Standing in a remote part of Mammoth Mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada range, Eric LeMarque glanced at the wall of storm clouds heading his way and decided he had time for one las run on his snowboard.
It was a bad decision with catastrophic consequences.
The former ice hockey star ended up lost, stranded in the snow-covered, unforgiving wilderness where temperatures can drop to -30 degrees in winter, for eight harrowing days.
LeMarque, born in France but raised in the US, astonishingly lived to tell the tale of what rescuers have called of the most incredible survival stories ever heard.
Stuck in the icy terrain, every training session, intense diet plan and elite sporting competition led LeMarque to the very moment they would save his life.
But his battle was much more than just physical – first and foremost it was a psychological fight.
At the time, he was in the grip of a serious addiction to crystal meth, so he had to cope with the horrors of withdrawal on top of some of the world’s harshest weather conditions.
Writing in the Mirror, he said: “Until I survived an ordeal that would strip away every false assumption and easy belief I ever had, I thought I knew who I was.”
That was in 2016, in the run-up to 6 Below, a film based on the toughest week of his life in which he was played by star actor Josh Hartnett.
But there was nothing Hollywood about the sheer turmoil LeMarque found himself in within moments of getting lost on his solo snowboarding trip.
With only sticks of bubblegum, an out-of-charge phone, his keys, some wet matches, a small bag of meth and an MP3 player (it was 2004), LeMarque was helpless.
The remote region of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California gets dangerously hot in the summer, but hits lows of -30 during the winter.
It was a far cry from Lillehammer, Norway, where he had competed at the 1994 Winter Olympics as an ice hockey player on the French team.
They went out at the group stage, but LeMarque had scored a goal and impressed.
It was the purple patch of his career, with the hockey star winning successive championships in France and representing his team in numerous world championships.
But none of that mattered on the outer edges of the Sierra Nevada from February 6 to 13, where the only contest he fought was against the harsh conditions.
LeMarque later said the experience was “like an adventure” – and whether or not that was the relief talking, he certainly behaved like an action hero.
He wasn’t initially worried when he boarded into the nether reaches of the Sierra Nevada. He tried to burn his clothes for some heat on a frozen first night, but they were too wet.
Wild coyotes were swirling, so he swallowed the rest of his bubblegum, fearing they would smell it. Bark was to be the menu.
He inventively used his snowboard to travel towards safely quicker and knock chunks of bark off trees, sleeping on bigger shards to put a barrier between him the snow.
LeMarque soon realised he was lost.
He began digging snow trenches for a warmer place to sleep and left clothes along the trail like Hansel and Gretel for rescuers to track him.
Five days after going missing, his dad showed up to the cabin he was staying and alerted authorities when there was nothing there.
LeMarque was globetrotting sportsman with an eye for adventure, so dad Philip had little reason to worry. But his instincts were on the money.
An elite team of rescuers spent days asking LeMarque’s friends which trails he liked and where he might’ve ended up.
They finally caught a break when they found traces of a snowboard trail heading south, and a fire pit.
LeMarque’s life was probably saved by the fact there had been no new snow, which would’ve covered the tracks.
Even still, the rescuers didn’t think they were looking for LeMarque: they thought they were looking for his body.
Less than two weeks before, the corpse of lost skier Chris Foley was found – animal wounds included.
By this point, LeMarque had walked mile upon mile in search of safety. His shoes no longer fit, due to the pain it caused to put them on. LeMarque was also sock-less for numerous days.
He didn’t yet know it, but feeling in his legs was flagging for most of his isolation.
So when the helicopters finally appeared, he knew his life would be saved.
But his feet wouldn’t be.
They were amputated inches below his knees, with the doctors making space for prosthetic legs to slot in.
This was a brutal blow. As LeMarque told the Mirror: “Everything I accomplished as an athlete – and I accomplished a lot from a very young age – involved my feet in one way or another.”
Still, he was just lucky to be alive, with his body temperature reaching a near-lethal 41.67 degrees (107 fahrenheit).
To say he was in bad shape would be an understatement.
LeMarque had lost 45lbs (20kg) in a week and had stage IV frostbite.
Plus he was still suffering the mental trauma of being stalked by wolves, falling into a river and almost being thrown over an 80-foot waterfall.
Yet he doesn’t fixate on the challenges.
In an Instagram post two years ago, LeMarque recorded a video of his most ambitious snowboarding moves.
The caption read: “Both my legs had to be amputated, but my passion for snowboarding can overcome any obstacle.”
LeMarque has said part of his questionable decision-making during the eight-day odyssey might’ve been related to his meth addiction, which he is now thankfully free of.
He has no regrets about giving up his legs in return for his life.
But there were moments when he felt otherwise.
LeMarque wrote: “I’d be lying if I said that there haven’t been times since, in my darkest hours, when I regretted that decision, times when death seemed preferable to what I had to endure.
“As I was withdrawing from one kind of powder — meth — I was learning a whole new respect for the other kind of powder — the snow that I struggled through, sometimes waist deep, sometimes chest deep.
“I’ve experienced the death of the life I used to live and the man I used to be. It hasn’t been easy.
“I’m reminded of that every time I have to crawl on my hands and knees to the toilet in the middle of the night.”
Seventeen years on, he has a wife, Hope, and son, Zach, plus step-son Nick.
It’s no surprise he has gone on to become a motivational speaker – and has become good at it too.
His Instagram profile proudly quotes People Magazine’s description of his efforts as “One of the top 10 survival stories in history”.
Not many people get that written about them.
LeMarque’s page also includes the hashtags #God, #EricLeMarque, #Survivor, #MotivationalSpeaker, #6BELOW and #Inspiration.
‘God’ refers to the born-again spirituality Eric says he discovered on the mountain.
He said: “I’m not addicted to powder anymore. I don’t do meth or any other drug, including painkillers, and even though I still enjoy the occasional snowboard run, it’s no longer an obsession.
“These days, when I’m out on the slopes, I take a minute to remember what it was like during those eight dark days. That’s when I realise the truth behind the old saying: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”