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City Weekend

Channelling the spirit of Lion Rock: a Hong Kong climber’s journey from ‘heaven to hell’ and back again

Lai Chi-wai was ranked eighth in the world before a road accident left him a paraplegic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 May, 2017, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 August, 2017, 2:32pm

On December 9, 2011, Lai Chi-wai was driving his motorcycle home when he was struck by at least two cars and thrown onto the road.

The then professional rock climber, who was once ranked eighth in the world, can remember waking up in his Tuen Mun Hospital room, looking up at the pale white ceiling and smelling the disinfectant. But he had no sensation in the lower part of his body. The car accident had left him a paraplegic.

“The first thing in my mind was: Oh crap! I can’t be an athlete anymore,” Lai, now 34, recalled.

“I lost everything in one night. I fell from heaven to hell,” he said.

With part of Lai’s thoracic spine broken and 98 per cent of nerves surrounding the area damaged, doctors had to insert six screws into his back just to keep it supported.

He has since been bound to a wheelchair and is unlikely to ever walk again.

At the time of the accident, Lai’s wife was staying in the same hospital, heavily pregnant with their son.

“My son is the only reason I chose to live on. I want to stand up, hold him in the air and do things that other ordinary dads can do,” Lai said.

I want to show others the Lion Rock spirit. Nothing can stop us if we put our mind into it
Lai Chi-wai

Such a devastating injury would be enough to dampen anyone’s spirits. But Lai refused to leave the sport he loved behind, and after three months in hospital, he began working as a full-time coach for the Hong Kong sports climbing team.

But it did not satisfy his love for the sport, and after two years he quit coaching for something much bigger and far more physical.

“Coaching is too comfortable. I want to get out of my comfort zone,” he said.

In 2014, when Lai was selected as one of Hong Kong’s 10 most outstanding people, he announced his plan to climb Lion Rock – something that many thought was impossible.

On December 9 last year – exactly five years after his life-altering accident – Lai proved the naysayers wrong and hauled himself and his wheelchair up the cliff face using only his arm strength.

“I want to show others the Lion Rock spirit. Nothing can stop us if we put our mind into it,” he said.

Lai was introduced to rock climbing as a teenager at secondary school, and by the age of 17, he had already claimed his first title at the Asian Junior Climbing Competition held in Beijing.

Student Lai Chi-wai is the first to win a gold medal in climbing for Hong Kong

“In the past, I did everything for myself – the scholarships and the medals. Now I have lots of ‘angels’ helping me to get through different challenges and I think it’s time for me to influence other people in a positive way,” he said. “My life is no longer just about me.”

Since the accident, Lai has given more than 80 inspiring talks to schools and communities about his experience. But there is one person that he finds it much harder to discuss it with – his five-year-old son.

“Sometimes he asks why I am always in a wheelchair and if I could be fully cured. I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to lie about the fact that I am not going to fully recover,” he said, while his son climbed walls at an indoor gym.

In search of this generation's Lion Rock spirit

“I always watch him play from a distance. It’s like watching my kid grow from a third-person perspective... I never thought I would be a wheelchair-bound dad.”

For Lai, the only solution is a HK$3 million wearable exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion and would enable him to stand upright and walk.

He estimated that he would be able to raise HK$600,000 by mid July from book sales and speaking at seminars, saying he would turn to crowd funding only as a last resort.

Come June, he will travel to the United States to test the exoskeleton and said he aimed to raise the money needed by the end of this year – marking the sixth anniversary of the accident.

“In the future, I hope to set up a fund to subsidise the cost this kind of expensive medical equipment for the disabled, so they too will be able to stand up again,” he said.