Surviving The Mountain with olympian and former pro hockey player Eric LeMarque
Like many children growing up, Eric LeMarque had hopes of becoming a professional athlete. With the support of his Golden Glove boxer grandfather and his step-dad, combined with his natural athletic ability, he was able to make his dreams a reality and became a professional hockey player. LeMarque played for two years in the minor leagues before going pro in Europe. His dual citizenship enabled him to play in the 1994 Olympics for France. After playing professionally for more than a decade, LeMarque missed that adrenaline rush and turned to snowboarding as well as drugs. His athletic prowess equipped him to become an expert snowboarder as well.
One day when he was snowboarding, he decided to ignore the ski patrol’s warnings and take one last run. Instead of going down the side of the mountain where the groomed runs were, he went down the other side made up of untracked snow. There were no chairlifts on this trail for experts who assume the responsibility of finding their own way home. The run would forever change his life. Wearing only a light jacket and a book of soggy matches in his pocket, LeMarque found himself ill-prepared to face a storm. He got lost on the mountain and had to fight for his life. He survived eight days fighting off starvation by eating gum and bark and huddling himself into his jacket to fend off frostbite. After being rescued, his battle for survival was far from over; he would have to have both of his legs amputated. His incredible story has recently been made into the movie, 6 Below Miracle on the Mountain starring Josh Hartnett. Risen talked with LeMarque about getting lost, his faith journey, and what he learned from the experience.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You were a professional and Olympic hockey player. Share a little bit about the discipline and mindset that goes into becoming a top athlete.
Eric LeMarque: At a very young age, I had that vision in my heart that I was going to be a professional athlete, that I was going to be a NHL Hall of Famer. Fortunately, I had tremendous support from my family. The main influencers were my grandfather who was a Golden Glove boxer who knew what it took, who knew how to stand up for himself, and the gritty determination needed in order to make it. My step-dad, also knew what it took to make it to the NHL. He encouraged me and showed me that working hard and hard work is a characteristic that you should have in life no matter what you do. With that, I would fire 500 shots a day, skated six times a week, and had their support and encouragement with everything that was needed to become a professional athlete.
RM: After your career ended, like many pro athletes you were missing that adrenaline rush. Describe what that time was like.
EL: I think that I idolized my career, sports, and I idolized myself. This was before I became a Christian. I had no identity other than who I was as an athlete. When that ended, I found myself lost. I didn’t really have a skill in life that was in demand where I could quickly transition into another career. With that, I kept reliving and looking in the rearview mirror, thinking, “I used to do this. I used to be this person.” I didn’t realize how quickly that was dwarfing my forward movement. The more I kept looking back, the more it slowed me down from advancing in a new direction.
The man in me finally got down on his knees and asked for help from God and my family and friends.
RM: You had spent a ton of time on the ice with hockey, but then shifted your passion to another sport, snowboarding. In 2004, you went snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain and decided to ignore the ski patrol warnings and take one last run. Little did you know it would change your life forever. Talk about a little bit about getting lost and how you were able to survive eight days on the mountain?
EL: I made several mistakes and the first one was the attitude that I brought up on the mountain. Even though I had rode Mammoth hundreds of times, I kind of took it for granted in not taking my two-way radio or my torch lighter thinking, “It’s just Mammoth. I know it like the back of my hand. I don’t have to listen to ski-patrol. I’m a professional snowboarder and I’m not going to be inconvenienced.” A lot of these things led me into my accident. Also, of course being on crystal methamphetamine and living my life very selfishly and doing what I wanted to do. I was confused because I was under the influence of drugs. I was under the false sense that I knew what was best for me at all times. That wasn’t the case, because I would end up going down the side that they [ski patrol] had closed.
I went into the fog and storm that had turned back on the mountain. I had to slow up because it was like I had stepped into a different dimension that had very limited visibility as I was going down through the trees – of course not wanting to knock myself dead. The fun had come to a complete halt. I was stuck. I got to a section where I didn’t have enough momentum to get me through and off the mountain on that eastern most remote flank of the mountain. I didn’t know I would end up walking in a circle. I didn’t know that I would keep hiking my trails, trying to ride out my tracks trying to gain more speed [only to find] that it wouldn’t pay off and I would make it only a football field out further. I didn’t know that the matches that I had in case of an emergency that had been in my jacket for five years, would be saturated and that when I tried to strike them, they wouldn’t start a fire.
Another poor decision that I made was purposely going out of bounds and purposely going into the unknown, trying to free myself, but not having the sound ability to make a decision. If you get lost or trapped, chances are that you are close to where you need to be. Stay where you are; [that] would be my main message. Don’t go to the wolves. Don’t go and get nine miles more lost and don’t be out there for eight days, where you are putting yourself in harm’s way and your life is at stake.
