The travails of a treacherous trip
[Editor’s note: This is the second and final installment on a California family’s dangerous journey on the area’s winter-whipped highways.]Holiday traveling has been associated with Christmas ever since the Three Wise Men spent two arduous weeks journeying to reach the newborn Jesus at Bethlehem. Modern highways have made travel safer and more enjoyable, but a wintertime excursion throughout the Intermountain West still requires planning and preparation. In January 1993, a young California couple with an infant child learned first-hand what can happen when unprepared travelers challenge the brutal laws of nature. Idaho-bound James and Jennifer Stolpa, along with their 5-month-old baby Clayton, had become stranded in the frozen Nevada desert. They had changed their itinerary at the last minute when they discovered that Interstate 80 over Donner Pass was closed due to heavy snow. Without notifying anyone, the young couple chose to take an unmaintained secondary road in order to bypass Donner Summit. When their pickup bogged down in snowdrifts, they spent four days shivering in their truck hoping for help to come by. None came. Overnight temperatures fell below zero, and they only had a fruit cake, some cookies, and a bag of corn chips to eat. On the fifth day, they tried walking for help, but after trudging 12 miles through waist-deep snow, the road petered out in rugged wilderness and they had turn around. For 28 hours they broke trail through the drifting snow. The deep snow made travel extremely difficult. When Jennifer complained that she was too tired to walk, James urged her on. “We’re not doing it for me and we’re not doing it for you,” he exhorted. “We’re doing it for the baby.” Fortunately, James spotted a small, shallow cave in the side of a cliff and they snuggled into its 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. They were forced to spend another cold night in the desert. The following day James decided that it would be best for him to make his way alone along the road back to Vya. James left most of the remaining food and the sleeping bag for Jennifer and the baby. The young man knew that he might not make it and he asked Jennifer to pray for him. It wasn’t long before the deep snow, cold temperatures, and lack of food began to take their toll on the desperate father and husband. For 18 hours James struggled back to the truck. Howling coyotes stalked him, but James’s thoughts were concentrated on Jennifer and Clayton back in the frigid cave. He kept telling himself, “I have to make it. I have to make it so they can make it.” He reached the relative safety of the truck after nightfall. The next morning James abandoned the truck and headed west on Washoe County Road 8A. To conserve energy, he walked in his own tire tracks. He pushed on for nearly 30 hours, covering more than 40 miles with little food and no water. The disciplined army private rested by taking five-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 now passed since their truck became stuck in a snowdrift on Dec. 29. 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 Department Supervisor. At first Peterson thought Stolpa was a cow out of pasture. When he pulled up, James Stolpa yanked open the door of Peterson’s truck 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 four 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 was able to give searchers detailed information so they could find his wife and son. Rescuers found the mother and child alive in the cave with little food and no water. Jennifer could not believe it when she heard the sound of vehicles approaching. Her prayers had been answered after all. The aftermathThe following day the young family was transported by ambulance to Reno’s Washoe Medical Center, where they were greeted with a media circus. There were more than 50 reporters and photographers stationed outside the emergency entrance. It seemed that the whole world wanted to hear about the Stolpa’s miraculous survival story. Modoc County Sheriff Bruce Mix gave Army Private 1st Class 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. He added that 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. Washoe Medical Center spokeswoman Denise Yoxsimer warned reporters “These are people who are very seriously injured, who have been extremely cold for a long period of time.” Surgeon Dr. Louis Bonaldi stated, “Both have fourth-degree 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. Dr. Bonaldi said, “Because of the pain she put her feet back in the snow. Much as you may want to re-warm your 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 get lost in that part of the Silver State. Snowstorms dumped 260 inches of snow on Verdi Peak, northwest of Reno, during December 1992 and January 1993. It was the fifth snowiest January in the past 93 years. But although the Storm King had attacked with his full arsenal of cold, wind, and snow, he was unable to conquer the determined survival 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!”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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Winter Driving GuidelinesBefore you take off for the mountains, always check the weather forecast and call for updated road information. Make sure your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system are in top condition.Check your antifreeze and make sure the windshield wiper fluid is protected against colder temperatures.
Check your tires. Make sure they are properly inflated and the tread is in good condition. Always carry chains. Make sure they are the proper size for your tires and are in working order. You might also want to take along a flashlight and chain repair links. Carry an ice scraper or commercial deicer, a broom for brushing snow off your car, a shovel to dig out your vehicle, sand or burlap for traction if your wheels become stuck. It is also good idea to take along water, food, warm blankets and extra clothing. Put an extra key in your pocket. Motorists have locked themselves out of their cars when putting on chains or at ski areas. Reduce your speed! Wearing a seatbelt gives you a 70-percent better chance of surviving and avoiding serious injury in an accident.