Inline Hockey Builds Toughness
"I Was Frozen Wolf Bait!"
When snowboarder Eric LeMarque ventured off a trail, he didn't suspect he'd spend the next week hopelessly lost in the wilderness.
By Adelle Waldman
Eric LeMarque heard the wolves before he saw them. There were two on his right and one on his left, closing in fast. When they were 20 feet away, LeMarque started to yell. Not screams of terror, but aggressive, boisterous shouts. He wanted to appear large and formidable, not what he really was: a helpless snowboarder lost in the wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas. LeMarque thought that if he was very loud, he would spook the beasts; if he didn?t make eye contact or if he started to run, they?d attack.
LeMarque?s strategy worked. The animals ran off. The encounter left the boarder frightened enough to fashion a weapon from a dried-out stick a few inches in diameter. Using his board as a file, he sharpened both ends of the stick into a dagger and then made notches in the middle for a better grip. It was a smart decision, considering that rescuers had recently found only the feet of Chris Foley, a lost skier who presumably had been attacked and devoured by wolves.
While LeMarque, a 34-year-old former hockey player who had competed in the 1994 Olympic Games, thought he was having the adventure of a lifetime trekking through the snowy woods, everyone else would come to believe he had shared the same fate as Foley or had simply frozen to death near Mammoth Mountain, a ski resort about five hours north of Los Angeles. Rescuers would come to believe they were looking for a body, not a living person.
LeMarque, a hockey instructor, had taken the week off and was staying in a condo at Mammoth. He was an avid snowboarder, but this was his first long trip of the winter, and he was determined to make the most of it. He had already spent four days at the resort. On Friday, February 6, 2004, he slept until close to noon, munched down a couple of PowerBars on his way out and then hitched a ride to the mountain. He had intended to stop by a friend?s place to recharge his cell phone, but he changed his mind when he realized he didn?t have much time, since the mountain closed at 4. ?I figured I was going up only for a couple of runs, because it was the afternoon and it was already warm,? he says.
Usually, he would bring extra clothes and a safety whistle and load his pockets with protein bars and fruit, just in case. But this time he didn?t. LeMarque wore just a T-shirt, a wool hat, long johns, ski pants and a jacket. He didn?t wear his ski socks, since they?d gotten soaked the previous day.
For what he thought would be his last run, LeMarque went down Dragon?s Back, which is on the southeastern edge of the 11,000-foot mountain. It was a less crowded area, frequented by hard-core skiers and snowboarders who favored its double-black-diamond runs and comparatively untouched snow. It was almost 4 P.M. when LeMarque started down, after waving to a ski patrol at the top of the mountain. It was the last time he?d see a human being for seven days.
Wet Matches And Gum
He wasn?t worried when his last run brought him to an unfamiliar flat. He tried hiking back to the main part of the mountain, but the path brought him in a circle. ?I was like, Wait a minute, how?d I do that?? he says. By then, he had been hiking for almost an hour and a half.
He found a run and snowboarded down, figuring it would take him back to the resort. Instead, it carried him to the back of the mountain, into the Ansel Adams Wilderness, a forbidding 228,500-acre expanse in the Sierra and Inyo national forests.
But LeMarque didn?t know that. All he knew was that he was lost. And after so much walking, snow was beginning to bunch between his pants and his boots, melting and getting his feet wet. That, he knew, was not good. When night started to fall, he decided to hunker down and wait until morning to make his way back to the resort.
At least, LeMarque thought, he had matches. He always carried a baggie full of safety matches. He tore off pieces of his T-shirt and hat and shredded them for kindling. After gathering some dried-out pine needles and nuts, LeMarque was ready to light a fire and was looking forward to the warmth?and hoping that the smoke would attract the attention of the ski patrol. But when he pulled out his matches, he made a bitter discovery: Water had gotten into the baggie during the previous days of intense boarding. They wouldn?t light.
LeMarque took stock. All he had was his dead cell phone, an MP3 player and four pieces of Bazooka gum. For dinner, he ate and swallowed two pieces of gum. That night he encountered the wolves. Worried about leaving a scent?and certain he wouldn?t be out in the wilderness for long?he threw out the remaining two pieces of gum.
Using his snowboard, LeMarque carved out a crevice in the snow to sleep in and lined it with bark for insulation. He pulled his face and gloved hands inside his jacket. But during the night, LeMarque started to choke. ?I was basically breathing my own carbon dioxide,? he explains. ?I had to position my sleeves into the snow and open up a porch.? Otherwise, he could have suffocated.
