Idaho couple survives five days lost in wintry wilderness

Thursday, March 13, 2003

BOISE, Idaho -- They'd planned just a three-hour snowmobile trip, bringing only a small package of sausage, a candy bar and a few supplies.

But in the deep snow and treacherous terrain, Jim and Suzanne Shemwell got stranded, then lost, on a freezing mountaintop. After four days, the conditions were so bad that rescuers halted the search, fearful of risking more lives.

Finally, five days into their struggle and wondering how much longer they would last, the Shemwells found help.

They've come out of the ordeal suffering nothing more serious than frostbite. What's more, they say, the experience helped renewed their strength and faith in each other during a troubled period in their marriage.

"It was just teamwork that got us through it, pure and simple," Jim Shemwell said. "Not panicking, not getting upset with each other and making decisions together."

Three-hour tour

When the couple headed out around noon last Wednesday to Pilot Peak, nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and about 40 miles outside of Boise, the mountain was covered in fresh powder and the temperature in the low 30s.

They didn't bring much in the way of supplies: some snack sausages, a candy bar, Gatorade, water, cigarettes and a lighter, plus a rope, a shovel-and-saw tool, and some shop rags stashed in the snowmobiles.

"It was going to be a three-hour tour, just like Gilligan's Island," said Jim Shemwell, 45.

That changed when they drove down into a small, bowl-like valley. The slope was so steep and the powder so soft that they couldn't get back out.

Problem piled upon problem: Jim drove into a creek and had to dig free. Suzanne's snowmobile slid into a tree; she twisted her knee and ankle, and the couple had trouble digging the machine out. And with the powder so deep and dry, the snowmobiles weren't working properly.

By Wednesday afternoon, they decided to camp for the night.

Suzanne, 43, built a snow cave, and Jim gathered firewood to keep them warm. They ate some of the sausages.

By Thursday morning, the couple gave up on the snowmobiles and decided to walk, looking for others' snowmobile tracks to follow back to civilization.

Jim took the lead, tramping down the snow so Suzanne could walk behind. At just 5 feet tall, she was dwarfed by the 10-foot snowbanks. They scooped up snow to eat.

Thursday night, they camped again, taking turns keeping the fire alive and talking about what they would eat when they got home. Suzanne was craving a juicy orange. Jim wanted steak and a baked potato. And when Suzanne -- normally calm and in control -- began to panic, Jim offered support and comfort.

"Jim is not a man of many words," Suzanne said. "But he kept me going. I got a little whiny sometimes, and once I got pretty frantic. But he calmed me down, helped me along."

"There were a lot of hugs on that mountain," Jim said.

Friday passed just like Thursday, except it marked the last of the food. They could see the high dome of Pilot Peak and crawled along the steep slope toward the top, where they knew they would find other snowmobilers.

Sunday morning was the hardest, Jim said.

Suzanne was so weak that Jim tied the snowmobile tow rope around her waist and pulled her up the mountain.

Finally, around 11 a.m. Monday, Suzanne and Jim found tracks of a snowmobiler -- volunteers who hadn't given up despite the danger. Minutes later the couple was feasting on beef jerky, granola bars and protein shakes while tears streamed down their cheeks.

"This has been a real good experience for both of us, because it really brought us closer together in our marriage," Jim said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: