Y’ALL. I was planning to give you a write-up about “how we often forget about the life-changing nature of NP…” or something, but PLEASE, just move forward and read Sean O’Neill’s positively EPIC account of the Alaskan Wilderness and the all-important nature of a November Project buff. NOTE: Names and places have been kept EXACTLY THE SAME because this story is so incredible.
November Project makes some pretty bold proclamations. Free fitness, close friendships, daily inspiration… the list goes on. But whatever its claims, NP always backs them up, and the same goes with another one I’m adding to the list:
November Project saves lives.
Okay, I wouldn’t be surprised if this has been said before but I want to emphasize that November Project literally saves lives. How? Please continue, dear reader. I promise I’ll get there eventually.
In September 2016, I moved to DC and quickly became friends with Stephen, who moved here from Atlanta around the same time. We played on the same soccer team, explored DC’s music scene, and enjoyed more than a few hoppy beverages. As our friendship blossomed we may have slept in Stephen’s hatchback near the base of Virginia’s Old Rag Mountain so we could climb it at sunrise, but I can’t corroborate that.
We also began doing November Project. I had been an inconsistent member of the Baltimore tribe the previous year, but my new apartment in Columbia Heights allowed me no excuses on Meridian Mondays. After Sunday evening soccer and the requisite team trip to Dacha, Stephen and I would part ways with a “see you tomorrow morning?” Usually, we would.
An avid backpacker, Stephen encouraged me to get outside more and cut my teeth on some of the DC-accessible trails. After many La Colombe-fueled purchases at REI I began to accumulate the necessary gear, but various conflicts prevented me from joining Stephen on his weekend treks along the Appalachian Trail. This July I planned to take time off before law school and after finding reasonable flights to Alaska, we pulled the trigger on a bucket list trip for both of us.
Alaska’s Denali National Park is a six million acre expanse encircling the largest mountain in North America, the 20,310 ft. Mt. Denali. It’s filled with grizzly bears, moose, caribou, wolves, and occasionally, an inexperienced backpacker. Last Friday, Stephen and I recuperated from our flight by chugging hotel coffee, buying bear spray, and packing food/gear for two nights backpacking in the Denali wilderness. Wilderness is a fair term here: once backpackers get a permit and select a “unit” within the park, that entire swath of land (devoid of established trails or campsites) is theirs to wander. The park’s main entrance connects to a single inner roadway leading to the backpacking units, along which only National Park buses are permitted to drive. So we got our permit, sat through the informational video, and hopped on the first bus we could get.
After bushwhacking the way to our first campsite we were swarmed by mosquitoes but appreciative of the view (see below). Exhausted, we set up our tents and tried to sleep despite the sun’s glare, even at midnight. We would need our rest before the next day.
In the morning, we drank in the views and little else due to our lack of water. We fought back through the brush to catch the earliest bus to Eielson Visitor Center, which boasted potable water and access to detailed maps. After chatting a bit with a friendly park ranger named Nick, we set off for Green Dome, a mountain right on the edge of our permitted unit.
Our route towards Green Dome was circuitous. Denali is full of false summits and ridges which appear to connect but are divided by deep gorges carved by glacial streams. After putting in some serious hiking, Stephen and I found ourselves thirsty, tired, and stranded high on a treacherous gravel bar. It was 8:30 pm, and though in summertime Alaska this meant we had hours of sunlight remaining, morale was low. We had altered our route a few times that day, but at this point we determined to stop eastward progress and head down towards the river bed. With water and some riverside rest, we would figure out where we would pitch camp.
On our way down, the park’s wild side began to show. We had seen several bears and experienced a stare down with a caribou bull, but the mountainside was proving more daunting. As we approached the river bed, Stephen and I chose different routes, hoping to minimize the rockslides caused by our downward progress. This is more mountaineering than hiking, I thought as I placed one foot after another down the steep slope, using a trekking pole to anchor my weight. From my peripheral vision, I could see Stephen doing the same 20 yards to my left. Boots scraping shale and falling rock echoed through the canyon, but a louder crash prompted me to swivel my head towards Stephen. He had disappeared from view. “Stephen!” No answer.
I rushed over the ridge, sending loose gravel careening in every direction. Another 30 feet down to the riverbed, I found Stephen covered in blood. Both his eyes and the deep gashes along his right leg told me we were in trouble.
We stood silently for a moment and looked around, as if taking in the austere landscape for the first time. Stephen’s trekking pole was lost in the fall, so between us we had one pole and our two packs, each weighing about 40 pounds. I grabbed the bear proof food container from Stephen’s pack, quickly filled my pack with stream water, and tied a t-shirt tourniquet to his leg. I tried not to contort my face when I saw the wounds up close, but Stephen somehow stayed calm. “I’ve got band-aids,” I offered lamely. “I don’t think those will be too helpful,” he responded. He was right.
We decided that our best bet would be to head towards Eielson Visitor Center, where there would hopefully be an off duty ranger and a fully stocked first aid kit. I was set on getting up to the ridge so we could see the road, but Stephen maintained that following the river bed would lead us directly back to Eielson. I ran up a nearby ridge to scope it out, and when I returned I insisted we both go that route, even though Stephen had made progress westward down the river. Stephen reluctantly agreed, but my idea was ill-advised. I had quickly made the climb right after Stephen fell, but that adrenaline-fueled scramble was made with an able body and without pack weight. We made it up, but in the harrowing process I dropped the food container 300 feet into the gorge. No more climbing sketchy gravel-shale that looks solid but breaks underfoot, we agreed. Okay, got it.
