Show me the summit
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado” Darol Kubacz is supposed to be at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
It doesn’t matter that the Army veteran was paralyzed from the waist down during military training, that in a later accident he suffered a broken neck and back while monoskiing, or that he’s already attempted the climb once and had to turn back ” he just knows he’s meant to make the summit, he said.
Kubacz, a former Vail valley resident who now lives in Phoenix, plans to make the 16,000-foot ascent of Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro in August using an off-road, hand-powered bike and a modified sled and rope system.
“I know I’m supposed to be there doing it,” he said matter-of-factly. “The only way it won’t happen is if something traumatic or life-threatening stops me.”
It’s a journey that really started in Vail, he said.
In 1993, Kubacz was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident while in the Army. As he recovered and began looking to the next phase in his life, he moved to Vail, where the community embraced him and introduced him to monoskiing. He began working for the U.S. Forest Service, scouting trails to assess which were friendlier for disabled hikers or bikers.
“The Vail Valley is really where I was supported and overcame my disability,” he said.
Now he’s back for a couple weeks, using Vail as his high altitude training grounds. He trains more than 30 hours a week, swimming, lifting, riding Vail Pass and going up Golden Peak.
“I miss the valley so much,” said Kubacz, 34. “I feel like I know every crack in the road up the pass and every rock on Vail mountain.”
Kubacz said he wants to make the climb to benefit and bring attention to his nonprofit, the Freedom For Life Foundation. The organization introduces disabled people, especially veterans, to outdoor sports.
The foundation offers rehabilitation grants, mentorship programs, and has a fleet of unique off-road bikes similar to the ones Kubacz will use on his ascent.
“It’s part of my goal and personal mission to inspire others to overcome their disabilities,” he said.
Kubacz got the idea to start the foundation after a monoskiing accident in 2003 left him with a broken neck and back. Recovering from that was in some respects more difficult than his Army accident, he said, and he felt compelled to share his experiences with other disabled people.
“With my first accident, I got stronger and stronger everyday. This time, I got weaker and weaker because of the back injury,” he said. “But there was never a question in my mind that I would be able to do these things again.”
When Kubacz moved to Phoenix, he met Kevin Cherilla, a mountaineer who helped Coloradan Erik Weihenmayer become the first blind climber to summit Mt. Everest.
Cherilla suggested that climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa and one of the Seven Summits, would be a great expression of the foundation’s mission.
“These disabled vets come an back, and we can tell them, ‘Sure, your legs are blown off, but you can still get out there in the wilderness and do great things with amazing people,'” Cherilla said.
Kubacz attempted the climb two years ago with a much larger team and on a different route. He was forced to turn around before reaching the top after he developed pulmonary edema, a condition sometimes caused by high-altitude exposure where fluid fills the lungs.
This time Kubacz’s team will take the Marangu route, with Kubacz using special three-wheeled, off-road bikes. It is the longest way up ” almost 30 miles ” but the only route that won’t require Kubacz to be pushed or carried.
“It’s not a technical climb, but for someone in a wheelchair, it’s very technical,” he said.
It normally takes someone walking five to six days round trip. Kubacz plans make the trip in 12 days with a team of three other climbers and almost 20 porters carrying equipment and food.
His team consists of Cherilla, the expedition leader, wilderness doctor Robert French and veteran and climber David Bremson.
Unlike hand-bikes designed for road riding, the off-road bike requires the rider to crouch head-first, put weight on the chest, and put legs toward the back. Turning the wheels requires considerable arm strength as well as endurance, he said.
For the last stretch of the climb, Kubacz will drag himself to the summit by jumaring, a way to ascend on a static rope. However, he’ll do it in a fashion never done before. Kubacz will be laying with his back to the mountain in a modified Sked, or a toboggan, normally used for mountain evacuations, and pulley his way up.
“It’s like doing thousands of 8-inch push-ups,” Cherilla said.
Kubacz said he anticipates the hardest part of the climb will be the first few days. After that, he will be able to see the summit, and then there’s no stopping him, he said.
“That’s how I am. If I can see the top, I’m gonna get there,” he said.
He said he sees it as a great experience and another challenge, just like overcoming paralysis or a broken back and neck.
“This is appealing to me because if I’m capable of challenging myself, I can challenge other people,” he said. “This is what I want in my life. If life isn’t challenging me, I can’t grow or make a difference.”
– Mt. Kilimanjaro Blog
– Freedom for Life
– Expedition Leader Kevin Cherilla
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.