BILLINGS – David Madsen had almost given up. By the fourth day, he was exhausted but couldn’t sleep. His back was in intense pain, and he knew, if he made it out alive, he’d surely lose his feet to frostbite.
Yet Madsen hung on, stranded in the remote Wyoming wilderness.
“I think anybody would have done the same thing as me,” he said.
On Friday, Madsen wheeled his way into a common area at the St. Vincent Healthcare orthopedic and spine center, where he’s been for three weeks, to talk about what he went through, trapped in hell on a frozen peak of Wyoming’s vast Bighorn Mountains.
“I just didn’t have the energy to dig out anymore,” he said. “I tried and tried.”
Instead he settled in, carving out an ice cave with a Phillips screwdriver. His snowmobile was sunk in the high levels of snow left behind from a massive storm in late February.
After Madsen knew he couldn’t walk out on his own, because the snow was too high, he went into survival mode.
“It was really dumb how I was out there,” he said. “I didn’t have much survival gear or anything with me.”
But he says there’s a good reason for that: He wasn’t planning on getting stuck.
“I thought, well, I am going to get out and get some sledding in,” he said.
Madsen, 65, set out on the solo journey from around Burgess Junction, just barely an hour from Sheridan, Wyo. It was a Tuesday, and he knew a storm was going to blow in. Earlier in the day, he remembered how the trails were in great shape.
“It changed within an hour,” he said. “When I got stranded, it was zero visibility. You couldn’t see your hand.”
The freezing cold set in, and four days and three nights passed. Madsen knew he couldn’t walk out, and he considered trying to make snowshoes with parts of his snowmobile. But if his skin was exposed to the elements for even seconds, he says frostbite set in.
During that week, the temperatures plummeted, and nearby Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation area closed because it was too cold to run ski lifts with temperatures as low as 30 below zero.
Madsen says higher in elevation on the peak he was trapped on, temperatures hit as low as 50 below zero.
The nights passed. So did the days. It was the howling wind Madsen said he couldn’t stand on top of the bitter cold. He said he knew he either needed to get off the mountain or take his own life trying, which he says he considered.
“By that time, I knew I lost my legs, there was no problem with me knowing that,” he said. “They were frozen in a solid block of ice.”
He says he managed to keep his hands moving and stave off frostbite to his fingers by continuously pecking away at the ice he was trying to carve.
“You have to keep moving,” he said. “Don’t stop.”
Madsen kept conscious most of the time but started to see things. At one point, he thought he saw a trail groomer heading his way. Another time, he tried to flag down an airplane that wasn't there.
By Friday, it was divine intervention. Two snowmobilers from different towns in Wyoming came upon Madsen just in time.
“I went like this," he said, rubbing his face, "with my shield, and I said, 'Are you guys for real? Or is this another mirage?' And they said, 'No we are real.' And I just broke down.”
The team at St. Vincent says it's a miracle Madsen survived. All he ate was snow and a Baby Ruth candy bar he found in his snowmobile’s glovebox.
“He did a lot of smart things,” said nurse Heather Stamey. “He was able to keep hydrated and was able to find that candy bar to give him that extra little push. He did a lot of smart things because, as he stated, the outdoors is unpredictable.”
Stamey, who works in emergency and critical care services, says Madsen will be equipped with prosthetics and will start rehabilitation in Montana before going home to Minnesota.
Madsen says he’s no hero, but he credits his rescuers and says the crew at the Antelope Butte Mountain ski lodge, where he was taken for triage, were fantastic for helping get him the care he needed.
He knows it’s another journey ahead for him now, learning to walk with new legs.
“I hope that the prosthetics work,” said Madsen. “I am going to make them work. I am not going to hope they work, because as soon as I get good on them, I am going to do everything I did before. I am going to go back to the mountains, and, as soon as they get snow, and spin all over that mountain, but not before a snowstorm and not without someone with me."
Madsen added that he was discouraged with the lodge where he was staying near Burgess Junction. Although he told them where he was heading, no one called search and rescue when he was overdue.
However, the lodge did call authorities to report a theft when Madsen didn’t show up to pay his bill, he said.