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Snowboarder Describes Days on Edge of Survival

Eric LeMarque was rescued after a week lost in the Sierra. But his ordeal isn't over.

March 04, 2004|Hector Becerra and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

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.

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