Survivor

The sun was dropping quickly through the frozen air when Eric LeMarque realized he was lost. An hour earlier, the 34-year-old snowboarder had ducked out of bounds on 11,000-foot Mammoth Mountain in California's Sierra Nevadas, looking for a "fresh line"--virgin powder. But a wrong turn sent him into the wilderness on the back of the mountain, and now he was cold and wet and stuck. His cell-phone battery was dead. He had no food beyond four pieces of gum and no protection beyond the clothing he wore. He built a fire pit and gathered kindling in hopes the ski patrol would see the smoke, but his soggy matches wouldn't light. "I thought, God, I've got to get out of here," he recalls. LeMarque strapped on his board again and plunged downhill in the darkness, unknowingly speeding further from safety and rescue every minute.

He would spend seven nights in the High Sierras last month before he was found alive by a stunned Army National Guard helicopter crew. He was on the point of exhaustion and death on what became for him a very lucky Friday the 13th. LeMarque endured nights of single-digit temperatures and days that often failed to crack freezing. The snow lay 12 feet deep. Frostbite dogged him early on, and he trudged on feet that were increasingly numb until, finally, he could no longer walk or even stand up. What food he ate consisted of tree bark and pine seeds--he lost 35 pounds. By the end he was hallucinating and dreamed that his struggle was just a videogame that he was losing. "I was thinking, the game is over," LeMarque told NEWSWEEK. "Let's reset it. I give up."

LeMarque was well suited for survival. Born in Paris but raised in Los Angeles, he grew up to be a solid college hockey player--good enough to be drafted by the NHL's Boston Bruins. When he didn't make the pros, he played in Europe for five years, including a tour with the French national team during the 1994 Winter Olympics. In recent years, he's taught hockey and kept in shape with sports and frequent snowboarding. A risk-taker and an optimist, he had no doubt he wouldn't mind boarding by himself even after friends returned to Los Angeles the morning he became lost. Even after dark that first night he was sanguine. "I figured it was an adventure," he recounts. "I'll wake up the morning, and I'll be saved."

He should have worried more. LeMarque continued downhill for another day, putting miles between him and safety and getter ever colder. He found a riverbed and found hopping on the rocks easier going than navigating the deep snow--until he fell in and got soaked. Fast moving water pushing against his snowboard threatened to drag him over an 80-foot waterfall. He was soaked. The next day in the cold sunshine, he peeled off his frozen socks and tore the soles off his feet. "They were already black and purple and red," he recalls. "I tried to forget them."

The will to live and some clever thinking kept him alive. He avoided eating snow, which lowers the body temperature dangerously. At night he used the edge of his board to shave pine boughs and branches for a bed to keep off the snow. Recalling a movie, he jury-rigged a compass by floating a metal needle on a bit of wood floating in water. He turned the radio on his MP3 player into a direction finder after he noticed that reception on a station broadcast from Mammoth grew stronger when pointed north. So he turned course and headed in that direction, pushing step by slow step up the side of a mountain called Pumice Butte where he might be seen. His endurance helped, but by day five, he ran out of energy. He stayed in his snow shelter for two nights, barely able to move. "I was too tired." By Friday morning, Feb. 13, "I knew today was the day." He would either be saved that day or die.

Luckily, rescue efforts had finally geared up. For days, no one knew LeMarque was on the mountain. Friends he'd stayed with in Mammoth had returned to L.A. the morning he was lost. It wasn't unusual for him not to check in with his parents. "We didn't worry at first," says his mother, Susan LeMarque. "He's 34." By midweek, they were panicked, and his father and stepmother drove to the resort and pushed a search. The only things missing from his condo, police found, were his board, keys and season pass. That meant he was on the mountain. But where?

Search and rescue patrols swung into action on Thursday, Feb. 12. The next day, patrollers found the abortive fire pit, then the tracks. By 3:30 a helicopter crew spotted him using infrared imaging. Semiconscious, LaMarque rose to his knees, waving frantically in the air. Stunned rescue workers were shocked to find him alive. "It amazed everybody," says Bill Greene of Mono County Sheriff Search and Rescue. "I don't think anybody was not surprised to find him alive." Rescue workers radioed the chopper crew to double check his name, figuring that maybe this guy was a second lost skier. Eric LeMarque couldn't have survived.

He was alive, not well. His feet and ankles were suffering from stage IV frostbite--water in the cells had frozen causing muscle, blood and tissue cells literally to burst, explains Dr. Peter H. Grossman of the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital in Los Angeles, where LeMarque has been treated since he was stabilized at a Mammoth hospital. Doctors had amputated both feet, and this week they took off six more inches of shin bone to close the wounds. He'll be fitted with prosthetic limbs this spring and begin the long task of learning to walk again. He says he'll face life with a new humility. He even vows to hit the slopes again. "I'll be snowboarding next season," he promises. But next time, he'll be much, much better prepared.