Day Two: Dunked
LeMarque was not an expert camper. In his entire life, he?d spent maybe 40 nights outside?but those circumstances had been much less drastic. He?d camped in the summer, often on the beach, with blankets and power accessible from his nearby car. ?That was like the Ritz-Carlton compared to this,? he says. But his instincts were good, and he made it through his first night of subfreezing temperatures.
Saturday morning, another harsh discovery awaited LeMarque: He was separated from safety by a vast expanse of forbidding, snow-covered mountain. He could even see the ski lift at the top of Mammoth Mountain.
Then LeMarque made his worst choice: Instead of trying to hike back up, he headed in another direction, toward Tamarack Lodge, a nearby resort. He?d been to Mammoth at least 20 times and figured he could find his way to the lodge on the back of the mountain. It would be easier than trying to make it all the way back up the steep incline to the ski area, he reasoned. So LeMarque began hiking down a ridge he thought would lead him to Tamarack.
As he hiked, he came across a river. He drank from it and filled the baggie that had held the useless matches. On the riverbed, he found a tin can and broke it into pieces. He then pinned the pieces onto his jacket in the hope that the metal would reflect the sun and make him easier to spot from above.
Then LeMarque got another idea?one he hoped would quickly bring him to the warmth and safety of Tamarack Lodge. ?I was going to walk along the rocks on the river, instead of pounding my feet in and out of the snow, since I figured I?d have better luck moving faster,? he says. It worked for a while. LeMarque walked along, the water gurgling at his feet. He was thinking, Help myself, help myself.
?I wasn?t going to sit around and wait for anybody,? he says. ?This was an adventure I?d put myself in, and I just had to get myself out.?
With more than a few bumps on the way. As he hopped from rock to rock, LeMarque lost his footing and fell into the river, his snowboard in front of him. The board started to pull him along, around a bend?and straight toward a waterfall.
He scrambled out of the water and then climbed a hill to look down at the river below. That?s when he realized that the waterfall he?d narrowly avoided was almost 80 feet high. ?It just showed me, Wow, it is pretty dangerous out here,? he says. Soaked, LeMarque took off some of his clothes to air them out. He spotted potential shelter: a small indentation in a cliff face that offered protection from the wind. Lining it with pine needles, he climbed in for his second punishing night outside.
By this point, LeMarque was ravenously hungry. He longed for the pieces of discarded gum. He used his snowboard to chip bark off the trees and ate the pine nuts that were strewn around. Before he went to sleep, he dug a few holes in the snow to pee in during the night and then cover with snow, so as not to leave a scent that might draw bears.
Day Three: The Wrong Ridge
LeMarque woke up on Sunday optimistic. ?It was a nice day, and I figured this was the day I was going to be out of there,? he says. ?All I was thinking about was getting into a Jacuzzi and drinking a Coca-Cola. Those were my cravings.?
But first, LeMarque wanted to take advantage of the weather. He stripped off all his clothes and hung them on tree branches to dry. Naked, he crouched in his crevice, trying not to think too much about the condition of his feet. When he had peeled off his socks, a layer of skin had ripped off, too. His feet were black and bleeding, yet they didn?t hurt. They were frozen and numb. But LeMarque refused to focus on that. ?I just knew I had to get out of there,? he says. He continued down the hill, envisioning Tamarack Lodge all the way.
That sustaining vision was soon to be shattered. ?I got to the bottom of the ridge, and there was just this lake and nothing else,? LeMarque recalls. ?And I realized, My God, I?m on the wrong ridge!?
It was a disappointment so acute that it made all the trials he?d ever before endured, including coming away from the Olympics without a medal, feel no more significant than a parking ticket or a sold-out movie.
That left the exhausted snowboarder, who?d been outside for about 48 hours, no choice but to go up the mountain. LeMarque used his MP3 player to locate the direction in which it got the best reception from the local FM radio station and then headed straight up that line. But he was going to have to make up for the two days he?d spent going farther downhill. He had traveled nine miles from the resort, and getting back was going to be much more difficult.
The day that had begun so cheerfully turned hellish as LeMarque used his snowboard to pull himself up the mountain, driving it into the snow like a pole. Every once in a while, he?d hear an airplane above him and turn on his MP3 player in the hope that its blue light would attract notice. His efforts were fruitless: The light wasn?t nearly powerful enough.
In fact, no one was even looking for LeMarque. After five days without hearing from him, LeMarque?s father went to the condo where his son was staying. He found that Eric?s season pass and snowboard were missing?along with Eric. Eventually he convinced rescuers that Eric must be lost somewhere on the mountain.
By the time night fell, LeMarque had made it only 300 to 400 yards up the mountain known as Pumice Butte. He carved a help sign in the snow. There were no trees nearby, however, so he had no pine needles to fill in the letters. His sign was invisible to all but him.
