CHAMA, N.M. - Without food or water, auto-racing legend Bobby Unser and a friend survived temperatures as low as zero degrees by staying in a snow cave overnight and hiking about 14 miles in chest-high snow.
"I'm telling you, there's no way to describe to anybody how bad it really was," Unser, 63, said yesterday. "And every decision that we made had to be made right."
Unser, a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, and Robert Gayton, 36, were stranded when their snowmobiles broke down Friday night. They spent nearly two nights in the bitter cold and biting 70-mph winds before finding a barn with a heater and a phone late Saturday.
Unser and Gayton began their outing Friday morning from Unser's ranch in Chama, about 120 miles north of Albuquerque and six miles south of the Colorado state line. Unser's racing brother, Al, and nephew, Al Jr., also have ranches at Chama.
Gayton's snowmobile broke down first, and after the two doubled up on Unser's snowmobile, it started sputtering.
"The more it ran, the worse it got," Unser said. "It just quit on us."
The men carried no food or water, but they were dressed in insulated snowmobiling gear. They hiked into a canyon to get out of wind they estimated at 70 mph and built a snow cave, covering it with branches and filling it with twigs for insulation.
"It took a lot of energy to build it," Gayton said. "He went in feet first, me, head first."
They set out hiking again Saturday morning, through 2 to 4 feet of snow, sometimes sinking up to their chests.
Late Saturday, they followed lights from the valley below and found a barn, apparently closed for the winter, a few miles into southern Colorado.
Gayton estimated they had hiked about 14 miles over mountainous terrain.
After calling for help, they were picked up by Al Unser Sr. an hour later. They were examined at a clinic before being sent home yesterday.