As Darol Kubacz crouches down and positions himself in the seat of his customized hand-propelled bike (a.k.a. the One-Off) the muscles in his upper torso swell with a strength active men strive to obtain. He then glides smoothly down a small valley for a moment before he cranks his mountain climbing bike back into position and rides up the next incline on his way to the top of the mountain. His intense blue eyes, always focused on the next goal, portray a courage that is apparent to any observer.
Kubacz, 31, is a veteran of the U.S. Army who has paraplegia. He sustained a massive spinal cord injury after breaking his back in the military in 1993, leaving him without the use of his legs. After retiring from the Army, Kubacz went to work for the U.S. Forest Service and was involved in developing mountaineering equipment and wilderness trail access projects. Not one to let a day go by without pushing the limits of his ability, Kubacz continued to seek challenge and adventure in the wilds of the outdoors. At age 29 he broke his neck while freestyle ski jumping and spent 16 weeks in a halo cast before launching back into outdoor activities again.
“The one thing doctors didn’t say was that I’d never walk again,” Kubacz recalls. “So I just keep on pushing to achieve all that I can. My fuel in life is passion for living and not worrying about limits or the perceptions that others have.”
To those who know Kubacz, his endeavors come as no surprise. When he was growing up in South Carolina, BMX riding and the wilderness were his passions. Mountain biking was not the most popular sport in the area, but he so loved being in the wilderness that he eventually began riding in it. After his injury in the service, paralysis prevented him from mountain biking for 12 years, so he picked up skiing and ski jumping instead. Ultimately, Kubacz discovered the One-Off, an all-terrain hand cycle, and he was soon freely riding again in the mountains he had always loved.
More recently, he has also become hell-bent on helping others with disabilities find opportunities and adventure, founding the nonprofit organization Freedom For Life, which aims to create opportunities such as service projects, experiential learning and wilderness expeditions for people recovering from physical or emotional trauma. Kubacz believes that being outdoors and staying active are necessary elements for everyone to experience to gain the confidence, trust and self-esteem to be healthy contributors in life.
Always aiming for the adrenaline rush, Kubacz pushes what might be considered the typical limits for someone in his physical situation. As if to prove that point to the most extreme, his first major mission for his newly formed organization is to spearhead the Uhuru Ascent, a unique expedition featuring veterans with disabilities summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the world’s highest mountains at 19,341 feet. The vets will be accompanied by about 20 able-bodied climbers and support staff. The highest point on Kili is named Freedom Peak, or Uhuru (pronounced a-who-roo) in Swahili, thus giving the expedition its name. If the team is successful, Kubacz with be the first person with paraplegia to summit the great peak completely unassisted. “No one will push me, no one will pull me and no one will carry me,” he emphasizes.
The Uhuru Ascent represents an important and lofty goal in the lives of the veterans, who see themselves as redefining the perception of what it means to have a disability. The climb is no gimme—the success rate for able-bodied climbers is often low, and the conditions and technical aspects of the climb result in unpredictable situations that can impede any climber’s progress. Other climbers using wheelchairs have attempted the climb and reached the summit, but all have required assistance. The community of climbers and veterans with disabilities has been waiting to see who will be the first to accomplish the rare feat of climbing to the summit unaided.
“Typically, disabled veterans are viewed with pity or sadness from well-intentioned and compassionate people,” Kubacz says. “Freedom For Life is now allowing veterans with disabilities to be a strong symbol of freedom, showing empowerment and choice in improving their lives.”
Because he is paralyzed from the chest down, Kubacz will climb the mountain using a One-Off for 16,000 feet. Afterwards, he will transition into a customized adaptive, multi-wheeled ascending device called a slider, which incorporates conventional rock climbing gear, ropes, winches and anchoring devices. This unique apparatus is designed to allow him to reach the unprecedented final 3,000 feet. At no point during the ascent will he be carried or pushed.
As a signature expedition, the Uhuru Ascent is poised to help Freedom For Life gain awareness and raise needed funds to purchase equipment, such as One-Offs, that will allow many other individuals with disabilities to enjoy significant outdoor and recreational activities like mountain biking, adaptive cycling, rafting, skiing, SCUBA diving, wilderness trail hiking and rockclimbing. In addition to organizing the Uhuru Ascent, Freedom For Life sponsors and organizes education programs and provides peer mentoring at local rehabilitation centers. For climbers who are not yet ready to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro (viewed as the Mount Everest for climbers with disabilities because it presents more feasible access), Freedom For Life also takes participants on half-day and full-day outdoor treks.
Energized by the upcoming expedition, Kubacz has become a regular missionary for Freedom for Life, recruiting new wilderness-trekkers wherever he goes. One day while waiting at the airport, he struck up a conversation with a porter working there, Liberian native John Bell, who also has quadriplegia. The friendship stuck, and Bell too has now become a hiker.
One of Kubacz’s most vocal supporters is Uhuru Ascent expedition leader Kevin Cherilla, a native of Pittsburgh who now resides in Phoenix and has led several successful expeditions up Mt. Kilimanjaro over the past three years. An experienced mountaineer for nearly two decades, his adventures have taken him to six continents and more than 20 countries.
“Darol is truly a special individual who continues to amaze everyone who comes in contact with him,” Cherilla says. “While I have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro several times, it will be very special for me to be with Darol when he attains his goal and reaches the peak with no assistance. Watching him train and seeing how far he has come since committing to the Uhuru Ascent has been a rewarding experience.”
Since 1993, Cherilla has also traveled the globe with world-class adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, who in 2001 became the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest. Cherilla served as base camp manager for the 2001 expedition team, which broke five world records.
The monumental Uhuru Ascent expedition will be chronicled in the climbers’ own words via blogs and journals. A documentary film crew will accompany them to produce an all-access portrait of the climb so that their story can be shared for years to come.
For more information about the Uhuru Ascent and the Freedom For Life organization, visit
The all-terrain hand cycle that Kubacz will use to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was created by One-Off Titanium Inc. This cycle bridges the gap between today’s road-only hand cycles and the chair lift-dependent downhill racers. With bicycle cranks for propulsion and a steering similar to the downhill racers, this vehicle can climb mountains and descend with both speed and safety. This arm-powered vehicle is analogous to the modern mountain bike.
The One-Off is designed from the ground up to use the opposed crank position. Over rough terrain, this position allows riders to hold their weight up off the steering wheel with the two crank handles in the horizontal position, letting the arm muscles work in opposition for the maximum possible 360-degree power delivery and minimizing dead spots. On smooth, level pavement, the road racers are slightly faster, but as soon as the road starts uphill, the One-Off’s opposed orientation becomes superior. The steeper the hill, the more important it is to have the continuous power a One-Off bike delivers.
The prone rider position allows the weight of the rider’s upper body to be put to use in adding power to the cranks. Recumbent bicycles are known for their poor climbing performance because the rider’s weight cannot be utilized, and power is driven exclusively by the leg muscles for power. The One-Off rider can straighten an elbow and lean forward onto the cranks, just like an able-bodied cyclist getting out of the saddle.