And things kept getting worse. ?That night was probably the coldest,? LeMarque says. ?The wind was fierce, and it started as soon as it got dark. The wind just started to howl. I dug down underneath the snow, but it still felt like the wind was coming in all directions. It was blowing snow, and the sky clouded, and then it started to snow.?
LeMarque just went to sleep. ?I was kind of playing tricks on myself,? he says. ?You know, not thinking about the actual detail of how much trouble I was in.?
Day Four: The Ice Cocoon
It hit him in the morning. When he woke, his hole in the ground was full of snow. He was stuck, encased in snow. He screamed and started flailing, finally breaking free. But that struggle also gave him some energy. ?I was pissed,? LeMarque says. ?I grabbed my board and started hiking straight up the mountain.?
It was grueling, but he just tried to stay focused. ?I envisioned my muscles working. I was working them so much that they started to burn,? LeMarque says. He tried not to think about his parents or his girlfriend. ?I just tried to keep it simple,? he says.
His goal was to reach the summit and look for signs of civilization, then slide down in that direction on his butt or his stomach.
By evening, he had reached the tree line. Shivering, LeMarque dug out a shelter and climbed into his hole, near a windblown bush. It offered some protection from the wind?s pummeling, but it couldn?t protect him from the hunger pains, which had begun in earnest, nor from the rashes developing on his arms, legs and back from all the sweat and chafing. He prayed for help and called out to his family and girlfriend, Sheri, whom he knew would be worried about him by now. Despite his discomfort, LeMarque fell asleep as soon as the sun set.
Days Five and Six: Collapse
The next morning, he was up and ready to try again. But he was tired and made it only a few hundred yards closer to the summit before collapsing in exhaustion. The next day, he did the same thing, getting within about 50 yards of the summit before he had to stop.
On Thursday, LeMarque didn?t even try to hike. He had spent a week sleeping in the snow, bracing himself against the wind. At least now the hunger pangs had subsided. His body was becoming resigned. LeMarque was an athlete and in good shape, but he had no experience with this kind of deprivation. Except for getting up to kick out a help sign and fill it in with needles, he slept all day, figuring he would store up energy. He dreamed that this was a video game that he was losing, and he just wanted to press reset and start over.
Day Seven: Move Or Die On the seventh morning, LeMarque woke and knew he had to move? or else die. It was Friday the 13th, one week after he?d gotten lost. LeMarque got up and tried to put on his boots, but it wasn?t working.
?My feet were like bricks. I couldn?t roll my heel or my toe or the side of my foot. I just had no leverage at all,? he recalls. ?I started to realize how much trouble I was in. I was really pissed that I hadn?t gotten up to the top yet, and I found some energy.?
Then he heard a helicopter. He clambered out of his makeshift igloo. ?I screamed and crawled out as fast as I could, into the sun, and I waved my hands. It came up over the ridge on top of the mountain, and it was kind of intimidating because it had machine guns on it. It was a Blackhawk helicopter, one of the state-of-the-art ones that the military uses, and I was like, Whoa! It hovered over me, and I figured that it was OK, that they saw me, and it was blowing so bad that I actually had to pull myself into my jacket, and I was kind of peering out at the helicopter, looking at it, and it flew away, and I was like, Oh, *censored*, no, no, don?t go!?
As he was about to fall to the ground in despair, a National Guardsman emerged from the woods. The Guard had joined the rescue effort the day before and had located LeMarque through infrared imaging. The men in the helicopter had seen him.
?I just want to get to a hot tub,? LeMarque told his rescuer. The helicopter came back and let down a hoist, and the Guardsman and LeMarque climbed up. LeMarque?s body temperature was 88ÞF, and he had lost 35 pounds.
Rescue workers couldn?t believe it was really Eric LeMarque. No one expected to find him alive. They were certain that this half-frozen guy had to be a different lost skier.
LeMarque had made it out alive, although not intact. His feet were deeply frostbitten. Water in his cells had frozen, causing muscle, blood and tissue cells to burst. He was taken to the Grossman Burn Center at Los Angeles? Sherman Oaks Hospital, where his feet were amputated. In March, doctors took off another six inches of shin bone in order to close the wounds. Once he was fitted for prosthetics, the former Olympian spent months learning how to walk again.
But LeMarque considers himself lucky. ?They thought I might also lose part of my face at first, because I was so burned and scabbed,? he says. He is still learning to master the prosthetics but vows he?ll be back at Mammoth, snowboarding with special devices for the disabled.
?I?ll be riding again next year,? LeMarque says. ?I?ll even do the same run?but this time I will be better equipped.?
Eric LeMarque was once on the cover of InLine Hockey News magazine.
[Makes my complaints seem pretty minor!]
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