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Alaska mountaineer's recovery may inspire grieving Mount Marathon families

Loren Holmes photo

As Mount Marathon racer Matt Kenney clings to life in an Anchorage hospital and his family prays for a miracle, there is hope in the form of fellow Alaskan Jake Collins. Collins, like Kenney, fell off a mountain and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The 22-year-old was at the time miles from nowhere in the heart of the Wrangell Mountains.

His father, the only one with him, was forced to leave the young Collins near death and go for help. A veteran outdoorsman, father Rick Collins covered his son as best he could with a tarp, and then worried Jake would die or scavenging ravens would find Jake and begin to feed on him before help arrived. But help came in time.

A day later, thanks to the do-or-die efforts Rick made in crossing tens of miles of wilderness to summon help and the heroics of the Good Samaritans of the Alaska Air National Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron, Jake was airborne on his way to Providence Medical Center Alaska in Anchorage. He would not, however, regain consciousness for weeks. His family feared for the worst and hoped for the best.

Twenty days after being knocked unconscious from a fall off a mountain while sheep hunting, Jake finally opened his eyes. It was the start of a long road back. He had to learn to walk all over again. For a long time, he had trouble responding to questions. Doctors were unsure of how long his recovery might take -- or whether he would ever fully recover.

Six years on, though, he is a new man. Unless you knew Jake's story, you'd never guess how close to death he came, or why his family for a long time worried he might be forever impaired. Outwardly, he is a picture of health and fitness, though he admits he still has some issues.

"I have 100 percent recovery in theory," he said. "But my balance still isn't great. I run on pavement. I don't any kind of trail running."

It is a small thing for someone who once wondered if he would ever run again. He credits his wife, Kristina, for much of his recovery.

"If my wife hadn't been there, I don't think I don't think I would have been able to do it," he said. "She was so inspirational in providing support for my recovery. It was extremely frustrating, and really hard for me."

With Kristina nurturing and nudging, Jake progressed the way children progress, in little fits and starts until they are all grown up. He learned to walk again. He worked on is speech. He went back to school. He passed the national standards required to become a securities adviser.

Today, he is working as a financial advisor in the Palmer office of the Edward Jones, a global investment firm. 

"I am doing great,'' he said. "I think I stumbled into my dream job. I love it."

He is a lucky man, and he hasn't forgotten how lucky.

"'I might not think about it every single day," he said of the accident, "but it's pretty much daily." 

That he is alive, he said, is a miracle, a tribute to his father, a recognition of the skills of the pararescue specialist of the 201st, a testimony to the healing powers of modern medicine, and for him personally a reminder that sometimes life is a lot about just getting through today with an eye on a better tomorrow.

"When anything gets difficult," he said, "I kind of look at it and remind myself I'm not supposed to be alive anyway." 

But he is.

Editor's Note: Matt Kenney, from Anchorage, rag-dolled down the rock July Fourth in Seward's Mount Marathon race. He broke his leg, suffered a traumatic brain injury, and had to be medevaced to Anchorage. He remains hospitalized in serious condition. Friends and family over the weekend began setting up a fund to help with ever-growing medical costs, and to aid the 41-year-old runner's wife and two children through what is expected to be a long recovery.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com