RM: Staying in bounds, listening to the guidelines that have been set up, those are all great pieces of wisdom that anyone can relate to regardless if they are snowboarding or not.
EL: There is a reason that people have been put in authority or areas of expertise. We always think that we know what is best for ourselves. We don’t want to go with what somebody else is telling us. What I have learned, not only through the course of my story, but through the course of my recovery, is that the boy in me tried to do it all himself and caused two extra amputation surgeries. The man in me finally got down on his knees and asked for help from God and my family and friends.
RM: What were some of the things that you focused or reflected on during those eight days?
EL: I really focused on the fact that I was so alone. I spent a lot of time getting away from the business of life, at the same time, because I was in a drug-induced state, I became a loner. The people that didn’t measure up to my exact standards were the first to go. With that, I was always alone. I was by myself. I was really enjoying what I thought my life was. I was celebrating it with absolutely no one.
The reflection of how alone I was made me wrestle with the bag of meth when I was wrestling with emotions down by the river. I remember when I had some finances and I was able to take my friends on a whitewater rafting trip throughout Yosemite and how much fun I had in those relationships that I had since I was very young. That main emotion, and one of the conquering victories I had on the mountain, was why the second morning I decided to get rid of the bag of meth, reclaim my life and put a foot under my addiction. I put that demon underneath me and got back to the person I was always intended to be.
Another emotional point that came later, on day five, one of the things that went through my mind, knowing that my family and my mom were worried about me, I found myself on my knees not knowing how to pray. I think we all have a time in life where we fall to our knees and pray to God for help. I found myself crying out to God in whatever way that I could, begging, asking, pleading to do whatever he could to let my mom know that I was going to get back to her and make it out alive, that it wasn’t going to be the last time that she’d ever see me.
RM: What was your relationship with the Lord like during this time, if at all?
EL: I had a girlfriend whose mom was kind of an evangelist. In 1995, to kind of get her off of my back, I just gave my heart to the Lord. I prayed the sinner’s prayer. She got me a Bible with my name inscribed in it. But I had no idea what it meant to have a relationship with God. I had no idea what it meant to be a Christian. I had no idea about the power of the Word of God. I was living the life of a full-blown sinner. I do believe though that making a personal confession, because words do have power, that was a factor in God saying, “I can use this guy in ways that he would have never thought would be imaginable.” I believe that helped save me on the mountain as well.
RM: After you were rescued it was still an uphill battle. Your feet had to be amputated. How did you take the news? Obviously, it has altered the way you live your life so what has that process been like?
EL: I was delivered the news by my orthopedic surgeon, the guy who was going to do the surgery, who was there from day one, but I didn’t know he was going to do the surgery. He had crazy, wild hair, half bald, and glasses hanging on the brim of his nose. He was 6’6” and wore the same outfit every single day. He had come into the hospital a week after I was rescued by the National Guard. They had taken my body temperature at 86 degrees. Then my body temperature went up to 107.3 because the gangrene and the frostbite were so severe. My blood was so septic it was going to kill me because my temperatures ran so high. I remember the doctor coming into the room and saying, “One hundred and seven, point three, that’s the highest temperature we’ve seen at the Grocer Burn Center. Alright, we’re gonna schedule emergency amputation surgery. Get a goodnight sleep and we will see you in the morning.” And he was gone. I was alone. I didn’t know what to think.
I was immediately transferred to ICU. I took the Bible that I had and put it under my pillow. I heard the nursing staff talking about me and it really bothered me. I had nightmares sleeping with the Bible under my head, maybe because I hadn’t tapped into the spiritual realm of the Holy Spirit. I decided that I was going to call off the surgery in typical “Eric LeMarque style,” as I had done with the National Guard when they rescued me and dropped the harness. I told them, “No, no don’t drop the harness. I’m going to ride to the bottom and you can just pick me up on the bottom.” Now I’m telling the doctors what I am going to be doing. It felt like I wasn’t rested properly before a game. I hadn’t eaten the right foods. I hadn’t gotten my pre-game nap, so I would end up going through with the amputations and the surgeries and they were difficult.
When I was really reduced down to the four walls in the hospital room and I was by myself again, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. I pressed into God. I can tell you this, He showed up. The process of learning how to deal with the prosthetics and the amputations was ongoing for quite some time. I put my wife, Hope, through tremendous angst because I was a person who was narcistic. I became one once again after the accident, because I couldn’t think and see and feel anything outside myself; I was dealing with so much change. My feet were my biggest attribute. They wrapped up all the victories and had taken me to the NHL and the Olympics and the World Championships. They conveyed the sensations of snowboarding. I had the athletic prowess, but my skating was everything as a player. So, to be stripped of that, it was very hard to make the transition because everything was so different and everything had changed so much.
