Hear Tracy Briggs narrate this story:
DENVER -- All it takes is a scroll through 48-year-old Bennett Stebleton’s social media accounts to understand that he’s a bit of a Renaissance man — a talented communicator and artist, animal lover and activist. However, even with all of his accomplishments, there is one thing he hasn’t been able to master.
“I can’t play the guitar,” he says with a big laugh as he holds up his hands to show that eight of his ten fingers end at the first knuckle — all but his thumbs about one-third the length they used to be.
Stebleton’s amputated fingers and amputated lower legs are visible reminders of three nights and two days when he, at 16, fought to survive bitterly frigid conditions, alone in his car, on a country road. He came out on top and hasn’t slowed down since.
‘There wasn’t much I could do’
On the night of January 30, 1989, Stebleton, a high school junior, had just dropped off his brother at a train station in Devils Lake, North Dakota, about 45 miles from his home in rural Egeland.
“He was set to go into the Air Force, and they had to do the physicals and things like that in Fargo,” Stebleton explains in a Zoom interview from his home in Denver. “My parents were already in Fargo waiting for him there, so I had the house to myself for the night.”
But any notion of him enjoying the house to himself ended when Stebleton took a wrong turn and got stuck on a snow-clogged, seldom-used township road six miles from his home. Stebleton was dressed for what the weather had been like the last few days — unseasonably warm with highs near 40. He wore a light, waist-length jacket, gloves, jeans, cowboy boots and a stocking cap.
The only problem was, the weather was turning , dropping 30 to 40 degrees in the next few hours. He was caught off guard.
“I may have known or may have seen something, but I was 16. I didn't pay attention to the weather reports,” Stebleton said.
But as the increasingly bitterly cold winds whipped up the snow around him, he knew the best bet was to stay with the car and wait for help. He did that, periodically starting the car to keep warm. But by the next day, the car battery died.
“This was not good news. I did a lot of cussing and trying to do whatever I could to get it started, but I couldn't get it to turn over. There wasn't much I could do,” Stebleton said.
Worse yet, he realized the family's other car — the one he didn't drive that day — had a winter survival kit in it, but the one he was driving that day did not. All he could do was try to stay warm in the increasingly frigid interior of the car, using a sweatshirt and the floor mats as blankets. To pass the time, he read road maps and the car operations manual. But still, no one came.
Daryl Ritchison, director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, says his records from Feb. 2, 1989 indicate Stebleton would have been enduring actual temperatures of 30 degrees below zero inside the car, and if he stepped outside the car, it would feel like 50 below zero with the wind chill. (Newspaper reports from 1989 estimated the wind chill those days to be close to 90 below zero, but Ritchison says The National Weather Service changed its wind chill formula in 2001, meaning a better estimate today of the wind chills when Stebleton was stranded would be between 50 and 60 below zero.)
With the dangerously cold conditions, Stebleton was starting to worry.
“I was getting fairly scared. It didn't start out that scary because, again, teenage boy, you think that you're invincible and you're just gonna walk out of it,” Stebleton recalls, “But yeah, as the days went on, it definitely became much more serious.”
Stebleton says he started to lose hope that anyone would find him, but walking for help now was out of the question.
“My legs just wouldn’t work, and I couldn’t move well at this point,” he said.
‘Thanks for finding me’
One of the most unfortunate things about Stebleton getting stranded is no one even knew he was missing until Wednesday — almost 48 hours into his ordeal — when his parents came home from Fargo.
“Because of the blizzard, they were delayed in getting back home to the farmhouse, so they didn't really know what was going on. They had tried to call the house a few times before that, but they thought maybe the phone lines were down,” he said.
More than 30 people began to search for Stebleton, and by Thursday morning, he was found — alert, conscious and badly frostbitten, despite three nights and two days without food and water. More than anything, he was grateful to have been rescued.
“He just kept thanking us for coming and getting him,” Greg Mitchell, part of the search party who found Stebleton, told The Forum in 1989.
