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Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - A former Olympic hockey player who had both feet amputated after he got lost on a snowy Sierra mountainside while snowboarding is vowing to return to the slopes.

Eric Lemarque, 34, was to undergo a follow-up procedure Thursday to close wounds from the amputation. Doctors said he could take his first steps using temporary prostheses in six to eight weeks, but Lemarque was already looking forward to hitting the slopes.

"I'll be snowboarding next season," he said from a wheelchair during a news conference Wednesday at the Grossman Burn Center at Sherman Oaks Hospital.

Severe frostbite cut off circulation and caused gangrene, forcing surgeons to amputate Lemarque's feet from the ankles on Sunday.

"Unfortunately, frostbite to this extent … calls its own fate," said Dr. Peter Grossman, associate medical director of the center. "There's nothing much that we can do."

Lemarque said he was simply luck to be alive. "I feel rich. I've never been a happier man than I am right now," he said. "God has saved me."

He was snowboarding alone at Mammoth Mountain ski resort on Feb. 6 when he left the boundaries of a run and became disoriented. After wandering for a week along the mountain's western slopes in snow reaching 15 feet deep, he was found conscious but barely moving by rescuers on Feb. 14.

With little more than his clothes and a snowboard, he survived on a diet of pine nuts, bark and bubble gum and slept on pine branches to keep dry.

Despite his efforts, Lemarque knew early on he would lose his feet, which turned red and purple and were ice cold. "I couldn't get a boot on. I was walking in the snow with one foot in a boot, with no socks on either foot," he said.

Using a radio signal from his MP3 player, he managed to orient himself and trek up the mountain when a helicopter found him. It was only on the last day that his hope of being rescued began to fade, he said.

"I found myself trying to walk and falling over, and I started to become a little bit disorganized in my thoughts," he said. "I started to dream about actually getting saved and I started to think that, 'Hey, this is a game and I want to reset the button.' "

The helicopter "was a sight I'll never forget," he said. "It warmed me to know that I was going to be all right."

Lemarque said the ordeal has brought him closer to his divorced parents and made him re-evaluate his life. "This could be the greatest experience of my life," he said.

Born in France, Lemarque lived in Los Angeles' West Hills section and has worked as a hockey coach. He played hockey in the 1994 Winter Olympics for the French national team, scoring one goal in five games. He played five seasons with the French national team, he said.

He also represented France in the 1994 and 1995 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships.

Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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