A teen who went missing for more than two days in a massive wilderness park in B.C.’s Lower Mainland last week says she is still recovering from the trauma of her survival ordeal.
Esther Wang, 16, was hiking with fellow cadets in Golden Ears Provincial Park last Tuesday when she became separated from her group, sparking a 40-person mountainside search effort.
The Langley, B.C., teenager was stranded in steep, forested terrain for two nights before walking to safety on Thursday night.
“I am overwhelmed by all the support and care everyone has shown me,” Wang wrote in a letter sent to CBC News by her family on Saturday. “And I am forever grateful for everyone involved with the search effort.”
In the letter, she publicly shared for the first time details of her harrowing fight to return home, thanking the rescue organizations, RCMP officers and volunteers who sustained the search.
Wang and her family declined an interview request, asking for privacy.
Wang, an outdoor enthusiast and a cadet for four years, described being disoriented and unable to grab the attention of rescue personnel during her ordeal, but also “determined to make my way home.”
Golden Ears Provincial Park is the largest in the Metro Vancouver region, spanning 650 square kilometres of mountainous wilderness north of Maple Ridge, B.C., a municipality east of Vancouver.
Wang and three others — including an adult — set out for a two-day hiking trip on the Golden Ears Trail last Tuesday. But Wang said she became so focused on the steep, challenging path on the first day that she did not notice she’d become separated from the others in her group.
“Once I realized that the rest of my group was no longer in front of me, I tried to turn around,” Wang wrote. “But I tripped and fell down … I tried to stay as calm as possible.”
The Regional Cadet Support Unit of the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed Wang’s letter was authentic. A spokesperson said she was on a hike with two other cadets and one adult leader.
“We are grateful to hear that Esther attributes her outcome to the skills she learned through the four years she has been in the cadet program,” wrote public affairs officer Capt. Jacqueline Zweng in an emailed statement to CBC News.
Freezing and afraid
On Tuesday, as her first night in the backcountry approached, Wang said she heard whistles and noises that sounded like rescue signals. But she could not locate where they were coming from.
She scaled down the mountain to find water, ate the food she had packed for her camping trip, and tried to sleep on cold rocks near a river.
Around 1 a.m. that night, she recounted, she woke up to what she believed were search lights above her on the mountainside.
But her attempts to shine her light in their direction went unnoticed.
“I was filled with hopelessness and fear,” she wrote, “but I knew I could not give up.”
As dawn broke on Wednesday, she said she decided to climb back up the mountain slope to try to find the trail from which she descended the day before.
But as she tried to locate what she thought were the sounds of whistles, she slipped and hit her head on rocks. She then said she heard “barking” noises far away, and climbed a neighbouring peak hoping to attract rescuers’ attention.
Despite her efforts to be seen, rescue remained out of reach. She said she saw a yellow helicopter fly overhead several times, but shaking trees and other attempts to get attention went unseen.
“Everything I tried failed,” she said.
Photo helped orient her
CBC News has reached out to Ridge Meadows RCMP and Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue for comment.
During the search, the RCMP said efforts to ping Wang’s cellphone were unsuccessful, because there is little to no reception inside the park.
In her letter, Wang said her cellphone battery died and she later lost the device altogether as she scrambled up a slope.
She said she spent Wednesday night under a tree at the top of a peak.
As the sun rose on Thursday, Wang says it dawned on her that she had taken a series of photos with her digital camera. When she looked through the camera, she recognized one of the pictures as matching a snowy peak her hiking group had seen in the distance just two days earlier.
The photograph helped her orient herself and she decided to follow a river.
That’s when she found her first sign of relief.
“I noticed pink tape on some trees around me and my hopes soared high,” she wrote.
Soon, the river led to a gravel path to a beach, where there was a sign with directions to a parking lot.
That left her “filled with relief.”
‘I recognized my parents’
It was just after 9 p.m. Thursday when Wang spotted the parking lot, where she found her parents waiting for updates from searchers.
Paramedics examined scratches and bruises on her arms and legs, and where her feet had bled from wet boots rubbing on her skin.
Wang says the experience has left her with gratitude, but also physical and mental trauma she is only now beginning to come to terms with.
“My body and mind are still recovering and processing what happened,” she wrote.
She credited her faith, and her training in cadets, for her safe return.
“I believe God led me home to my safety,” she said. “The sheer willpower to keep moving forward is the reason I am still alive,” said Wang.