Tale of survival: The Stolpa story, Part I

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The recent rescue of six people trapped for two days in Nevada’s harsh winter landscape is one of those feel good stories that should give us pause to wonder how well you or I might fare in the same situation. Despite an overturned vehicle with a dead engine and overnight temperatures well below zero, the two adults with four young children survived by staying with their vehicle and burning the spare tire for warmth. Others have endured much longer periods of time in their car and still survived frigid temperatures.

In February 1937, Maude LaNear and her 2-year-old baby Donna were found alive in their car 15 days after it had become stuck and buried in a raging snowstorm near Spooner Pass above Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. Her husband, Earl, who had gone for help in temperatures at nearly 30 below zero, had died in his quest.

One of the most remarkable stories that I have read regarding survival in cold temperatures with little food occurred last winter in Sweden, when snowmobilers pulled 44-year-old Peter Skyllberg from his snowbound vehicle. He had survived subzero temperatures and subsisted solely on snowmelt for two months. Doctors suspect that Skyllberg had entered into a dormant state that slowed his metabolism, similar to a bear in hibernation.

One of the most memorable incidents of survival in our region is the story of the Stolpa family. It’s been 20 years since viewers across the nation watched the dramatic rescue of James and Jennifer Stolpa and their 5-month-old son, Clayton. During periods of low storm activity, it’s easy to forget how severe winter weather can make traveling in the West perilous, even deadly, for the unprepared, and the lessons learned from their ordeal should not be forgotten.

In November 1992, after years of drought, Tahoe-Truckee residents were praying fervently for snow. Lake Tahoe was on its way down to 6,220.2 feet in elevation, the lowest level in recorded history. On Dec. 1, 1992, the National Weather Service issued its three-month forecast. Despite El Niño conditions seething in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the NWS predicted drier than normal weather for the upcoming winter. Ironically, 48 hours after the forecast was released, the first in a series of powerful cold fronts began assaulting the Tahoe-Sierra. Rangers at Echo Summit recorded nearly 17 feet of snow that month. It was the wettest start to a winter in 10 years.

During the all-important Christmas-New Year’s holiday period, persistent rain, wind and heavy snow caused havoc with air, rail and road travel. Hotels in Truckee and Tahoe City were overwhelmed. Blinding snow shut down 80 percent of flights at the Reno airport, stranding 3,000 passengers. Trains were delayed and most major highways were closed. Avalanches cut electric power to 15,000 people. Despite the inconvenience, skiers, ranchers and hydrologists were giddy with delight.

On New Year’s Eve, the NWS issued a forecast for even more snow. “It’s going to start all over again,” warned Ed Clark, a meteorologist in Reno. This time the NWS was right.

On Jan. 4, the brutal weather conditions made national news when a young California family attempting to travel to Idaho became lost somewhere in the frozen desolation of northern Nevada. James Daniel Stolpa, a 21-year-old marine private and satellite equipment repairman stationed at Camp Roberts in Southern California, his 20-year-old wife, Jennifer, and their infant son, Clayton, had left a relative’s home in Castro Valley on Dec. 29, 1992, and hadn’t been heard from since.

James had intended to drive their 1988 Dodge Dakota pickup truck to his grandmother’s funeral in Pocatello, Idaho. But their plan to head east was thwarted when Interstate 80 was closed by heavy snow over Donner Pass. Without telling anyone, they changed their itinerary and drove north on Interstate 5 toward Redding. North of Redding, more deep snow closed that road, so the Stolpas turned east onto Highway 299, hoping to connect to Interstate 80 again via Nevada Route 140. They passed through the little community of Vya, Nev., about 150 miles north of Reno, and found themselves on Washoe County Road 8A.

Their decision to take this little-used county road, gravel in fair weather and doom in a winter storm, was a poor one. Old timers from the area joke, “This may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” The road cuts through the far northwest corner of Nevada, a remote region of high desert and rugged mountains.

As they traveled deeper into the Nevada hinterlands, snowdrifts fingered the road and visibility was near zero, but James Stolpa thought they could make it. Sometime after dark, their vehicle became bogged down in deep snow. They were stuck. The Stolpas had made a major, possibly fatal mistake. During winter storms, travelers in the intermountain West should stick to the main highways where the roads are likely to be cleared first and where help is nearby, if needed.

Conditions in that bleak winter landscape were brutal. Deep snow blanketed the desert floor, and the gusting wind drove sub-zero air right through the gaskets of the truck doors. The stranded family stayed with their vehicle for three days, waiting for another car to drive by. None did. They had a few blankets; the only food to eat was a holiday fruitcake, a bag of corn chips, some coconut cookies, and a jar of prenatal vitamins. James and Jennifer knew that their meager fare wouldn’t last long.

After four days huddled in the truck, the family headed east in the hope of finding help on Route 140, about 20 miles away. To prepare for their battle with the elements, James pulled on a pair of his wife’s nylon stockings; he had no long johns. He also grabbed an extra pair of socks to wear inside his sneakers; he had no boots. Jennifer bundled up as best she could. To protect their child Clayton, they tucked the infant into two sleeping bags, a small baby sleeping bag inserted into an adult bag. James then zipped Clayton’s warm cocoon into a vinyl garment bag, which he pulled behind him over the snow like a little sleigh.

Before they left the truck, James left a note on the dashboard. It read, “To Our Potential Rescuers. If we are already dead, don’t mind the rest of this letter. But, if we are no where to be found, we have started walking to 140 as it appears the closest place to find help. Sincerely, the Stolpa Family. P.S. Our final destination is Denio. P.P.S. We are carrying with us a 5-month-old baby. HELP!!”

Read Part II.

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.