besides Rieke, other members of the team would be Muffy Davis, 29, a medal-winning member of the United States Disabled Ski Team; and Mark Wellman, 42, who has climbed El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

The climb

Rieke said that for a good mountaineer, Shasta would be an easy two-day climb. The climbers would start out at 6,800 feet and climb to the 14,126-foot summit.

The climb of Shasta was definitely more difficult than Reilly's ascent of Mount Elbert, which Reilly likened to a four-day trip up Mount Marathon. Shasta had things like tough weather rolling in and sections where, according to Reilly, one "didn't want to look down."

Reilly said that at first he was worried how he would do trying to hang with Rieke, Davis and Wellman on the climb.

"When I found out I'd be doing the climb, my two roommates and my brother looked them all up on the Internet," Reilly said. "Mark Wellman's this huge guy with muscles ripping out all over.

"Muffy Davis is a huge girl, but she's not fat. Her arms are bigger than mine. I was really scared they would all just crank up the mountain, and I'd be left behind."

However, something quite the opposite happened when the crew got under way.

"Keegan actually started out leading the way," said Montague of Reilly, who spent an hour and a half doing a hand cycle at school to get ready. "Mentally and physically, I can't imagine going through what they went through.

"Watching them crank for 11 hours a day, there were times that I don't know what kept them going. They don't get to stop."

The summit

The group reached the summit in five days and then took a day and a half to get down. There were a few brushes with danger, but overall nothing serious happened.

"I think the biggest danger is that we're out there so much longer," Rieke said. "You just up the probability that something bad might happen. Plus, if something bad happens you can't run off as a disabled person.

"You're pretty much stuck there."

At 12,200 feet, the group weathered what Rieke said was the worst thunderstorm on Mount Shasta in 30 years. They also had to camp one night where there was a danger of a rock fall, but snow walls were built to protect the tents from rocks.

"Just the support we had from other climbers was great," Montague said. "I don't know how many people came up to us and gave us high fives and told us they were following our progress.

"It was a great feeling."

The future

Reilly was by far the youngest member of the climb.

"When you get to be my age, and your athletic years begin declining, you want to try and train younger guys to be thinking about doing new things," Rieke said. "It's very important that there be role models out there to follow, and Keegan has a chance to be one.

"It's just up to him to decide how much of one he wants to be."

Reilly said it was inspirational hanging around with people such as Rieke, Davis and Wellman, but he said he doesn't plan to devote himself to mountaineering anytime soon.

"I like doing it for fun once in awhile, but right now I'm concentrated on work and school," Reilly said. "I'll work a climb in here and there, but I don't think I'll make it a career."

One nice thing is that Rieke and a company he co-owns, Mobility Engineering, were paid to make the snow pods by the Schultz Foundation, so Reilly, or anybody else wanting them, can get a chance to use them for free by contacting Rieke.

"Someone was mentioning Mount Fuji in Japan in the crew I was with," Reilly said. "I have some people willing to go over and do it, so I'd like to try it."

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