3 rescued amid Sierra blizzard Family missing over a week in northwest Nevada

January 07, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

VYA, Nev. -- A young family from Paso Robles, Calif., missing for more than a week and feared dead in a Sierra blizzard, was found alive in a remote snowbound stretch of northwestern Nevada.

Rescue workers, in a desperate race against time and nature, found Jennifer Stolpa, 20, and her 5-month-old son, Clayton, huddled in a cave that had been their home for three days.

The shivering mother and child were found at 5:15 p.m. yesterday in Hell's Canyon, 13 miles from their abandoned pickup truck.

Six hours earlier, a Nevada road worker found Mrs. Stolpa's husband, Army PFC James Stolpa, 21, staggering through 4-foot snowdrifts east of Vya, a road maintenance station 150 miles north of Reno.

Private Stolpa -- battling frostbite and hypothermia -- had hiked 22 miles south of the snow cave he built to shelter his family from temperatures that reached 4 below zero. He was able to direct rescue workers to the cave, off an unpaved road in the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge.

"The mother's talking, the baby's crying," a relieved rescue worker announced over the short-wave radio moments after they were found. Bureau of Land Management and California Highway Patrol officials rescued the pair after driving a Snowcat for three hours through a blizzard that filled Hell's Canyon with 5-foot snowdrifts.

The Snowcat, provided by Los Angeles Power and Light, apparently followed sled tracks to the cave, said Nevada road supervisor Bob Gooch.

The mother and child, wrapped in a sleeping bag, had survived on a diet of fruitcakes, cookies and vitamins, said Sandy Eddy, a family friend who spoke to Private Stolpa by phone. "She's breast-feeding," Ms. Eddy said.

"They are alive and alert," said Bureau of Land Management Spokesman Jeff Fontana. "Mrs. Stolpa is suffering from some lower extremity pain."

Private Stolpa was treated in a hospital in Cedarville, Calif., a mountain community near the Nevada border, before leaving his hospital bed to aid in the search. He was listed in fair and stable condition, according to a spokeswoman at Surprise Valley District Hospital. Jennifer Stolpa and the baby were described as being in fair condition.

What began Dec. 29 as a trip to attend Private Stolpa's grandmother's funeral in Pocatello, Idaho, nearly ended the lives of the Stolpas when their pickup truck broke down in the blizzard 10 miles east of Vya.

"You're talking major boonies," said Mr. Gooch.,"It's all desert, mountains and sagebrush." Authorities said that when the Stolpas became stranded, they hiked 13 miles northeast of the pickup looking for help before building the snow cave. A desperate Private Stolpa then hiked back to the pickup, where he spent Monday night and then continued southward. According to one report, Private Stolpa became disoriented and returned to the pickup three times. He walked more than 30 miles in three days.

When they were rescued, the family was warmly dressed, said Lane Slover, a Sheldon Wildlife Refuge official.

Private Stolpa's mother, Muriel Mulligan, said her son and daughter-in-law had military survival training. Mrs. Stolpa had received emergency medical training, as well.

"We knew they had those skills, and we were hoping they would use them," she said, no longer able to control her tears. "And they did. We're so proud of those kids."

Private Stolpa's step-father, Kevin Mulligan, had attempted Tuesday morning to retrace the couple's route along Interstate 80 and was expected to join his family in Cedarville early today.

It was unclear how the Stolpas ended up on an unpaved road that is often closed in winter.

Although the Stolpas had vehicle chains, "Jimmy actually learned to drive in California and had very limited experience driving in snow," said Ms. Eddy, the family friend.

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