Despite the fresh snow on the side of the road and the cold wind whipping through the cab, Rulon Gardner has removed the doors of the Jeep Wrangler. What the hay, it's May 23—springtime in Afton, Wyo. "Summer around here means two weeks of bad skiing," says Gardner, the 286-pound Greco-Roman wrestler who became America's favorite dairy farmer at the 2000 Olympics by beating the legendary Russian bear, three-time gold medalist Alexander Karelin.
Gardner's pumping the clutch and gas with ravaged, swollen feet that are heavily bandaged. He's wearing orthopedic sandals, and two-inch pins are sticking out of both of his big toes to prevent them from bending. The middle toe on his right foot is sitting this one out, suspended in formaldehyde in a plastic vial back at his parents' house, awaiting Gardner's next opportunity to thrust it on an unsuspecting visitor after asking, "Want to see my toe?"
Gardner jams the Jeep into four-wheel drive and turns up the sodden dirt access road that leads from Route 89 into the Salt River Range. The treads of his tires are soon covered with two inches of goo. A 200-foot drop-off lurks on the right side of the road, a four-foot ditch on the left, and traction is nil. Yet Gardner, 30, blissfully fishtails ahead, clods of mud flying into the freezing cab. He takes his eyes off the treacherous incline to point out Wagner Mountain, 10,745 feet high, a snow-covered landmark that nearly cost him his life.
"The gully I got stuck in is just over that ridge," he says, pointing to a steep, tree-covered draw. He retraces his nightmarish route down the mountain with his thick index finger. "I never had the time to explore this country when I was a kid. Too many chores at the farm. Now I never miss an opportunity to get up into the mountains. I'd snowmobile every day if I could."
Gardner smiles and steps on the gas, the Jeep sliding perilously close to the edge. "I never had toys before, and now that I have them, I'm going to use them," he shouts over the engine's whine, alluding to the snowmobile and truck he bought with his post-Olympic endorsement earnings. "Next winter I'm going to lead a snowmobile party to the top of Wagner Mountain. I consider it unfinished business. Go nuts, live life, have fun. That's the way I'll always live. You're only here once. They don't give you a do-over."
But some people, the lucky ones, get a second chance. Gardner is one of those, having survived a 17-hour ordeal in February during which he was stranded overnight in subzero temperatures in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Gardner's near-death experience started innocently enough, as a Valentine's Day snowmobile excursion with two friends, Danny Schwab, 36, and Trent Simkins, 20. The trio started up Cottonwood Canyon about 1 p.m. with the vague idea to make it to the top of Wagner Mountain and back. Schwab, the most experienced snowmobiler of the three and the only one carrying a survival pack, turned back around 3:30 p.m. to go to his daughter's basketball game. About half an hour later, after the other two got separated, Simkins also turned back.
Gardner was still hoping to reach the top, but the mountain was too steep, so he tried to find Simkins. Around 4:30 p.m. Gardner rode into a gully that was too steep and narrow to turn around in, so there was literally no turning back. He wasn't particularly concerned when the gully led him to the headwaters of the Salt River, reasoning that if he followed the widening riverbed down, it would lead him to familiar terrain. But the light was fading, and the gully kept getting hairier. At one point Gardner's snowmobile broke through a snow shelf and fell some seven feet into the shallow river. A snowmobile weighs about 650 pounds, and by the time Gardner had pulled his machine out, he was not only wet to his thighs, he was also drenched in sweat.
He still thought he could make it back to the valley before dark. But the reality was, the farther he went, the harder it would be for his rescuers to catch up. At one point in the semidarkness he drove his snowmobile off a 50-foot cliff, a precipice that would stop the 29-member search party in its tracks later that night. "No one could follow him," says Schwab, who returned as one of the members of the search-and-rescue team. "I didn't think anyone could survive that fall. Then we shone a light down there and saw tracks heading farther down. If he'd stopped there we'd have had him home by 9 p.m."
But Gardner kept going, abandoning his snowmobile at about 7:15 p.m., in 2� feet of water. From there he wallowed through waist-deep snow to a small stand of trees, where he decided it was futile to continue. He had no blanket, no shovel, no matches. He undid his left boot and removed one wet sock, but his fingers were too cold to untie his right one. He leaned against a tree uncomfortably, knowing if he fell deeply asleep, he'd probably never awaken.