I ran blindly, stumbling and falling, pushing my way through chest-high snow. My heart pounded against my ribs and I pulled each breath from the thin freezing air as if it were my last. I could hear the creatures behind me, moving in closer, fanning out to attack from all sides, a pack on the hunt for human prey.
I stumbled, plunging face first into a deep drift. I struggled to get up, moving a few feet before I got bogged down again and had to start pushing myself through the snow one laborious step at a time until I finally came to a complete halt. My legs were trembling and I could feel the trickle of wet snow mingling with my sweat. Terror had paralysed me. I couldn’t move. This was where it would end, in a flurry of sharp teeth and slavering jaws. As I lay motionless, waiting for death, one thought, one question, went round in my brain in an ever-tightening circle:
How did I get here?
The answer was simple. I was addicted to powder.
When I say “powder” you might be thinking cocaine, or maybe heroin. But what I’m talking about is even worse: methamphetamine ― speed ― one of the most dangerous and destructive drugs known to man. For over a year, at a key juncture in my life, my world revolved around little plastic bags of sparkling white crystals. I loved the way meth made me feel, the focus and energy and sense of unlimited power that came with that chemical rush, every time I snorted a line.
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I thought that no white powder was ever going to overcome my steely self-control. Until it did.
But the story of my addiction doesn’t stop there. There was another powder I was addicted to and in a way that addiction was far more potent and seductive than my need for speed had ever been. I was addicted to powdered snow. And before I could shake free of those twin addictions, I had to nearly die.
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. And as far back as I can remember, a big part of that identity had been about my feet.
That may sound weird. If most people were asked to single out their most important asset, they usually talk about their character and integrity; their mind, or their heart or even their face. But for me, it was my feet. The carried me to victory after victory in my life, racking up one achievement after another. My footwork was what had earned me a place on the Boston Bruins lineup in the National Hockey League, the thrill of winning several World Championships and the opportunity to play in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Everything I accomplished as an athlete ― and I accomplished a lot from a very young age ― involved my feet in one way or another.
I lost my feet, eight inches below the knee, and my world was suddenly reduced to the four walls of a hospital room. Through a combination of over-confidence and poor judgment, brought on by my meth addiction, I allowed my feet to freeze. When I realised what was happening, I did everything I could to reverse the process. But it was too late. The parts of my body that had taken me so far, so fast, were dead. And if they weren’t cut away from me, I would have died also. For once in my life, I had no choice. But that didn’t make the decision any easier. 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.
Late in the afternoon of February 6, 2004, I was getting ready my last run of the day down Mammoth Mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada range. I had purposely moved off the main trails in search of the fresh powder, and I found what I was looking for in a remote area called Dragon’s Back, where I delved off a big hit right at Beyond The Edge, on the eastern flank of the mountain.
I’d packed light that day, expecting to be back, soaking in the hot tub of the condo I had borrowed, just before night fell. I had a ski jacket and pants with the linings removed to maximize my maneuverability and in my pockets I carried four pieces of Bazooka bubblegum, a cell phone with a dying battery, my MP-3 player and a small plastic Zip Loc bag with about a half-gram of speed.
As I stood on the spine of Beyond The Edge, scoping out the territory, I glanced east to see a solid wall of storm clouds heading my way. It was engulfing everything, consuming the vast range around me in angry grey clouds. Judging from its speed and intensity I knew it would overtake me in a matter of minutes. No problem. That was just enough time for one final run…
Eight days later, a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter dropped a rescue harness onto the snow bound summit slope of the mountain to pull me to safety. My body temperature was eight-six degrees. I had lost forty-five pounds. I had eaten nothing but cedar bark and pine seeds for over a week. I had endured nighttime wind chill factors of twenty below. I was stalked by wolves, slept in snowfields with no shelter, fell into a raging river and was nearly swept over an eighty foot waterfall. I had survived in those conditions longer than anybody else on record. They called me The Miracle Man.
They don’t know the half of it.
During those eight days I went from extremes of hope and despair; expectation and disappointment; fear and courage. The physical tribulations that I endured were matched by the emotional highs and lows that swept over me from day to day and even hour to hour. 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 fought for my life to the extreme limits of my own strength.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, my whole story is one of extremes. Those eight days on the mountain proved to me that my will to live was stronger than the reckless drive that fed my addictions. My fight for survival may have ended when that giant Black Hawk chopper appeared over the top of the ridge like an angel of deliverance. But I was just beginning the biggest struggle of my life.
My addictions to powder, to speed and to snow, were symptoms of a life out balance. What replaced them – an incredible wife and beautiful family – are the down payments on a future I never imagined could be mine.
But I’m not there yet. The price I paid for the lessons I’ve learned has been steep. Adjusting to life without my feet, to performing the daily tasks that we all take for granted, has been, in it’s own way, every bit as challenging as the eight days I spent lost in the frozen wilderness. 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.
But, on the other side of that extreme is the fact that I still don’t think of myself as handicapped.
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.
Eric LeMarque is an ex-Olympic hockey player, and the real-life subject of new film, survival thriller 6 Below, in which he’s played by Josh Hartnett. 6 Below is available On Demand on 8th January, and on DVD 15th January 2018.
Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from HuffPost UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you’ve got something extraordinary to share please email firstname.lastname@example.org with LLO in the subject line. To read more from the series, visit our dedicated page.