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6 Months After Cheating Death in the Snow, Family Looks to the Future : California: Survival was foremost when the Stolpas were rescued from a frozen wasteland. Now the burden is how to handle windfall coming their way from selling the rights to their harrowing story.


CASTRO VALLEY, Calif. — When James and Jennifer Stolpa and their infant son were rescued from a frozen wasteland six months ago, their only concern was for each other.

Now, as they continue to recover after barely cheating death in a howling blizzard, they've taken on a new burden: what to do with the windfall they are getting for selling their story--a story that captivated the nation.

Late in December, the Stolpas, both 21, set out in a winter storm for Idaho to attend a family funeral.

Finding the main east-west roads through the Sierra Nevada blocked by snow, they swung north on a little-used route called Hell Creek Road. Eventually, lost in a flurry of white, they turned on an unmaintained gravel road in northwestern Nevada. Their truck became stuck in the snow. They were lost and stranded.

The couple, carrying 4-month-old Clayton, trudged through drifts looking for help. Finally, James left his exhausted wife and son behind, protected only by a small cave, and set off alone in a desperate bid for help.

His 50-mile trek, and his wife's courageous efforts to keep their son alive, have turned into a modern-day legend that catapulted them into instant celebrity and wealth.

"How has it not changed our lives?" James asked at the Castro Valley house where they are living with his mother and stepfather, Kevin and Muriel Mulligan.

Since their dramatic Jan. 6 rescue, they have landed what is rumored to be a record-breaking deal for the movie rights to their story. They make regular celebrity appearances on television and at sporting events and have become the darlings of a watchful and concerned public.

But they also have lost all their toes to frostbite, and James needs additional surgery to cover exposed bones. They can't drive, or walk without crutches, so they are dependent on others for most of their needs.

Only their son, now 10 months old, appears to have suffered no long-term effects.

The Army gave Stolpa a medical discharge after he had served two years of a six-year enlistment. Now unemployed, both Stolpas want to start college in January. She wants to study art. He's not sure what his major will be.

They also want to give motivational talks to organizations about how their love, strength and will to live helped them survive.

Jennifer Stolpa wants to have another baby. But she fears that the weight gain will hurt her feet. And she worries that a pregnancy would strain her stomach, where doctors removed abdominal muscle for grafts.

Then there is the movie to look forward to. A bidding war for the television rights to their story is rumored to hover between $500,000 and $650,000, one of the largest amounts ever paid for a fact-based film.

They are reading scripts and look forward to traveling once filming starts in early August. The studio has to find a location with snow, so New Zealand and the Andes are possibilities. The finished product is scheduled to air on CBS in November.

The roles are not cast, but the Stolpas like to dream about who will play their parts.

He would choose somebody strong, such as Jean-Claude Van Damme. She would select Demi Moore, "because she's so cute and tiny and she really cries pretty," she said. "There's a lot of crying in this movie."

As for their son, "he can play himself," Jennifer said. "There's nobody cute enough to play him."

They plan to invest most of their movie earnings in a college fund for Clayton. They will keep some for a new car, their own tuition and occasional shopping splurges.

Meanwhile, they write thank you notes to more than 1,000 people who sent letters and gifts, including clothes, perfume, champagne and money. One San Jose man opened a $100 bank account for them.

A few emotional scars remain. Jennifer still cries when she thinks about the days crouched in a cave, breast-feeding Clayton to warm him in the subzero temperatures.

When their moods sag, they turn to humor. The two have heard every toe joke imaginable. One of their favorites: What has six legs and 10 toes? The Stolpas.

"I think they're handling it better than we are," Muriel Mulligan said.

And there is some unfinished business. The two want to revisit Hell Creek Road in good weather. They joke about putting a "James and Jennifer Stolpa Slept Here" plaque in the cave where they took shelter. But then James gets serious.

"It'll be interesting," he said quietly, "to see it in a different perspective."

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