Winter Survival in the West, Part I

Search and rescue headlines usually focus on skiers and snowboarders who venture outside resort boundaries and lose their way. The recent rescue of a family of three on Dec. 25, 2016, at the Grand Canyon serves as a reminder that 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.

Truckee railroad tracks, circa December 1992. | Mark McLaughlin

A northern Arizona sheriff’s official said it was a “Christmas miracle” that searchers rescued Eric and Karen Klein, as well as their 10-year-old son Isaac, last month just hours before a major winter storm roared into the region. The Pennsylvania family was attempting to reach the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, which was already closed for the winter season, and ultimately became stuck in snow on an impassable road that Google Maps indicated was a viable route.

Karen, a 46-year-old community college professor, marathon runner and triathlete, decided that she was in the best physical condition to go for help. She set off into the woods while Eric and Isaac remained with the car.

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.

Karen trudged 26 miles through snow up to 3 feet deep before reaching a closed park entrance station that was still 30 miles from the nearest highway. Karen was so exhausted from her 24-hour trek she was too tired to start a fire and just laid down in the building. Fortunately, her husband had climbed a hill to acquire cell phone reception and he alerted authorities. Eric and Isaac were soon rescued and taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

On the second day, snowmobilers found Karen alive at the cabin. She was taken to a Utah hospital where she faced possible amputation of one or more toes damaged by frostbite. Karen kept it in perspective: “In the grand scheme of things, you know what? It’s [only] a few toes. Don’t worry about it.”

Spooner Summit rescue
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 blizzard near Spooner Summit above Lake Tahoe’s East Shore. Her husband Earl had tried to reach help in Carson City, but died miles from his destination in temperatures nearly 30 degrees below zero.

Two months snowbound
One of the most remarkable stories that I have read regarding survival in cold temperatures with little food occurred in 2012 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 that of a bear in hibernation.

Stranded in remote Nevada
One of the most memorable incidents of survival in our region is the story of the Stolpa family. It’s been 24 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. They got it in December when powerful cold fronts pounded 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 most 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 Jan. 4, 1993, a young California family attempting to travel to Idaho 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 and hadn’t been heard from since.

James had intended to drive their pickup truck to his grandmother’s funeral in Pocatello, but their plan to head east over Donner Pass was thwarted when Interstate 80 was closed by heavy snow. 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 State 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.

The road cuts through the far northwest corner of Nevada, a remote region of high desert and rugged mountains where they got stuck in snow. The Stolpas had made a major, possibly fatal mistake. During winter storms, travelers in the Intermountain West should always stick to main highways where roads are likely to be cleared first and where help is nearby if needed.

Deep snow blanketed the desert floor and overnight temperatures were below zero. The stranded family stayed with the vehicle for three days, waiting for another car to drive by. None did. They had a few blankets, but the only food was a holiday fruitcake, corn chips, 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 grew determined to find help on Nevada State 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 thermal underwear. 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 baby Clayton, they tucked him into a child’s sleeping bag and inserted that into an adult bag. James then zipped Clayton’s warm cocoon into a vinyl garment bag, which he planned to pull behind him over the snow like a little sleigh. It was a life or death gamble.

Read Part II in the next edition.

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 You may reach him at [email protected] Check out his blog at or read more at