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Fresh glimpses of hope as Alaska adventurer fights for his life

Craig Medred
Skier, climber and all-around Alaska adventurer Andy Sterns, having come north in the 1990s after surviving a near-death experience, now finds himself battling another after being hit by a rock and snowfall on a mountain near Nome. Courtesy Jeff Benowitz

Andy Sterns came north in the 1990s, a wreck of a young man who'd not long before been told he'd never walk again. He refused to accept the verdict of Outside doctors. He got on the runners of a dog sled and rode it along the Iditarod Trail for 1,000 miles to Nome. He followed that up by throwing a leg across the top tube of a bicycle and pedaling it 1,400 miles from Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, down the frozen Yukon River to the Bering Sea.

He would go on to a big, wild life adventuring all over Alaska.

"The doctors told him he would never walk again, and they were right," friend Rocky Reifenstuhl from Fairbanks said Thursday. "All he did was run, ski and bike. He never walked again."

With the sort of grit and determination that defines true Alaskans, Sterns turned his life into something of a miracle. His friends are now hoping for another as he rests unconscious in an Anchorage hospital after a second, tragic outdoor accident. This one began with a rock that fell from 4,714-foot Mount Osborn on the Seward Peninsula north of Nome, some 540 miles northwest of Anchorage.

Earlier this month, the 46-year-old Sterns was climbing about 40 miles north of Nome with friend Ian McRae when the rock fell and triggered a small avalanche. Ice and snow knocked Sterns off the mountain.

"I had just established an anchor so I was able to hold on but Andy was swept away," McRae told Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry. Sterns was roped to McRae, and McRae held the fall. But Sterns dropped about 60 feet, and somehow in the process broke both legs.

McRae, 50, undertook a heroic effort to get Sterns back to a camp on a glacier and then texted for help on a SPOT emergency locator. Sterns was rescued by helicopter the next day, but he lapsed into unconsciousness on the way to Anchorage and remains unconscious. Doctors say the cause is fat embolism, a syndrome caused by chunks of fat in the bloodstream creating emboli, which restrict blood flow to his brain.

It is a somewhat rare medical condition sometimes associated with the breaking of the long bones. It usually arrives within one to three days of a traumatic injury.

"Andy is stable now, but unconscious still," friend Ann Farris reported Thursday.

The doctors are optimistic that he will have a full recovery, but the situation is rare enough, and each case is different, so they won't know if there is any lasting damage until he wakes up. 

The MRI showed the fat embolli around his brain and some (lack of blood flow), but overall his brain did not show signs of major damage. The cat scan of his neck was clear. So these are positive things. The process could take awhile, though, and progress right now seems way too slow. Probably because we all just desperately want him to talk to us or just squeeze our hand.

The docs tell us it could be a couple of weeks or possibly even a month until the swelling goes down and the embolli are sufficiently dissolved for Andy to return to normal mental status.

Battling back

Sterns is now back to where he was shortly before he came to Alaska. He was a skier at the Middlebury College in Vermont more than 20 years ago when he went off a trail head first into a tree, breaking his neck and knocking himself temporarily into a never-never land from which it took him a long time to battle back.

But battle back he did. And it appears to be repeating.

Earlier this week, Sterns has emerged from unconsciousness into a room full of friends at Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage. He's not talking yet, but they report he is able to respond to requests to wiggle his toes, squeeze a nurse's hand, and turn his head right to left.

Best of all, one friend noted, Sterns has been able to crack a smile at the banter of friends who daily crowd his room. His condition appears to be improving day by day.

'Like he was mentally challenged'

There were many who thought Sterns might be the best human-interest story in the 1995 and 1996 Iditarod races, but his story never got written because he was still suffering from a traumatic brain injury that made it hard for him to communicate.

"You couldn't have a conversation with him," said Lisa Moore, a Fairbanks musher who spent a lot of time on the trail with Sterns in 1996. "I didn't know what had gone on. It was one of those deals of like, 'Oh, that's just the way he is.' It was kind of like he was mentally challenged."

Sterns was mentally challenged in the sense that his brain was still rewiring itself after the accident. Year by year, he would get better. By the time Canadian David Norona hooked up with Sterns in the 2000 Iditasport -- a human-powered endurance race along the Iditarod Trail from Knik to McGrath -- Sterns was almost back to normal.

"He was the only other skier in the race," Norona said. So the two formed "a mutual partnership that turned into a lasting friendship. He's a super athlete and great guy."

Not long after that Iditasport race, Norona hiked the Chilkoot Trail from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, with Sterns, and then the two of them paddled a canoe from Whitehorse down the Yukon to Dawson. Sterns would later hook up with a couple other Canadians to undertake the bike ride down the frozen river that re-created the historic travels of gold-crazed prospectors who went through Skagway on the way to the Klondike gold fields and then down the Yukon to get to Nome for the next big strike.

"There's not a day I don't think about our trip," Norona said. "He's a full-on mountain man."

'He's just there doing it'

Not that many people outside of adventure racing circles have heard of Sterns because he is what you might call "old school."

"He doesn't feel any need for self promotion," said Reifensthul. "He's just out there doing it. He really doesn't care what anyone thinks or knows about his exploits. He does it because he loves it. There are lot of guys who do stuff and they want everyone to know how great they are. Andy is not one of those guys."

"Andy is Fairbanks through and through," added Jeff Apple Benowitz, a friend, a sometimes climbing partner, and a University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist.

Or, more accurately, Sterns is the best of people who call Fairbanks home.

"We respect people not only for what they have done, not only for the style they did it in, but also for how they talk about it afterwards," Benowitz said. "The thing that really strikes me about Andy is that he is not like most folks. He doesn't complain. He thinks well of others. And everyone likes him."

Many in Sterns' large circle of Fairbanks friends are having trouble dealing with the latest accident. So many have trooped to Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage to see him that hospital officials finally had to kick some of the people out of his room. Everyone remains optimistic he will pull out of the latest coma.

He did last time, and though he forever suffered consequences from the Vermont accident, he didn't let that hold him back.

"He still had a lot of physical trauma," Reifenstuhl said. "He has to move his body in an odd way to compensate. He kind of drags one of his feet. He gets done with any kind of trail race, and he's always bloody" from falling down. Sterns has never let that hold him back from doing anything.

"He's absolutely inspirational," Reifenstuhl said.

And that, more than anything, is what gives his friends hope.

"If anyone's got the determination to pull through something like this, it's Andy," said Andy Holland, the president of the Fairbanks running club, and another of Sterns' many friends.

CORRECTION: This story was edited on May 1 to reflect that Stearns attended Middlebury College in Vermont, not the University of Vermont as originally reported.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com