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Cold hard truth

2/11/2009

For a few hours, there was time for Rulon Gardner to think.

Why didn't I wear a coat?

He didn't think he'd be out long. He was only a few miles from home. The weather had been pleasant on the mountain, clear and right around freezing. Shirts and a fleece should have been fine.

If only I had been able to get my snowmobile up the hill right behind my friend.

Bad luck, that. Maybe if he weren't a 280-pound heavyweight wrestler, he might have made it up and over, and he wouldn't have gone backwards into a gulley looking for a route home.

If only I had stayed dry.

He had been making progress through tracks alongside the river until he came to a cliff, and had to ride in the Salt River. He drove the snowmobile through the shallow current and over frozen pools, getting splashed, panicking. After a distance, the snowmobile pulled, and he fell backwards into freezing water. He tried to continue; he got stuck.

For a moment he curled on the ice and shivered. Then, around 7 p.m., with night falling, he dragged his sopping carcass through the shoulder-deep snow to some trees and sat down to make his stand against the elements.

This was 2002, when Gardner wasn't two years removed from one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history, having won the gold medal in Sydney against the juggernaut Alexander Karelin, a Russian wrestler who hadn't previously lost an international match.

Just months earlier, Gardner won gold again in the world championships. He was 30, an overnight celebrity, financially secure. Life wasn't too shabby.

But that February evening, size and ability and accomplishment and status vanished in the cascade of mistakes that led the Wyoming wrestler to sit in the snow, in frozen clothing, without heat or food or light or a phone, and nothing but his dying brain to keep him company as the temperature plunged to 25 degrees below zero.

Today, seven years later, Gardner speaks with utmost authority when he says: "The thing about hypothermia is, you actually lose your mind."


ESPNOutdoors.com this week is taking a tour of some of the more dangerous crannies of the outdoors: on the water during an electrical storm, under the ice on a winter fishing trip gone south, hand-to-hand combat with bears — places from which a lot of sportsmen and — women don't return. In his snowmobiling crisis, Gardner, an occasional hunter of elk and pheasants, ran into exactly those sorts of conditions.

Storytellers love to talk of survival. (It is one of the truly universal themes. Simply being alive is proof we are surviving.) The answers a listener wants are in all cases the same: What happened? How did it happen? How did you live?

Some of those answers are rote: I found shelter. I found water. I found civilization. Someone found me.

Others are far more personal. Each feat of survival involves a nexus of circumstance. Going in search of help may save one person's life; sitting tight and waiting for help could save another.

But if we're looking to generalize about what is that extra thing that gets people through the valley of the shadow of death, we could find a worse summary than the one that author Laurence Gonzales offers in his 2003 book "Deep Survival."

Survival, he writes, "is the celebration of choosing life over death. … Survivors don't defeat death, they come to terms with it."


For all that Gardner did not have going for him that cold night, he did have one all-important asset: He was Rulon Gardner. He was heavyweight wrestler, in great shape, with a layer of persistent baby fat and a 62-inch chest to insulate his heart.

He was also one determined dude. The youngest of nine kids in a dairy farm family, he worked like a mule as a child, struggled with a learning disability in school, and didn't make the wrestling team until he was a senior. He was 29 before he made the Olympic team. He prided himself on never, ever giving up, and it served him well.

"It was a physical battle," he says. "But it was a spiritual battle, too."

When he did make the decision not to plunge ahead any further, to simply curl up and wait to be rescued, he resolved that he would see dawn. "The sun would bring heat, heat would bring life and I would win," he says.

The cold was both punisher and seductress. When he would sit, his legs would go numb. So he would stand up, sit down, pray. His body kept asking him to stay down, where, somehow, it felt warm.

Then he would imagine the frozen corpse of Jack Nicholson's character at the end of "The Shining." He thought of his mother seeing him die that way. And he would move, shift, anything to stay awake.

"There's very few people who ever truly face the reality of life or death," he says. "But when you say, 'I'm willing to give everything I own for one match,' that means you've truly been down to the last of desperation. If I die, at least I die fighting."

Only one time during the night did he have another strategic decision to make. At about 2:30 a.m., he says, he heard the buzz of snowmobilers searching for him. (He later learned they had followed his tracks near the cliff; they'd expected to find him dead from the fall in the ravine below.)

He whistled — loudly. The wind stole the noise. He heard the snowmobiles stop just around the bend. He had to figure: Was it worth spending the energy to walk 20 feet to the river through the wall of snow? If they sped off as he was trudging, the effort would be a waste, and any energy wasted would inch him closer to death. He thought, How many more stupid mistakes do I have to make before I die?

Sitting so near to his salvation, freezing, frozen, was agony. Time passed on square wheels. After a half hour, or an hour, he heard the snowmobiles fire up again and leave. He'd had no way to know they, too, would run into problems crossing the river, and be so delayed.

"I could have been there in plenty of time but I made the judgment," he says.

Sleep ambushed him with dreams of hot showers. He would start awake, then fade again. He knew thoughts of warmth were a mirage, and focused on the cold.

Then, some time before dawn, a miracle happened. God appeared to him. Jesus appeared to him. They told him everything was going to be OK, but that it was his time to go.

"I won the Olympics," Gardner says. "I won the world. I'm freezing to death in the middle of Wyoming. After the great highs and the devastating lows, I just asked God for one more chance. I'd just started to figure things out. I just wanted to achieve my dreams.

"I remember waking up and being so happy that I was alive."


The sun brought heat. It also brought light. Light brought a plane. A plane brought helicopter. And the helicopter brought life.

When they picked up Gardner, his core temperature was about 80 degrees. They flew him to a hospital in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where doctors had to remove his frozen boots with a cast saw. He just kept laughing, saying he beat it, he beat it.

He wasn't expected to keep his feet or to wrestle again. Surgeons plowed the dead tissue off the soles of his feet and grafted pig skin in its place. He wound up losing a toe. And winning a bronze in the next Olympics.

Gardner today is a motivational speaker, talking to thousands of children a year. He's working on getting a health club running in Logan, Utah, and wants to get involved with the national wrestling team.

When he looks back on the night he spent nearly dying in the woods, he traces each misguided step. "There are a thousand ways where it could have come out better than it did," he says.

His advice to outdoors adventurers comes down to, always consider the worst-case scenario before you go out, and prepare accordingly for it.

"It's a matter of choices," he says, "but also mindset."

He had a chance to prove that again in 2007. He and two friends were piloting a small plane in central Utah, flew too close to the surface of Lake Powell, and caught the water going at 150 miles an hour. The plane skipped and went nose-first into the drink.

They swam two miles to shore in 43-degree water. It was 25 degrees out. Gardner was again soaked, cold and unprepared — pulling his arms into his T-shirt to stay warm.

They were stranded and freezing in a remote location. The other men turned to him. They knew he'd been through this before. They asked him, Can we make it?

What could he say but, Yes?