It also took a tremendous amount of time for acceptance, not only for the fact I had lost my legs, but also for the acceptance and forgiveness of myself. I beat myself up for years in getting trapped and making these poor decisions. Then, I started to shift my focus and look at, “Wow you survived. You got off [the mountain].” I started to give myself the credit. I did go through all those emotional states of loss. I had to get used to getting over myself. I had to get used to putting my vanity down.
When we believe in something bigger than ourselves, that our set-backs can be set-ups for something greater and mightier, that can give us more influence and a divine purpose in life.
Now, I don’t care what people think when I go to the gym and I take my legs off. I am who I am. I have to live my life, like when we go on trips and I go into the pool. I have to change into legs that can go into the water that aren’t skinned and foamed and definitely look like prosthetics as opposed to something that looks like an artificial leg, which draws more attention from people. That was an adjustment. I used the resources available—faith and my family as well as the therapy that was offered, the people that were able to talk me through some of the things and process this and really get real with where I’m at in life.
RM: Now a feature film is being made about your story titled, 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain, how do you feel about your story being shared on screen?
EL: I’m excited. God will take something that was leading to the path of death and turn it around for good – even though I begged Him to change His plan. Of course, I couldn’t see it with my vision. His vision is always greater and mightier than who we are. Growing up playing hockey, people were always interested in meeting me and asking me what I did. I had the ability to share with them and capture their attention. But now, boy do I ever [capture attention]. My story is universal to anyone dealing with change, or in need of hope, and the understanding that with the right attitude and faith, you can get through anything. Also, the relatability to the addiction and the suffering caused. Many people will suffer and stay there and idolize that suffering, thinking “Doesn’t anybody know how bad this is for me?” They don’t know how hindering it is for them to make that forward process.
Seeing my story on film, I hope that people can gain some of that message including that knowing if you never quit, you can always win. With the right attitude of determination and faith, you can overcome anything. When we believe in something bigger than ourselves, that our set-backs can be set-ups for something greater and mightier, that can give us more influence and a divine purpose in life. I hope that people can see that and not have to go to the extremes of losing something dramatic, like I did, before finally realizing that there is something greater than self.
RM: Josh Harnett plays you in the film, did you get a chance to talk with him, or did you visit the set at all to see your own story unfolding through his performance?
EL: Josh and I FaceTimed a lot and then I was on set. We talked about the scenes that were going to be forthcoming. He really dove into it. He’s a real pro. He is extremely talented and such a trooper. He was thrown into a freezing cold lake. He was thrown into blizzard-like conditions. He stopped eating and limited his diet to 300 calories [per day] for weeks so that he could lose the amount of weight that I lost. I think it was forty-five pounds on the mountain. He never complained. He just kept persevering. He is a real person, and very relatable. I couldn’t imagine anybody else that would have been better to portray me.
I even saw him skating on the ice. He’s from Minnesota. He shared with me later on that he wasn’t going to complain about the cold because his fellow Minnesotans would laugh at him [laughter]. I knew that his feet were hurting in his skates because he was in his skates and his gear all day filming. Yet, he just kept skating. He learned how to look and play the part of a professional athlete. Not only was God involved, but also all these people want to put all of themselves into all of what they are doing. It definitely came through in Josh Hartnett’s portrayal of me.
RM: We may not find ourselves stuck on the mountainside. But what words of encouragement do you have for someone who feels like they are in a desperate situation and need rescuing?
EL: Ask for help. We are so prideful. We tend to think that we can do it all on our own. When we do that, we just touch the surface and those wounds stay rooted in us. Use the resources available and ask people that have had similar experiences to what you are facing [to help]. Reach out to somebody.
I always choose to live my life by faith because everything is attached to it, whether I’m speaking life into my situation or affirmations into my situation, when I do that, I find that things tend to get better. I may be feeling sore. I may be having an ache or pain. But I speak to that pain. I speak to that problem. Likewise, have the determination and know that you are going to fail, just fail forward. And continually do that. And if you never quit, you will always win because you fight the good fight.
The opposite of faith, which is everything that leads to life, is fear. When you live in fear, you live in angst, and worry and uncertainty. You listen to that voice that is so mean in between our ears. We are so critical of ourselves. If we live in that fear, everything attached to it seems to lead to death. I do it by resetting my focus day to day, even second to second. It doesn’t always play out the way I hoped it would, but it is much better than the alternative of beating myself up and living in worry and fear.
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