Five years after skiing off the backside of Mammoth Mountain, getting lost in the backcountry and narrowly escaping death, Hollywood may be knocking on Eric LeMarque’s door
Last month, Mammoth Lakes resident Bob Drake, a retired geologist, was tromping around the backcountry on the backside of Mammoth Mountain with former U.C. Berkeley colleague Wes Hildreth when he came across a snowboard.
A snowboard? At Pumice Butte? Drake and his companions (Hildreth and assistant Judy Fierstein) were literally miles from Mammoth Mountain, and there is no continuous downhill route to get to Pumice Butte from any Mammoth lift. At some point, what went down would had to have come up a rather steep slope in very remote terrain. And then left the board behind? Drake didn’t know what he’d come across, but he didn’t want to disturb anything if a forensic investigation was required. So he took the GPS (global positioning system) coordinates of his find, had Fierstein take some pictures of the board and the surrounding terrain, and left.
He shared the information with his friend (and Mammoth’s Wildlife Specialist) Steve Searles, who, with a little research, determined that the board may belong to a man named Eric LeMarque.
A call to LeMarque confirmed this hypothesis.
LeMarque, now 40, skied off the backside of Mammoth Mountain on February 6, 2004, got lost, and managed to survive eight days before he was rescued.
During those eight days, he lost 40 pounds. When he was found, his body temperature registered 86 degrees. Following his ordeal, the onset of gangrene in his severely frostbitten feet forced doctors to remove both of his legs about 8” below each knee.
LeMarque, who made good on his promise to snowboard one year later on prosthetic legs, recently published (by Random House) a book about his experience (written with Davin Seay) called “Crystal Clear.” The book was released in April and is already into its second printing. His most recent media appearance was on ESPNews just two weeks ago, but he’s appeared in recent years on the Discovery Channel as well as Oprah. Negotiations to turn his story into a Hollywood movie are ongoing.
Why the title? Because LeMarque, a former NHL draft pick and 1994 Olympic hockey player (with France, his father’s native country, where he was born in 1969), was addicted to methamphetamine at the time of his harrowing adventure.
The details of this adventure can be found in his fast-paced book, which is available at the Booky Joint in Mammoth.
Like many adventures gone wrong, LeMarque’s story was built on a series of poor decisions which turned into a disaster.
He woke up late on the morning of February 6, 2004. In his rush to get out the door on a powder day, he left his two-way radio and a torch lighter in his heavy Gore-Tex jacket, which he didn’t think he’d need because the forecast called for generally clear conditions with a high temperature of 27 degrees Fahrenheit.
A storm blew in while he was heading down Dragon’s Back for a final run, and with howling wind and decreased visibility, he found he couldn’t get enough speed to traverse the wide shallow bowl to access the eastern edge.
Caught in deep snow with no visibility, he tried to hike out once, circled back on his own tracks and ended up in the same spot. Then he tried to hike up where he had come from and board out, but again couldn’t sustain enough momentum to push out of the bowl. He thought about building a snow cave and camping for the night, but got restless and decided on another course of action; taking a path of lesser immediate resistance and skiing out of bounds and down and around toward Tamarack Lodge.
Only problem was he ran across a tough, rocky pitch and fearing he would head over a cliff, started veering to the right.
He veered too far (pushed somewhat because he was being stalked by coyotes) and ended up at Rainbow Falls three days later.
Leaning over to take a drink at Rainbow, he fell into the stream and almost got washed over the Falls.
It was only then that a break in the weather revealed how far he’d strayed off course.
He realized he was heading more towards Fresno than Mammoth, and also realized he’d literally have to reverse course and scale a nearly vertical avalanche path to get back home.
Which he damn near did.
He was ultimately rescued thanks to his MP3 player. As he writes in the book, “The MP3 player, trying to pull in a clear radio broadcast, had transmitted just enough of a signal for the National Guard Black Hawk chopper to pick up a faint trace on the back side of the mountain.” They then zeroed in on his location using infrared heat-seeking equipment.
When he was picked up, LeMarque was so addled by hunger and frostbite and exhaustion that he first suggested that they let him board downhill to a flatter spot for easier pickup. He then suggested that they could drop him off at his condo.
The National Guardsman, however, politely suggested he leave all his gear where it lay and come with him.
Which leads us back to the snowboard. Searles has been so busy with his wildlife job that he passed on the GPS coordinates to Town Councilman John Eastman and Sheet Editor Ted Carleton, who hiked over Mammoth Crest and down to Pumice Butte on Sunday.
The GPS coordinates didn’t do us much good as no one in Town sells GPS. As Kittredge Sports Owner Tom Cage lamented, “You can buy a GPS at Costco for cheaper than I can buy it.”
Nevertheless, the coordinates gave us a rough search area on the map. It still took three hours to find the Board (Eastman was the one who made the discovery). As he joked afterwards, “I should list cleaning up the forest as part of my job description.”
Perhaps the board will be reunited with LeMarque during a visit to Mammoth, as he has become a fairly accomplished motivational speaker. He’s also, if it’s not obvious by the book title, kicked meth. And found God.
One interesting part of speaking to LeMarque this week was in hearing him talk about the final camping spot he’d attained before his rescue. He was still under the impression, five years later, that he had been imminently close to ascending the final ridge before the descent into the Twin Lakes Basin. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it took Eastman and I two hours of straight up summer climbing to reach the Crest.
Then again, I’d also seen the incredibly steep pitch he’d climbed to reach that final camping spot on nothing but will and determination. Mr. LeMarque is a unique character. You’ll enjoy his tale.
For more info, visit www.ericlemarque.com.