We walked as far as we could along the ridge before clambering back down into another glacial riverbed. Stephen said little about his pain, but it was increasingly evident that he was losing a lot of blood. “Dude, we need a better tourniquet.” Okay, I reached into my pack and grabbed the first thing my trembling hand found – the November Project Buff. “Here,” I said, pulling it out. Then I stared at Stephen stupidly, wondering how it could be wrapped around his foot. “Cut it.” Right. I winced, pulled out my knife and cut through it. I tied it hard over the bloody t-shirt and the bleeding seemed to slow.
When we got to a fork in the river, Stephen knew exactly where we were. I left him, for the second time after he fell, and sprinted down the riverbed towards the visitor center. I felt like the kid in every movie: Free Willy, Old Yeller, Lassie, you name it. Okay those are all animal movies, but you get the feeling: never leave your badly injured friend alone in bear country echoed in my head as I ran. But, Old Yeller was losing blood so I ran as fast as I could to Eielson.
After what felt like miles (about 2.5, as the crow flies), I got there. I didn’t know for sure if anyone would be there, since it was approaching midnight and getting dark. I burst through the “Employees Only” door and made as much noise as I could. If I didn’t find some sort of emergency phone, I planned to pull the fire alarm so that somebody would come. As I was crashing around the hallway, an off duty park ranger in his PJs appeared. “What’s going on?” he asked sleepily. “Friend…fell…Green Dome…lots of blood…my favorite November Project Buff…” I’m sure whatever I said was nonsensical but eventually the ranger, Paul, found out what he needed and got to work.
Paul radioed other rangers from both directions of the Denali Park Road. Once they got here, he told me, this ragtag Search and Rescue team would go back out with me to retrieve Stephen. “No chopper?” I asked. He told me the rangers would make that determination onsite. Did I think Stephen needed a chopper? I retold the story to maximize the amount of carnage. For all I knew, Stephen could be facing off against grizzlies right now (he was) and I wanted to get my friend out of there alive. “Yeah, I think he needs a chopper.”
Denali’s remote beauty comes with a price, which I felt in those long minutes waiting for other rangers to come. About 30-45 minutes, Paul said. I alternated between pacing and hovering over a trash can, unsure if the adrenaline would induce nausea. Finally, I asked Paul for socks, water, and a snack since I would be hiking back to lead the team to Stephen. Rockstar that he was, he obliged. Note to self: I still owe Paul dry socks and a turkey wrap.
After three quarters of an hour, another park ranger arrived. He asked questions and shouted into the radio while pulling together a bag filled with first aid supplies. Paul handed him the satellite phone to call the chopper dispatcher. I stood next to him and eavesdropped, ready to interject at any point and insist that a helicopter was indeed necessary. While I stood beside him, he stopped midsentence and gestured towards the ridge leading from the riverbed to the visitor center. “Is that a light?” Knowing how much noise I had made on my way to Eielson, I thought it might be a nearby backpacker checking out the commotion. Nonetheless, I sprinted towards the bouncing light, which was quickly making its way towards us. It was dark, but as I got closer, I saw it was Stephen running full out despite his injury. We hugged the shit out of each other. “Could this be the guy who definitely needs a chopper?” I heard the park ranger yell.
* * *
Nick, the same ranger who had spoken to us earlier that afternoon, bandaged Stephen up and threw on a splint before an assembled audience of park rangers and road crew. “Dude, that is so badass that you ran back yourself! And I can’t believe you saw bears (yep, he did) on your way. That scar is going to make a killer bar story.” And so on and so forth. After he was stabilized, the crew loaded him into the park’s ambulance. Despite a road closure and my request to stop to throw up, our bus driver Sissy made excellent time en route to the main entrance parking lot. From there, I would drive the rest of the way to the Fairbanks Hospital ER. With normalcy somewhat restored, I gripped the steering wheel tight and once again praised Alaska’s remoteness, not encountering a single trooper as we sped to the hospital.
In Fairbanks, the staff was very attentive to “the Denali kid,” as I heard a passing nurse call Stephen. He recounted his story to the doctor, and while he spoke I learned that the NP buff torniquet I had tied had not been sufficient. After I left to get help, Stephen ripped the buff again so that he could wrap it around his leg, applying pressure directly to the wound. This slowed the bleeding dramatically, allowing Stephen to make it all the way back to the station. His leg looked pretty scary in the wild, but I don’t think either of us realized how lucky we got until he spoke to the doctor. Pretty damn lucky.
Right after Stephen fell, as we took stock of our situation and figured out what to do, he made me a bold statement for someone whose leg was unrecognizable. “I promise you, we’re still going to have fun in Alaska.” And after he got stitched up, we hiked a glacier, went salmon fishing, partied with South Africans, camped out in hammocks, and visited two breweries. So next time your buddy says “check out November Project, I promise you’ll have fun,” you should believe them. Not only does NP cement friendships, kick off your morning like a King Kong sized Starbucks, and get you in grizzly bear racing shape, but it just might save your life.
DAMN. Do you have chills? I have chills. Nice work, Sean and Stephen– we’re glad you guys are alive, and we’re glad you’re here.
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