He was lost.
It was late in the afternoon of Feb. 6 and Eric LeMarque had unwittingly snowboarded from Mammoth Mountain into a remote region of the Sierra Nevada. He carried four pieces of Bazooka bubblegum, an MP3 player, a cell phone with a dead battery, the keys to his condo and a soggy bag of matches.
In the days that followed, LeMarque ate pine needles and bark, dug snow caves at night, left scraps of his clothes for searchers and tried using the blue screen of his MP3 player as a beacon to attract the attention of aircraft flying overhead at night.
One week later -- on Friday the 13th -- rescuers in a helicopter plucked a barely conscious LeMarque from the wilderness, miles from where he had started. The Mono County search team said LeMarque’s tale of survival is one of the most arduous they’d ever heard.
Looking fit and muscular, the 34-year-old hockey instructor and salesman spoke about his ordeal for the first time Wednesday from the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. “I wasn’t scared until the last day,” he said. “It was like an adventure to me.”
LeMarque had traveled to Mammoth from his West Hills home with friends for a week of skiing. After his friends returned home, LeMarque -- who was a member of the 1994 French Olympic hockey team -- decided to stay.
His odyssey began on Friday, Feb. 6. He was finishing up the afternoon by enjoying long runs from the top of chairlift 9, located at the southeast end of the resort.
LeMarque could have boarded down the front of Mammoth Mountain -- where the bulk of the resort’s runs are located. Instead, he climbed a ridge known as the Dragon’s Back, and plunged into a vast hill of mostly untracked snow.
“It was a fantastic powder run,” he said. “I made a lot of turns, flowing freely. I came to where it was flat, and I started to walk in the direction I figured was right. Turned out it was wrong.”
There is no chairlift on the backside of the 11,000-foot mountain. The terrain is out of bounds and it’s up to those who venture there to find their way home.
LeMarque had snowboarded past a saddle that would have taken him back to the front of the mountain -- his first major mistake.
Instead, he headed into the vast Ansel Adams Wilderness, walking south along the San Joaquin River. He was going in the wrong direction.
He tried to start a fire his first night by burning some of his clothes, but his matches were too wet to ignite. He wasn’t too alarmed, believing he would find a road in the morning. Temperatures fell to single digits.
He saw two coyotes, and afraid they would smell the sugar of his bubble gum, swallowed the wad in his mouth for food and threw away the remaining pieces.
“I ate bark, which I liked the most,” he said.
On the second day, LeMarque first thought that he could lose his feet to the cold.
Finding a road became his mission. He made the usual vows (“My parents are not going to bury me”) and he even enjoyed some snowboarding, a way to kill time, he recalled, and cover ground more quickly.
LeMarque tried using his MP3 player as a crude compass. The player picked up a radio station from the village of Mammoth Lakes -- but only if he held it in the direction of town. That is when he realized he had been traveling away from safety. LeMarque dismally concluded: “I was lost.”
He also used his snowboard to hack bark off trees. The bark he didn’t eat, he slept on. It was insulation from the snow.
And LeMarque slept in trenches he dug to avoid the winds that kicked up at dusk and dawn. At night, he would shrink into his jacket, which became a crude sleeping bag. His clothes were dark and hard for rescuers to see.
His clothes became soaked from sweat and snow. On the third or fourth day -- he can’t remember which -- he put them on a boulder to dry. Nearly naked, he wedged himself in a crevice between boulders and enjoyed the view of the river gorge below.
In addition to hunger and cold, LeMarque had another problem: No one knew that he was missing.
But his parents began to worry when they hadn’t heard from him for several days. On Wednesday, Feb. 11 -- five days after Eric had become lost -- his father, Philip LeMarque, drove from Los Angeles to Mammoth and inspected the condo where his son had been staying.
He alerted authorities after finding neither his son nor his son’s snowboard. The Mono County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team set out looking for LeMarque.
Bill Greene, who helped plan the search, spent several hours telephoning LeMarque’s friends, trying to figure out where LeMarque might have gone snowboarding. Friends said LeMarque liked to ski the part of the mountain below chairlift 9.
“We knew that he was spontaneous and adventurous and that opened the backside of the mountain as a possibility,” Greene said.
Searchers on snowmobiles traveled along a snow-covered road from the main lodge at Mammoth Mountain to the San Joaquin River valley. They did not find any tracks.
The search team expanded the next day when two more skiers were reported lost. The pair walked into a nearby resort Friday, having taken the path that LeMarque missed on his first day lost.
Searchers finally got a break on the morning of Friday the 13th. A team of ski patrollers from Mammoth found a snowboard trail heading south -- away from the resort, toward the wilderness. Soon they found signs of a crude fire pit.
“We weren’t sure if it was someone leaving a marker or if it was just kindling, but we kind of had a hunch that we might be onto something,” said Lindsay Larson, a member of the ski patrol at Mammoth.
Searchers followed the snowboard trail for nine miles to Rainbow Falls, a popular summer hiking destination. The trail disappeared, and they found it again further downstream. They guessed that LeMarque was following the river.
The ski patrollers reported what they found to rescuers in helicopters. The search team now had a good idea of where LeMarque was heading.
But after LeMarque had been missing for seven days, Larson said, he and other rescuers figured they were looking for a body. Earlier, on Feb. 1, rescuers at Mammoth had recovered feet and the ski poles belonging to Chris Foley, another lost skier. An animal had apparently found Foley first.
LeMarque had decided his path along the river valley was never going to lead to rescue. So he climbed 1,200 feet, through deep snow, up the flanks of Pumice Butte.
By this time, his feet were badly hurt. “I couldn’t get a boot on,” he said. “I was walking in the snow with one foot in the boot, with no socks on either foot. One foot was by itself in the snow ... I found myself trying to walk, and falling over.”
On the upper slopes of Pumice Butte, he laid down in the snow. Then he heard the sound of a helicopter.
LeMarque was rescued, but his feet were frozen.
“In the beginning, he was trying to look at it optimistically, he would say, ‘Look I can move my toes,’ ” said Dr. Peter H. Grossman, one of LeMarque’s doctors at Grossman Burn Center. “But what was happening was the muscles for moving his toes were up in his calf ... But I showed him, I stuck a pin in his foot, and he had no sensation.”
He got a fever that spiked at a near-fatal 107 degrees last Friday. On Sunday, surgeons removed LeMarque’s feet just below the ankles. Today, Dr. Clifford Kahn will amputate his legs to about six inches below the knees to accommodate the prosthetic limbs LeMarque will wear.
LeMarque said he will return to the mountains by the next ski season, using devices that help the disabled ski and snowboard.
He acknowledged good fortune, in addition to his own strength and resolve. Over the week he went missing, the Sierra Nevada -- Spanish for snowy mountains -- received the barest sprinkling of snow.
On Feb. 15, two days after he was rescued, the skies opened. Over the next 2 1/2 weeks, 111 inches of snow fell on Mammoth, burying LeMarque’s tracks.