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After horrendous accident, Fairbanks climber dishes out inspiration

Dermot Cole
Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- A dozen novice climbers made their way along the 35-foot climbing wall, carefully looking for footholds and handholds that would keep them on the wall and off the floor.

“That’s good, you guys are all moving quietly and carefully,” instructor Andy Sterns, 47, said to the climbers traversing the inner wall of the student rec center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While the students were only a couple of feet off the ground, the techniques required for safe travel across a rock wall would be the same 100 feet up.

“We’ll try to remember to take these skills with us on the top rope. It’s easy sometimes when we get off the ground, to lose track of climbing with good technique,” said Sterns.

As the students balanced movements of hands and feet, reaching for some ledges that had less than an inch on which to rest a shoe, Sterns offered encouragement and suggestions.

“Really be precise with your foot movements and try to be quiet,” he said, referring to the need for silent feet, not voices. “Place one foot over the other and gently move it over.”

After the class ended, I noticed that one student tried over and over to climb from a roof-like overhang to the wall above it. Jasmin Johnson, an art student, attempted this unsuccessfully about 10 times, but she kept going back.

“It’s mocking me,” she said of the wall. Then she tried to pull herself up again. She said she had to leave because she was already late for her next class.

“You’re getting close to it,” Sterns said after she came up short once more. “I think you can do it.”

I was glad to have witnessed this exchange because I went to Sterns’ class to talk to him about perseverance. He could teach a graduate level class in the subject. Before moving to Alaska in the 1990s, Sterns was seriously injured as a college skier. The accident damaged his spinal cord and hampered his ability to pick up his feet.

“At that time I wanted to get back to high-level ski racing again,” he said. “It didn’t turn out that way, but I didn’t find it discouraging.”

In Alaska, Sterns has excelled at long-distance travel by ski and bike, climbed mountains and run marathons. When he was running fast, especially on trails with lots of roots and uneven footing, he would fall from time to time because he couldn’t always get his feet over obstacles. That never stopped him.

After the class, we talked about what has happened to him over the last six months, which has provided a new chapter in the annals of inspiration. On April 19, Sterns was climbing Mount Osborn, about 40 miles north of Nome, when a rock tumbled down from above, followed by a powerful avalanche. Sterns said he remembers the rock.

“What I don’t remember is the avalanche,” Sterns said during our interview. “It must have swept me off my feet.”

Sterns broke both of his legs in the accident.

He survived because of the valiant efforts by Ian McRae, his climbing partner, who got him off the mountain; the search and rescue people from Nome; the doctors and nurses in Nome and Anchorage; and the family members and friends who stayed by his side.

After undergoing surgery to repair his damaged  legs, he was in a coma for a week because of a condition that sometimes occurs when someone breaks multiple long bones. His doctors said fat tissue from bone marrow entered the bloodstream and triggered a condition that led to swelling of his brain. The fog eventually lifted, but he remained hospitalized until the end of May.

Earlier that month, Steve Bainbridge, a longtime Fairbanks race organizer, wrote to Andy that “there’s that Equinox Marathon adventure coming up in September to look forward to.”

By the end of June,  Ned Rozell, a close friend who has traveled the wilderness with Sterns, was able to write that Sterns' recovery “doesn't surprise some of the people who know him, but is still pretty close to a miracle.”

Even then, the prospect that Sterns would compete in the 2013 Equinox Marathon in any fashion seemed remote.

But Sterns began taking long summer walks when he got back to Fairbanks and gradually gained confidence that he could handle one-third of the distance on a relay team in the Fairbanks Fall Classic. He signed up with “Ed and his Medical Miracles,” joining Ed Plumb and Deanna Huff. 

“It was just like a walking pace, but I went about 3 miles an hour during the whole nine miles because it was mostly climbing," he said. 

He said he hopes to do the whole marathon next year and is looking forward to getting the go-ahead from doctors to begin running. If he is never as fast as he once was, that will be OK. But he won’t stop trying.

He said he thinks his alpine climbing days are over, but there are less-risky opportunities in rock climbing and ice climbing he hopes to explore. “I can do plenty of hard climbing that has a low risk factor,” he said.

He is already thinking of signing up for the White Mountains 100-Mile Ski Race next spring and is enjoying riding his bike, walking and thinking about the future.

“To a certain extent, I’m kind of stubborn. I’m just not willing to accept the status quo. Wherever I am, I’m never really happy where I’m at. I’m not unhappy that I’m there. But it always gives me something to work for.”

 Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole