Stranded family recounts ordeal


January 08, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

CEDARVILLE, CALIF — CEDARVILLE, Calif. -- Marooned with her baby in a frigid cave, Jennifer Stolpa listened through three days and nights for the rescuers she feared would never come. Instead she heard the howls of coyotes, a terrifying sound that seemed to draw nearer by the hour.

The food -- fruitcake, coconut cookies and a few tortilla chips -- had run out long before, and now on Wednesday her breast milk was gone as well. Melting ice in her mouth and feeding her infant son the liquid like a bird, she fought the mounting panic and wondered: Would they freeze first, or starve?

Then came the roar of a snowcat, and Mrs. Stolpa, unbelieving at first, realized they would be saved. With both feet frostbitten and painfully sore, the weeping mother could not rise. But she waved her arms and cried out from the mouth of her tiny cave, and the rescuers spotted her through the falling snow.

"I thought I was going to die," Mrs. Stolpa, 20, said as she rode to safety Wednesday night. A day later, she spoke of her husband, Army Pvt. James Stolpa, 21, who had walked more than 40 miles through a blizzard to summon help for his kin.

"He is more than a hero to me," she said from her hospital bed, grasping his hand with a smile. "He promised me he'd get us out of there, and he did."

And so the worst part, the scariest part, has ended. Vanishing Dec. 29 while en route to a family funeral in Idaho, their ordeal in the desolate Nevada desert spanned a week -- five hopeless nights in their disabled pickup truck, and, for Mrs. Stolpa, three more shivering days in the cave with 5-month-old Clayton. For most of the time, snow fell and temperatures hovered below freezing.

But one danger -- frostbite -- remains. Here in the Modoc County town of Cedarville, doctors at Surprise Valley Community Hospital said Mrs. Stolpa had suffered "severe" frostbite and was "at risk" of losing her toes or possibly her feet.

Private Stolpa, who is stationed at Camp Roberts in central California, also faced that danger but had fewer problems. His feet were encased in ice when he was found. But walking had kept blood circulating in his feet and legs, said Dr. Hugh Washburn, who treated the couple.

Both adults were receiving pain medication and sedatives yesterday, and Mrs. Stolpa was given oxygen and intravenous fluids as well. Clayton bore the ordeal well, Dr. Washburn said, largely because Jennifer kept him warm by cuddling him and was able to breast-feed for much of the week.

But the infant was being monitored yesterday for a possible lung infection caused by exposure.

During a break in a storm that dumped three more feet of snow on the region, the family was taken by ambulance yesterday to Reno, Nev., escorted by a convoy of seven official vehicles. A plastic surgeon and other doctors specializing in the treatment of frostbite awaited the Stolpas at Washoe County Medical Center.

As they recounted their saga in Cedarville yesterday, both of the Stolpas had their feet thickly wrapped in blankets.

They appeared exhausted, their mood was somber and their eyes filled with tears as they recalled some of the more frightening moments of the past week.

According to Private Stolpa, the family left the Bay area Dec. 29, heading for his grandmother's funeral in Pocatello, Idaho. When they learned that Interstate 80 and U.S. 50, the two major highways through the Sierra, were closed by snow, they consulted their map and sought suggestions for alternate routes at several convenience stores.

Ultimately, they decided to drive north on Interstate 5 to Redding, follow California 299 east through the mountains into Nevada, and use county road 8A, known by locals to be unpaved and closed in winter, to link up with Nevada 140.

The Stolpas' Dodge pickup became stuck the night of Dec. 29 in deep snowdrifts east of Vya, a virtual ghost town. Enveloped in a blizzard, the couple decided to remain in their car hoping another motorist would pass. They waited four days, and not a soul came by, though they heard planes pass overhead.

With only the fruitcake, cookies and some prenatal vitamins as nourishment, the Stolpas grew desperate. On Sunday morning, the family set out on foot in waist-high snowdrifts. Clayton was bundled up in several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag, and Private Stolpa and his wife wore sweat shirts and coats -- but only tennis shoes on their feet.

Mrs. Stolpa had also been in the military. But neither had any special survival training.

"We had to decide whether to stay put and die or do something and die," Private Stolpa said yesterday.

They trudged eastward, hoping to reach Nevada 140. They tried to soothe the crying baby by placing him inside a garment bag, attaching it to his father's belt and dragging him like a sled.

Mrs. Stolpa said she managed to keep walking only because "Jim kept telling me, 'We're not doing this for me, we're not doing this for you, we're doing it for our baby.' "

Eventually, the couple spotted a cave in a sheer rock cliff and decided to spend the night.

The next morning, the couple agreed Private Stolpa would have to continue the search for help alone. After an emotional farewell, he stretched the garment bag across the mouth of the cave to keep out the wind and set off. "I gave her a kiss . . ., and I promised her I'd make it," he said yesterday.

During his long trek, Private Stolpa said he frequently heard coyotes. When it was "just one or two," he would ignore them. When it seemed a larger number, "I'd sit down in the sagebrush and hide myself." During those stops he took catnaps, five minutes or so, "to rest my bones."

After spending Monday night alone in the family pickup, Private Stolpa headed for Vya, walking all day Tuesday and throughout Tuesday night. About 11 a.m. Wednesday, he was a quarter-mile from the outpost when a county road worker spotted him, believing the dark spot in the snow was a cow escaped from a pasture.

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