Donnie Priest remembers five freezing days in 1982.
So on Jan. 3, 1982, Donnie only wore socks on his feet as he dozed in the single-engine Grumman AA-5B piloted by his stepfather, Ron Vaughan. Also aboard was his mother, Lee.
He didn't feel the impact when the small plane smashed into a snowy slope near the northeastern edge of Yosemite National Park.
His mother and stepfather died. But Donnie, 10, was rescued after five freezing days.
"The odds were between zero and next-to-zero," said Priest, now 37. Both frostbitten feet had to be amputated above the ankles.
It's tough to survive both a violent plane crash and the rugged Sierra in winter. Storms can keep rescue aircraft grounded for days. From the air, it's not easy to spot a downed plane amid trees, rocks and snow.
Survivors make news. Pilot Peter DeLeo wrote a book about his 12-day odyssey to safety in 1994. Air Force 1st Lt. David Steeves raised headlines in 1957 with his harrowing 54-day tale of survival. And Oakland artist Lauren Elder said she still gets occasional e-mail and calls from people fascinated by her 32-year-old story.
In April 1976, Elder was sightseeing over the Sierra with friends when their single-engine plane hit turbulence and smashed into Mount Bradley, roughly 75 miles east of Fresno. Her two companions died within hours, leaving Elder alone on a freezing, rocky slope blanketed with icy snow. Her left arm was broken.
Elder, who had rock-climbing experience, kicked off her high-heeled boots and managed a 10-mile, barefoot descent from about 13,000 feet. She spotted planes far overhead, but realized: "I'm this little ant in the desert. ... I can see them but they can't see me."
Elder hiked another 10 miles into the small town of Independence, unsettling residents with her grimy, bloodstained appearance. She later became a symbol of female grit -- her book, "And I Alone Survived," was transformed into a television movie.Stuck in the plane
A few years later, Donnie Priest was the story. In 1982, he and his family were headed home to Orinda after a holiday visit to Oklahoma.
When the family stopped at the Mammoth Lakes airport to refuel, Ron Vaughan asked for -- and was refused by flight controllers -- a direct route over the stormy Sierra Nevada.
In the air, Vaughan insisted on flying over the Sierra, according to a federal accident report. But the plane began losing altitude in fierce wind; it vanished from radar.
The plane crashed short of the roughly 12,000-foot peak of White Mountain. Snow barreled through the windshield and smashed into both Ron and Lee Vaughan.
Donnie, sitting behind his stepfather, wasn't badly injured. The snow that struck his mother and stepfather passed over his head because he was so small.
Soon, Donnie was cold, hungry and thirsty. He was dressed to fly over a winter landscape, not survive in one.
Donnie slipped on a jacket but couldn't put on his shoes. He also couldn't pry loose his frozen sleeping bag or luggage. He could barely move.
He sucked on snow and tried to operate the radio. He lost track of day and night; snow often shrouded the plane in darkness.Not expecting survivors
Today, Priest doesn't remember much -- just bits and pieces "more like a still photograph than a moving picture."
The snow that buried the plane created a kind of ice cave, keeping the temperature higher inside than outside. But a raging snowstorm prevented air searches for two days.
Teams started the hunt on the third day, but they had little to go on. The plane's emergency locater transmitter, which should have been activated by the crash, wasn't working.
That meant rescuers had only their eyes and a calculated guess about the plane's location. Said Jim Sano, a former Yosemite ranger involved in the search: "Things that may seem to be relatively large on the ground are just like the head of a pin from the air."
The search team included Yosemite rangers and a Lemoore Naval Air Station rescue helicopter and crew. In the park, acclaimed search-and-rescue technician John Dill pored over radar reports, transponder readings, air traffic recordings and more to refine the search area. He worked day and night.
By the fifth day, "we were not expecting survivors," Dill said.
Navy pilot Dan Ellison also was pessimistic: "It had snowed so hard and for so long it did not seem likely to any of us ... that we would find that aircraft."
Yet that fifth day, someone in the helicopter spotted something in a vast snowfield. Sano first thought it was a white bark pine. But it was the tip of the plane's tail.
There were no signs of life. Hovering in intense wind, Ellison dropped off two rangers on an avalanche-prone slope.
One dug into the snow and tapped the side of the plane with a shovel. He heard a muffled cry. Both rangers quickly dug to reach the boy.
Donnie's body temperature hovered around 80 degrees. His pants were frozen in icy blocks around his ankles.
Chief Petty Officer Jerry Balderson battled wind gusts to descend on a steel cable. The wind caused a buildup of static electricity; Balderson was repeatedly shocked because he couldn't ground the cable.
He stripped off Donnie's frozen pants to fit the boy into a harness. Balderson, Ellison and others later were awarded medals for the rescue.
Donnie was taken to then-Valley Medical Center in Fresno and Stanford University Medical Center after that. Bay Area sports figures -- including quarterback Joe Montana and baseball great Rickey Henderson -- made hospital visits.
Reporters trailed Donnie as he began walking with new legs.
A few months after the crash, Donnie threw out the first pitch for the Oakland Athletics on opening day in 1982. He returned to Yosemite to thank his rescuers.Boy's faded pants
As the media glare faded, Donnie adjusted to a new life. Today, he says simply: "You just do the best you can."
He moved in with his father and stepmother and changed schools. He learned to ski with new legs. He made the Menlo-Atherton High School wrestling team -- confounding opponents by removing his prosthetic legs just before matches.
Priest bounced between colleges -- and fields of study -- before a broken prosthetic leg led to inspiration. He now owns a prosthetics/orthotics business in Vacaville, helping others with new limbs and braces.
Settling into a career gave Priest more time to think about his 1982 accident and rescue.
For the past few years, he's worked to deconstruct it and reconnect with those who saved him. One motivation, Priest said, was to show rescuers that "they didn't save somebody to go out and rob a bank."
Last year, he tried to climb White Mountain to the crash site. His prosthetic legs only took him within view of the spot. It was some closure.
Sano was on that trip. Last month, out of curiosity, he again headed for the spot.
He reached the bench where the plane crashed not far from the crest.
Sano poked around for evidence of the wreck. He found only a pair of faded boy's pants wedged between two rocks.
Sano took pictures and e-mailed them to Priest. Are these your pants? he asked.
Priest thinks they are.
As a boy, Donnie Priest always seemed hot. He often kicked off his shoes on trips -- even a flight over the snowy Sierra.