Story by Mark McLaughlin ·
Search and rescue headlines usually focus on skiers and snowboarders who venture outside resort boundaries and lose their way. Winter travelers in the West must also play it smart if they expect to come out alive. Food, water, gasoline, warm blankets and winter attire are minimum requirements — avoiding sketchy back-country roads and paying attention to the weather forecast are also critical decisions.
Twice during Tahoe’s recent storms, authorities had to rescue travelers determined to bypass a closed Interstate 80 over Donner Pass became trapped on Henness Pass Road. This route is an unimproved trail through rough country first blazed in 1845. It’s a tough go in summer and impossible during winter. Apparently Google Maps was a good enough recommendation for these westbound motorists to risk their lives in order to reach California. The modern version of the Donner Party tragedy 170 years later, but this time rescuers showed up in time.
On Jan. 4, 1993, a California family became lost somewhere in the frozen desolation of northern Nevada. James Stolpa, a 21-year-old marine private, his 20-year-old wife Jennifer and their infant son Clayton had left Castro Valley for Idaho on Dec. 29, 1992, and hadn’t been heard from since. They, too, tried to bypass a storm-closed Interstate 80 via back roads and found themselves snowbound in the hinterlands of Nevada.
James Stolpa was covered with snow, his hands and feet were frozen but he had made it after hiking between 50 and 60 miles through the snowbound desert.
Their pickup bogged down in snow 150 miles north of Reno. No one knew they were there. Temperatures plummeted below zero and their only food was a fruitcake, cookies and some corn chips. After five days of waiting, they trudged 12 miles through waist-deep drifts until the road disappeared. 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 said. “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 sagebrush and paper from Clayton’s diaper bag, but the warming flames didn’t last long and they spent another frigid night. 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 he finally reached the relative safety of the truck.
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 snow. 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 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 after hiking 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 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 a horde of reporters and photographers. It seemed that the whole world wanted to hear about the miraculous survival story. Modoc County Sheriff Bruce Mix gave James 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 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. Lastly, 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.
Authorities at Washoe Medical Center warned reporters: “These are people who are very seriously injured and who have been extremely cold for a long period of time.”
Both had severe frostbite to the toes and parts of their feet. Jennifer erred 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, including his new book “Snowbound! Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra,” are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.
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