’92 drought’s end brings treacherous trip for family
[Editor’s note: This is part one of two stories on the Stolpa family’s struggle for survival.]By Mark McLaughlinHopes for a heavy winter to break our current drought seem to be materializing. A cold and wet weather pattern established in October has continued into early November. The active flow has established an unusually deep, pre-season snowpack, and many Sierra resorts have opened at their earliest on record. Folks are crossing their fingers for a big winter in the West, but stormy weather demands that travelers, skiers and boarders never leave home unequipped for the dangers on the road or on the slopes. It’s been 12 years since anxious viewers across the nation watched the dramatic rescue of James and Jennifer Stolpa and their five-month-old son, Clayton. During times of drought, it’s easy to forget how 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, Tahoe-Truckee residents were praying fervently for snow. Western Nevada and the Sierra were in the grip of a six-year drought. Lake Tahoe was on its way down to 6,220.2 feet in elevation, the lowest level in recorded history. For three years the Truckee River had limped along at one-10th of its normal flow. Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee, had fallen 11 feet since 1987. Nevada was turning to dust, waiting for the Washoe Zephyr to blow it away. With all the dismal news about the lack of water, most people were hoping for a big winter. On Dec. 1, 1992, the National Weather Service issued its three-month forecast. Despite El Niño conditions seething in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, the weather service predicted drier than normal weather for the upcoming winter. Ironically, just 48 hours after the seasonal forecast was released, the first in a series of powerful cold fronts began assaulting the region. The barrage of snowstorms buried the Sierra and put a sizable dent in the drought. At South Lake Tahoe, rangers on Echo Summit recorded nearly 17 feet of snow that month. It was the wettest start to a winter in 10 years. By the end of December 1992, some residents and tourists were wishing the drought was back. Persistent rain, wind and heavy snow caused havoc with air, rail and road travel for tens of thousands of holiday travelers. Hotels in Truckee and Tahoe City were overwhelmed. Blinding snow forced officials at (then) Reno Cannon Airport to shut down 80 percent of its flights, stranding 3,000 passengers. Trains were delayed and most major highways were closed. Avalanches had cut electric power to 15,000 people. Despite the inconvenience, skiers, ranchers and hydrologists were giddy with delight. On New Year’s Eve, the National Weather Service 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 weather service was right. Family gets stuckOn 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, Calif., 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 via 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, Calif. 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. A full-blown blizzard was raging when the Stolpas crossed the Nevada state line 10 miles east of Cedarville, Calif. They passed 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. The road cuts through the far northwest corner of Nevada, a land of high desert and rugged mountains. One old-timer said, “This may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here.”James Stolpa thought they could make it, though snowdrifts fingered the road and visibility was near zero. Sometime after dark their vehicle 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.For the Stolpas, conditions in that bleak winter landscape were desperate. Deep snow blanketed the desert floor, and the gusting wind drove the 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, but the only food to eat was a holiday fruit cake, 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 in such cold.After four days huddled in the truck, James and Jennifer decided to walk 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 longjohns. He also grabbed an extra pair of socks to wear inside his sneakers – he had no boots. Jennifer too bundled up as best she could. To protect Clayton, they tucked the infant into two sleeping bags, a baby sleeping bag inserted into an adult bag. James then zipped Clayton’s cocoon into a vinyl garment bag, which he pulled behind him 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!!”The desperate couple pushed east for 12 miles through waist-deep snow. They were heading deeper into the rugged Antelope Range along the Hell’s Creek off-road trail. When it began to peter out, they had no choice but to turn back. It started snowing again, and the cold wind tore at them with icy claws. The Storm King had them in his grasp. Stay tuned.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.