Paraplegic climber summits Mount Fuji

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

ATOP MOUNT FUJI, Japan A former Soldotna resident who lost the use of his legs in a car accident as a teenager reached the peak of Mount Fuji on Wednesday, the first successful climb of its kind.

Keegan Reilly, 22, who grew up in Soldotna and graduated from Skyview High School, climbed Japan's highest peak in three days, using a four-wheeled, custom-made mountain bike powered by an arm-driven center crank.

''I'm very, very tired, but I'm overjoyed,'' Reilly said as he reached the summit. ''It's awesome. It took a lot of work, but I feel very privileged to be here.''

A round of cheers rang across Fuji's rock and ash strewn crater as Reilly reached the top and stopped by a small wooden Japanese style-shrine, where climbers offer prayers for good luck and prosperity. His eight-member support team then lifted him and his climbing device into the air and spun him around several times to celebrate the success.

Reilly reached the 12,385-foot peak a day earlier than expected.

"He was way ahead of schedule," Reilly's mother, Maggie, said Wednesday from Soldotna.

He ran into several problems along the way, including a trail ranger who refused to let him pass for eight hours, loose gravel that had his tires spinning much of the way and a broken steering device that needed to be repaired.

''We were ready for an even harder climb,'' said John Nelson, Reilly's uncle and an experienced mountain climbing guide. ''We were prepared for emergencies. We had medical kits, harnesses we were very ready for this climb.''

In addition, Reilly's mother said the group had to weather a tough storm Tuesday night in order to stay on the mountain.

"Several of them had been on the Shasta trip," she said, referring to Keegan's 2002 climb that nearly ended in disaster when a severe storm hit while he was becoming the first paraplegic to climb California's Mount Shasta.

"They were about to get off of there."

However, the Fuji storm moved away before putting the team in danger, allowing the climbers to stay on the mountain.

Nelson said he hopes Reilly's next summit will be 14,410-foot Mount Rainier in Washington state. They also aim to scale Aconcagua, the tallest peak in South America at 22,835 feet.

Although Reilly was believed to be the first paraplegic to climb Mount Fuji, climbers without the use of their legs have reached such summits as Rainier and Mount McKinley in Alaska.

''I feel especially privileged to do this as a family,'' said Levi Reilly, one of three brothers Reilly was climbing with. ''We're a very close family, and it's great to be able to do this together.''

In addition to Levi, Keegan's brothers Zach and Stryder also made the Fuji trip, as well as Skyview graduate Justin Montague.

Keegan, who currently is a student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said he hoped the climb would serve as an example of what those with disabilities are capable of accomplishing.

''I just wanted to be able to show people what's out there. I wanted to show them what I can do, and I hope some people will be inspired by me,'' he said.

His previous treks have attracted national and international interest, his mother said. She said a camera crew filmed Wednesday's ascent of Mount Fuji, and Keegan has given several radio and print media interviews including for the Associated Press, Outdoor Japan and the BBC about his climb.

Reilly climbs by turning a crank to propel his arm-powered, ''Scarab'' climbing apparatus, which is made of titanium tubing. The $35,000 machine is designed to roll over boulders and even climb steps.

Since losing the use of his legs in a 1996 car accident, Reilly has climbed Colorado's Mount Elbert at 14,435 feet and the 14,162-foot Mount Shasta.

He said he chose Mount Fuji, one of the most-climbed mountains in the world, because he wanted to climb a mountain outside the United States.

More than 200,000 people ascend Mount Fuji every year during the July-August climbing season.

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