A Snowbound Marriage in Search of a Miracle

Associated Press Writer

It would take a miracle to save her marriage, Suzanne Shemwell confided to friends.

After 23 years together, she and Jim had drifted apart. Suzanne did not know if the two could last another year, living together in uncomfortable silence.

The miracle would come, twofold: In what was planned to be a three-hour snowmobile trip, Suzanne and Jim got stranded, then lost, for six days on a freezing mountaintop. Although they had nothing more than a few snack-size sausages, a candy bar, Gatorade and water, they made it home against all odds. And the teamwork they relied on to survive renewed their strength in each other.

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Jim Shemwell, 45, had invited a friend to go snowmobiling with him and Suzanne, 43, but the friend backed out at the last minute. So on March 5, the Shemwells headed to Pilot Peak alone. The mountain -- nearly 7,000 feet above sea level and about 40 miles outside Boise -- was covered in fresh powder.

"It was going to be a three-hour tour, just like Gilligan's Island," Jim Shemwell said from his bed at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise. "We went down into a bowl to play with the snowmobiles, but the powder was so soft and the slope was so steep that we couldn't get out."

After taking a careful look at the rough terrain, Jim and Suzanne decided to drive the snowmobiles farther down the mountain, then work their way back to the pickup.

But the deep snow hid dangerous obstacles. First, Jim drove into a creek, and Suzanne had to wait while he dug free. They tried winding along the side of a steep hill, but Suzanne's snowmobile slid into a tree; she twisted her knee and ankle.

It was nearly 3:30 p.m. by then, and the couple made a decision: They would camp for the night and ride Jim's snowmobile out at first light.

The Shemwells are practical people. Their youngest daughter, Taryn, 8, was at a day-care center, and they knew that the owner would alert family when no one came to pick up the girl.

By the time Suzanne had used her 10 years' experience as a Girl Scout leader to build a snow cave and Jim had gathered enough firewood for the night, phone calls were alerting friends and family that the two were missing.

The Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue team began organizing the search effort and found the Shemwells' pickup by 11:30 p.m. Daughters Dorinda Shemwell, 26, and Micaela Dingledeim, 20, notified family and nervously waited as a blizzard began to rage on the peak.

Visibility dropped to less than 200 yards at times while wind whipped through the mountain's gullies. Snow covered the tracks that the Shemwells had made during the day, and the temperature chilled to the mid-20s.

"We had some shop rags that we tore up and used to start the fire, and Suzanne stayed up that first night to keep it going," Jim Shemwell said. "Our first snow cave was too small to fit both of us, so she was curled up next to the fire and I was curled up right behind her."

They had shared part of a package of Little Smokies sausages. Both expected to be home within 24 hours.

The next morning, they climbed on Jim's snowmobile, but the steep terrain and soft powder burned out the clutch.

"It took us five hours to get as far as we could have walked in 15 minutes," Jim said. "We abandoned both machines and decided to walk to where we could follow some snowmobile tracks."

Jim took the lead, tramping down the snow so that Suzanne could follow. Just 5 feet tall, she was dwarfed by the 10-foot snowbanks created by nearly 5 feet of new snow. They scooped up handfuls of snow to eat, Jim stopping occasionally to wring out his 25-cent gloves.

By that evening, they had found no tracks. Again, they camped for the night. As if things were not bad enough, the handle broke on the tiny shovel-and-saw combination tool that they needed to make fire and shelter.

They wrapped the last shop rag around the saw blade so that Jim could continue to cut wood for heat.

"The nights felt pretty long. The cold would cramp your muscles and it was not comfortable," he said.

They took turns keeping the fire alive, talking about what they would eat when they got home and how they would make it there.

"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."

The third day passed just like the second, except that it marked the last of the Little Smokies. They could see the high dome of Pilot's Peak and crawled along the steep slope toward the top, where they knew that they would find other snowmobilers.

The couple took turns yelling and blowing Suzanne's whistle, and prayed for salvation from the snow.

On the fourth day, they thought that their prayers had been answered. First a plane flew overhead, then a helicopter. The Shemwells yelled and waved their multicolored helmets in the air, and waited for the rescuers to come. But an hour later, they knew that no one had seen them.

"We were both in tears, crying, saying, 'We're going home,' " Jim said. "When they didn't come, Suze was starting to get some doubts. But I told her we were going to the top of the mountain, and we were getting out of there."

Suzanne kept thinking of Taryn, nicknamed Tinkerbell.

"I knew we just had to get home for Tinkerbell. Our other two daughters are older, married, but Tinkerbell really needs us," she said.

The fifth day was the hardest, Jim said.

"I knew we were close to not making it. I have prayed more during those five days than ever in my life, and I just felt we had to proceed on," he said.

Hunger and physical stress were wearing on the couple. Both had frostbitten feet. Suzanne's big toes were blackened by the cold.

She was so weak that Jim tied a tow rope they had salvaged from the snowmobiles around her waist and pulled her up the mountain. Three-quarters of the way, they camped again.

Meanwhile, Rod Knopp, coordinator for the Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue effort, regretfully suspended the search. There had been several avalanches in the 50-square-mile area where they believed that the Shemwells were stranded, and they could not risk any more lives until conditions improved.

The Shemwells' spirits were flagging too.

"All night long, I was starting to give up," Jim said. "But I didn't. I would take a 20-minute power nap and wake up with some hope again."

Finally at 11 a.m. on the sixth day, Suzanne and Jim found what they had been looking for -- a thin ribbon in the snow marking the tracks of a snowmobiler. Despite the danger, some volunteers had not given up. Using the last bit of battery in their two-way radio, the Shemwells contacted searchers Scott Marquart and Julio Eiguren.

Minutes later, they were feasting on beef jerky, granola bars and protein shakes while tears streamed down their cold cheeks. By 3:30 p.m., they were on their way to St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, shouting messages of love and goodwill to friends and family gathered in the parking lot.

Both survived the ordeal in good condition; doctors say Suzanne won't even lose a toenail despite the frostbite.

"It was just teamwork that got us through it, pure and simple," Jim said as he prepared to be released last Tuesday. "Not panicking, not getting upset with each other and making decisions together."

Suzanne, who was to be hospitalized a little longer, said Jim's strength kept her alive.

"Normally I'm the strong one, the controlling one," she said. "I had to really count on Jim up there; he pulled me along. He didn't abandon me -- we made it together."

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As she recovered last week, a friend stopped by her hospital room to wish Suzanne well and ask about the ordeal.

Jim and Suzanne's marriage had been struggling. They weren't sharing with each other, and Suzanne often wondered if it was just a matter of time.

Surviving the Idaho wilderness for nearly a week may not solve all their problems, Suzanne said, but she whispered softly to her friend during a hug, "Everything happens for a reason."

Moments later, she told a reporter: "When I said our marriage needed a miracle, I didn't know this would be it."

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