During periods of low storm activity, it’s easy to forget how severe winter weather can make traveling in the mountainous West perilous, even deadly, for the unprepared. Over the years, modern highways have dramatically improved driving safety and convenience, as well as the opportunity to explore a winter-wonderland, but a wintertime excursion still requires planning and preparation. Twenty-one years ago, a young California couple traveling with an infant child learned first-hand what can happen when unprepared travelers make poor choices.
In January 1993, the dramatic rescue of James and Jennifer Stolpa and their 5-month-old son, Clayton, from the frozen waste of northern Nevada riveted the nation. The brutal ordeal they survived is a remarkable tale of dedication, endurance, and above all, survival.
In late December 1992, the Stolpa’s departed Castro Valley headed for a family funeral in Pocatello, Idaho. Severe snowstorms had closed Donner Pass, thwarting their plan to drive Interstate 80 east. James, a 21-year-old marine private, and his 20- year-old wife, Jennifer, changed their itinerary without telling anyone and chose to take an unmaintained secondary road. Ultimately, their pickup bogged down in snow about 150 miles north of Reno near the state border. They spent four days shivering in their truck hoping for rescue, but none came. No one knew they were there.
Each night, temperatures slid below zero, and their only food was a fruitcake, some cookies and a bag of corn chips. After five days hunkered down in the truck, they trudged 12 miles through waist-deep drifts until the road disappeared into rugged wilderness. Forced to turn around, they were demoralized, but not defeated. They struggled through the snow for another 28 hours. When Jennifer complained that she was too tired to walk, James urged her on. “We’re not doing it for us,” he exhorted. “We’re doing it for the baby.”
Luckily, James spotted a small, shallow cave in the side of a cliff and they snuggled in for protection. James built a small fire using bits of sagebrush and paper from Clayton’s diaper bag, but the warming flames didn’t last long and they spent another frigid night in the wilderness. The following day, James left most of the remaining food and their sleeping bag for Jennifer and the baby and headed back to the truck.
Before long, the snow, cold temperatures and the lack of food and rest began to take a toll on him. For 18 hours he struggled along with howling coyotes stalking him, but the desperate father was focused on his family alone in the cave. He finally reached the relative safety of the truck after nightfall. The next morning, he followed his truck’s tire tracks west toward the remote ghost town of Vya, Nev., 10 miles from the California border. He pushed on for nearly 30 hours, covering more than 40 miles with little food and no water. It was an amazing feat of courage and stamina. The disciplined army private rested by taking 5-minute catnaps every hour or so. When he felt too exhausted to go on, he repeated his mantra; “I have to make it. I have to make it so they can make it.”
Eight days had passed since their truck became stuck in the snowdrift. A region-wide search had turned up nothing. No one knew which route they had taken. Finally, on Jan. 6, James was spotted stumbling along by David Peterson, a Washoe County road supervisor. When Peterson pulled up, James Stolpa yanked open the truck door and gave him a big handshake. James was covered with snow, his hands and feet were frozen, but he had made it. Stolpa had hiked between 50 and 60 miles through the snowbound desert. Temperatures had ranged from 4 degrees below zero to 42 above. He had survived an incredible ordeal. Peterson quickly drove Stolpa to his house where his wife Ruth tried to thaw James’s feet with a hair dryer (not recommended). James provided detailed information and rescuers soon found the mother and child alive in the cave with little food and no water. When Jennifer heard the sound of vehicles approaching, she realized her husband had made it.
The Stolpa family was transported by ambulance to Reno’s Washoe Medical Center, where they were greeted by more than 50 reporters and photographers milling about outside the emergency entrance. It seemed that the whole world wanted to hear about the miraculous survival story. Modoc County Sheriff Bruce Mix gave James Stolpa high marks for his fateful choices to save himself and his family. “They made a bad decision about the road, but they made a lot of good decisions after that,” said Sheriff Mix.
The Stolpas should have stayed with their original travel plans and waited for Interstate 80 to re-open, but other choices meant the difference between life and death. First, the family stayed with their vehicle and waited for help. When they finally did leave the truck, they brought a sleeping bag and extra clothes with them. Next they found shelter. Last, when James went for help, he left Jennifer and the baby protected in the cave.
Jennifer kept her baby warm and well-fed throughout the ordeal, and Clayton came through in excellent condition. His parents were not so lucky. The Washoe Medical Center warned reporters, “These are people who are very seriously injured, who have been extremely cold for a long period of time.” Both had severe frostbite to the toes and parts of their feet. Jennifer did make a critical mistake when she tried to warm her frozen feet inside her sleeping bag. Although victims may want to re-warm their feet in a situation like that, the warming and re-cooling makes it worse. Two weeks later, James and Jennifer underwent surgery for their injuries.
The Stolpa family could not have picked a worse time to take the back roads. During December 1992 and January 1993, winter storms dumped nearly 22 feet of snow on Verdi Peak, northwest of Reno. It was the fifth snowiest January in the past 93 years. The Storm King had attacked with his full arsenal of cold, wind and snow, but he was unable to conquer the determined spirit of a young father.
Jennifer said it best: “He is more than a hero to me. I don’t think I could have picked anyone better. He had the courage and the drive to get us out of there. He promised me he would, and he did. He’ll always be my hero.”
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.