Wrestler Survives Frozen
Tue Feb 19, 5:00 PM ET
By TIM DAHLBERG, AP Sports Writer
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - Exhausted from trying to find a trail and his clothes frozen, Rulon Gardner just wanted to sleep. Not too long, though, for with deep sleep would come certain death.
Dozing off in the snow, he dreamed of a warm bath and sitting beside a heater at his family's farm.
Then he awoke to the frightening reality — he was soaking wet and all alone in the Wyoming wilderness, on a night when the temperature would drop to 25 below zero.
"I said to myself, be strong and be focused and don't give up," the 30-year-old Gardner said Monday from his hospital bed at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, where he is recovering from frostbite.
The words were very similar to those Gardner used two years ago at the Sydney Olympics when he electrified America by beating Russian champion Alexander Karelin for the wrestling heavyweight gold medal. Karelin had not lost an international match in 13 years.
That was for flag and glory. This was life and death.
The gentle 280-pounder with the baby face needed more than the inner strength he showed on the wrestling mat to survive the night last week in western Wyoming's Star Valley, just a few miles from home.
When daylight came and he was finally found, Gardner's body temperature had plummeted to 88 degrees. Caked in ice, he couldn't even move toward his rescuers. The words that usually tumble out of his mouth in torrents were few and almost unintelligible
"If it had been anyone else they wouldn't have made it," his father, Reed, said. "His knowledge of the cold and his will pulled him through."
At the hospital, they used a cast saw to cut Gardner's frozen boots off his size 13 feet. Inside, his toes were wooden to the touch.
"My body was trembling and shaking so much it was like going through torture," Gardner said. "I knew I couldn't keep both my hands and feet warm so I tried to protect my hands and face. I just basically said, `I hope they stay well."
Doctors didn't give him much hope. Usually in severe frostbite cases, toes and fingers don't make it.
And without toes, he couldn't wrestle again. But Gardner isn't giving up hope.
"At first they said it doesn't look good. But today the toes look better," he said. "We're trying to do everything we can to keep my toes and my wrestling career."
The afternoon last Thursday was sunny and warm, at least by the standards of a Wyoming winter. Two weeks earlier, the temperature dipped 52 degrees below zero.
It was 30 degrees, perfect weather for a snowmobile ride with friends before dinner.
"I told myself it would be a short trip," Gardner said. "We were going to go out about three hours and get home for dinner."
But the ride turned horribly bad.
Trying to follow a friend up a ridge, his snowmobile didn't make it in the thick snow.
"I thought he was in this gully where there were tracks, but the trail down there was one of mine," Gardner said. "I tried to ride the ridge in through the gully, but I hit two big water holes."
For two hours, Gardner tried to find his way out to where the Salt River begins its trek through the valley to the Snake River. He crisscrossed the river three times, plunging himself and his snowmobile into the half frozen water in an increasingly desperate attempt to get out.
But the snow-covered ridges were too steep and too high for a machine and rider who together weighed more than 1,000 pounds.
At one point the snowmobile flipped Gardner on his back in the water. Soaking wet, he knew he had to concentrate on keeping his hands and face from freezing if he was to make it.
Then, trying to jump a 6-foot-long water hole, the snowmobile got stuck in 3 feet of nearly frozen mush. Gardner got off and began surveying his options.
He didn't have many.
"I tried to walk out, but the snow was four feet deep," Gardner said. "It was so cold I laid down on the ice in the river for 10 or 15 minutes. But I knew I had to get out of there or I was going to die."
By now, it was about 7:30 p.m. and the sun was down. Gardner spotted some trees and headed through the snow toward them. Once there, he cleared snow away and tried to make the best of it.
The night seemed to go on forever. At one point, Gardner looked at his watching thinking it had to be close to dawn. It was 12:30 a.m.
"It seemed to be so long. I knew I was in trouble then," he said.
A short time later he heard snowmobile engines. Rescuers sent by his friends were only 200 yards away, but he couldn't respond.
Gardner tried to make himself keep shivering, as a way of keeping his body alert. Ten times he laid down for a few minutes. Five times he dozed off, trying to be careful that sleep didn't turn into certain death.
"I'd put myself in a real awkward position so it would hurt and I'd wake up in five or 10 minutes," he said. "I would dream of starting a nice warm bath or shower. The worst part was I would wake up and find out I wasn't in that nice warm shower."
The one thing he knew was that he couldn't give up.
Friday morning, Gardner tried to move himself into the sun in hopes it would melt the ice that covered his feet and clothes. He didn't go far. Exhausted and fragile, he could go only get about 15 yards from his resting place.
Still, that was enough for a search plane to spot him. The pilot dropped a warm coat, but Gardner was disoriented and couldn't find his way to it.
"I didn't know what it was, but I was sure it was something good," Gardner said. "But I didn't know where to go. So I put my head down and went back to sleep."
The plane circled a few more times, then marked the spot. A helicopter was called and, about 9 a.m., it landed for the rescue.
Some 17 hours after he was separated from his friends, Gardner was taken to a local hospital, then airlifted to the medical center in Idaho Falls for more specialized treatment.
His parents and many of his eight brothers and sisters arrived shortly afterward. On Monday night, they traded small jokes as he relived his ordeal.
"To have most of my family here to support me makes me feel so good," he said. "I'm just happy to be here."
In regards to Rulon Gardner's Snow mobile incident: For anyone who did not hear...Rulon was stranded in the Wyoming mountains overnight early this week while snow mobiling with friends. They got separated. Then at around 8:30PM Rulon found himself in a large gully where he could not get his snow mobile out. With temperatures 25 degrees below zero and with no emergency gear or matches Rulon was in trouble. He decided to tough it out in the frigid cold on top of @ four feet of snow. He was rescued at @ 9:00AM where his core body temp was @ 80 degrees. . His feet were completely compacted in ice.
The good news is he is alive and is in good spirits!
The question still remains regarding his toes...they were frost-bitten. They are in pretty bad shape at the moment. Todays word is that the left set of toes are doing better. The right set are not as good. They are slowly responding and showing some signs of recovery. But it will take maybe a couple weeks before anyone knows for sure how they will improve.
Rulon is still in the Idaho Falls Hospital.
Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center
3100 Channing Way, Idaho Falls, ID 83404
I will try and keep you informed
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