FROSTBITTEN AND STRANDED

When Eric LeMar­que was res­cued off Cal­i­for­nia’s Mam­moth Moun­tain in 2004, he had no way of know­ing the hard­ship was just be­gin­ning.

Backpacker - - The Survival Issue - As told to Ryan Wichelns

“WHY DON’T YOU just meet me down the hill? I think I’m go­ing to ride down,” I told the dumb­founded Na­tional Guard medic.

He had rap­pelled from a he­li­copter to save me. My body tem­per­a­ture, he’d just told me, was 86°F. That I even had a pulse was re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing I’d been wan­der­ing in the snow for the last seven nights. One foot was naked, and the other was frozen in its boot. But some­how, all I could think about was snow­board­ing.

I’d been rid­ing at Mam­moth Moun­tain Ski Re­sort when ski pa­trol started ush­er­ing peo­ple down. I ig­nored them, sure I’d be able to get in an­other run be­fore the storm hit, and hiked out of bounds and into the back­coun­try in search of pow­der. Then the fog rolled in. Be­fore long, I was hope­lessly turned around. I wan­dered, on foot and via snow­board, all day and night, and even­tu­ally found a river, but I slipped at the edge and fell into the icy wa­ter. Soaked and freez­ing, I hauled my­self out and walked 9 miles through deep snow over the course of a week, chew­ing on pine seeds and bark to stay alive. When I peeled off my socks on day three, I found strips of my own flesh cling­ing to them. Starved and ex­hausted, I ate that, too. By the time res­cuers found me, I was crit­i­cally hy­pother­mic—and deliri­ous.

Ra­tio­nal think­ing only re­turned later, in the hospi­tal. By then, both my feet had been am­pu­tated. Sit with that fact in a small, white room, and it’s im­pos­si­ble to avoid dig­ging back into your mem­ory and pick­ing apart the ex­pe­ri­ence that got you there. I wanted to avoid think­ing about all of it—the cold, the fear, the ar­ro­gance that had led me to ig­nore ski pa­trol’s warn­ings—but that lux­ury stopped the minute I looked at the other end of the bed and found it empty.

My feet had been my liveli­hood. They’d taken me to the NHL and the Olympics as a hockey player. As a snow­boarder, it was my feet that had con­veyed those sen­sa­tions of glid­ing and float­ing. What had I done to end up here with­out them? And what was I go­ing to do now?

I was dis­ap­pointed in my­self, an­gry that I had so bla­tantly ig­nored my own safety for the thrill of an­other run. But it wasn’t just one bad de­ci­sion that led me to that hospi­tal—it was a long line of them. When my hockey career ended, I’d filled the void with snow­board­ing—and with drugs. The day I’d got­ten lost, I was wait­ing for a court date for tres­pass­ing and drug pos­ses­sion, and I had a bag of meth in my pocket. In some ways, I’d been headed for dis­as­ter for a while. But I had to re­mind my­self: I’d got­ten lucky. I should have been dead, but I wasn’t.

So as I bounced from hospi­tal to hospi­tal, I was both upset and thrilled with my sit­u­a­tion. With some help from ex­perts and my par­ents, I learned to fo­cus on what I could still do: turn my life around.

The first step was hu­mil­ity. I’d been an elite ath­lete for so long, it was hard to start at the very be­gin­ning. I had to learn to walk with the pros­thet­ics. I needed help at ev­ery turn. But I re­al­ized that ask­ing for that sup­port was the first step to­ward fi­nally grow­ing up.

I met with coun­selors and sup­port groups, bat­tled with­drawal, and stopped do­ing drugs. I learned to play hockey again, took a hum­bling en­try-level tech job, and even­tu­ally got back to snow­board­ing. That last ef­fort was about more than just pick­ing up my old hobby. It was prov­ing to my­self—the ath­lete—that I was still the same per­son, that I could re­de­fine my fu­ture with­out los­ing my past.

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