Paralinks: Worlds Wheelchair Culture

Mount Fuji ascent shows climber Japan's two faces


A man who refuses to see limits in life had one unexpectedly plunked down in front of him last week.

Keegan Reilly, who lost the use of his legs in a car accident seven years ago, was attempting to become the first paraplegic to climb Mount Fuji under his own strength.

He was making the ascent with his three brothers, three friends and an uncle, using his arms to pedal a custom-made 42-gear climber while steering with his chest.

They call themselves Team Strong Arm Expeditions and thought they had planned for every contingency.

Who would've thought they'd get snared in red tape?

"On the first day we started to climb, a (safety station) officer came and told me that I had to stop climbing because 'mountain bikes' are not allowed on Fuji," said Reilly, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Tuesday.

Reilly's four-wheel mountain conqueror, which can climb slopes of up to 45 degrees, was codesigned by an engineering company and team member John Nelson, who is Reilly's uncle and a former climbing guide.

Technically, it is a mountain bike, but technically, there is no such rule on Mount Fuji. When this was learned and thrown back at the official, however, he then told the team that the mountain was closed for the next few days due to bad weather.

But the team discovered that this too was not the case.

In the end, the safety official's apparent fear for Reilly's safety and his indirect prodding held up the team for eight hours.

Reilly finally signed a waiver that he was climbing the mountain at his own risk. At 10 p.m., the team was permitted to continue but had to put off the climb until the following day due to the late hour.

While the team members expected the climb to take five days, they completed it in less than four, conquering the 3,776-meter peak Thursday morning.

The safety official's meddling, however, had a knock-on effect. A major Japanese TV network that was covering the climb decided to drop the story at that point and send its reporters back to Tokyo.

The network had promised to take care of the team's accommodation after the climb and handle transportation between the mountain and the capital. When it pulled out, that promise evaporated.

"I couldn't understand why this happened, because the safety officer had no authority to stop me," Reilly said. "But the incident unexpectedly made me experience the kindness of the Japanese people."

Hearing of the team's plight, a member of Outdoor Japan, a nonprofit group that posts outdoors information on the Internet, managed to find an inn that agreed to put up the team at no cost.

"The inn welcomed us with free board and lodging," he said. "The people were so warm, I was touched."

He said he was equally inspired by his interaction with members of Shirouma-no-Kai, a climbing club for the physically challenged that also lent some help.

"In Shirouma-no-Kai, 40 helpers assist about 10 disabled to climb mountains by carrying them on 'human backpacks," ' Reilly said. "But they are now very much interested in my device, which allows them to use their own strength. We are talking about cooperating and sharing our knowledge."

Shirouma-no-Kai members usually stay in huts, but Reilly's team sleeps under the stars and cooks for itself, he said.

"We use no huts because we want to climb completely unassisted and self-sufficient, and meet all the challenges of the mountains head on," he said. "Climbing like that gives the mountain more respect, especially an honored one like Fuji.

"It will be a good test for the rigid Japanese system (that tried to stand in his way) if a large group of disabled Japanese starts climbing like me," he said.

Reilly became a paraplegic when the driver of a car he and two other friends were in fell asleep at the wheel.

Reilly refused to give in to his new situation, taking up two new sports: downhill skiing and basketball. He also continued his favorite pastime of climbing, conquering the 4,399-meter Mount Elbert in Colorado in 2001 and the 4,317-meter Mount Shasta in California last year.

He is currently a computer science major at Oregon State University and hopes to find a job writing software after he graduates.

"Limits are often set by society," he said. "People are told what they are capable of and told that some things are too dangerous to achieve. But the only limits are those you set for yourself.

"If you have a dream, you need to chase after it."

By YUMI WIJERS-HASEGAWA The Japan Times: Sept. 10, 2003 (C) All rights reserved

Keegan Reilly and members of his Strong Arm Expeditions team reach the summit of Mount Fuji after a four-day climb. PHOTO COURTESY OF KEEGAN REILLY