Stebleton was taken to the hospital in Cando, where he says he wasn’t feeling any pain in his legs or fingers. In fact, he couldn’t feel them at all. Doctors say when he arrived at the Cando hospital, his feet below the knees and arms below the elbow were stiff and hard to the touch. He was severely frostbitten and airlifted to St. Luke’s Hospital (now Sanford) in Fargo for further treatment.
Shortly after treating Stebleton, his doctors, Dr. William Norberg and Dr. David Todd, were optimistic about his chances for a full recovery and no loss of tissue from the frostbite.
However, Stebleton says after about a month, his tissue was not healing the way they had hoped, and he was told his legs below the knee and eight fingers would have to be amputated, most around the first knuckle up from the hand.
“That took a little while to accept. But the nurses were nice enough to unwrap my legs and show me what they looked like. And once I saw that, it was all black...dead. So there was no question at that point,” he said.
Still, Stebleton’s family — parents Leroy and Elaine and brother Keith — were impressed by his attitude and work ethic, staying in the hospital for three months and working six to eight hours a day trying to walk again.
His mother, Elaine, told The Forum in 1999, his determination was remarkable. "He just had high spirits and a positive attitude all the way through," she recalled. "He even encouraged his staff, the doctors and nurses who took care of him."
Stebleton also comforted his family when they became discouraged. "Mom, we'll get through it," his mother remembers him promising.
"I never saw him complain about it," his brother, Keith, said. "He was always fighting it. I never saw him feel sorry for himself."
Moving on (and around the country)
Stebleton says he managed to graduate on time in 1990 from North Central High School in Rocklake, North Dakota. He was even back helping his dad on the farm before he went back to Fargo-Moorhead, enrolling at Minnesota State University Moorhead and working at a group home for developmentally disabled people. But he says he wasn’t terribly focused on school at this time, so left MSUM.
By 1996, he moved to Seattle to attend the Art Institute of Seattle, where he earned an Associate degree in design and visual communication. He eventually moved to Tennessee, where he got a Bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is now living in Denver and working as a communications specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Stebleton is also a successful artist with showings of his paintings at galleries, coffee shops and bars. He says he remembers always liking art and sketching. He just had to re-learn how to hold the paintbrush and pencils after getting part of his fingers amputated.
“It's just a passion, just to be able to sit down and create something. And the better I get at it, the more I want to do it. So it's always challenging, like, can I do that pose? Can I try to do this? Or use this sort of lighting? Or whatever it is,” he said.
His artwork and other freelance projects can be found at Bennstuff.com.
Doing for others
Another of Stebleton’s passions is helping others — human and otherwise. He volunteers at an animal rescue operation in Denver. the reason he ended up with his cat, GargOreo. (She got her name because she’s black and white and likes to perch like a Gargoyle on a shelf above Stebleton’s bed).
This past summer, he got involved and took photos in the Black Lives Matter protests in Denver, where he says he was punched in the face, tear-gassed and shot with pepper balls.
His desire to affect social change goes all the way back to the ‘90s when he lived in Seattle.
“I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of homeless kids, and having to walk past them every day and not being able to do anything about it, other than give them a couple dollars here and there, just didn't seem like enough. So I actually wanted to address the problem and went to work at the runaway shelter,” said Stebleton.
He also took on the work with at-risk youth in Nashville. He says the kids would notice his fingers, but he wouldn't tell them his story because he wanted to focus on their stories and their problems.
In fact, Stebleton doesn’t talk about those three frigid days trapped in the car much at all.
He says when people ask how he lost his fingers and part of his legs, the short version is: "I was stranded in a North Dakota blizzard for a couple of days.” But, he says, he sometimes likes to switch things up just for fun.
“I make up a lot of fake stories. That’s much more entertaining,” Stebleton says with a big laugh.
Stebleton, who is single, says he’ll talk about what happened when he gets into a relationship with someone, but for the most part, January 30 to February 2nd, 1989 are just days on an old calendar.
“I don't feel I need to go over that. Again, it's only a small part of who I am,” he said. “There are so many other more interesting, more recent stories I can tell.”