A teen who went missing for more than 50 hours last week in a massive wilderness park in BC’s Lower Mainland says she is still recovering from the trauma of her survival ordeal.
Esther Wang, 16, was hiking with fellow cadets last Tuesday when she became separated from her group, prompting a search of 40 people on the mountainside.
The teen from Langley, BC, was stranded on steep, wooded terrain for two nights before making it to safety Thursday evening.
“I am overwhelmed with all the support and care everyone has given me,” Wang wrote in a letter her family sent to CBC News on Saturday. “And I am eternally grateful to everyone involved in the search.”
In it, for the first time, she publicly shared details of her harrowing struggle to return home, thanking the rescue organizations, RCMP officers and volunteers who supported the search.
Wang and her family declined an interview request and asked for privacy.
Missing persons signs were scattered along the trail where Esther Wang went missing during the more than two-day search for the teen. (CBC)
Wang, an outdoor enthusiast and cadet for four years, walked out of Golden Ears Provincial Park last Thursday after two days. During that time, she described being disoriented and unable to attract the attention of more than 40 rescue personnel, but “determined to get home,” she wrote.
The provincial park is the largest in the Metro Vancouver region, covering 650 square miles of mountainous wilderness north of Maple Ridge, BC, a community east of Vancouver.
She and three others — including an adult — set out last Tuesday for a two-day hiking trip on the Golden Ears Trail. But Wang said she was so focused on the steep, challenging trail on the first day that she didn’t notice she had become separated from the other three people in her cadet group.
“Once I realized the rest of my group was no longer in front of me, I tried to turn around,” Wang wrote. “But I stumbled and fell down… I tried to stay as calm as possible.”
The Canadian Forces Regional Cadet Support Unit confirmed that Wang’s letter was authentic. A spokesman said she was walking with two other youth cadets and an adult leader.
“We are grateful to hear that Esther attributes her achievement to the skills she has learned during the four years she has been in the Cadet Program,” wrote public affairs officer Capt. Jacqueline Zheng in an emailed statement to CBC News.
Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue said the search was supported by teams from across the Lower Mainland, while RCMP says about 45 search and rescue units were deployed. (CBC)
Freeze and scared
On Tuesday, as her first evening in the backcountry approached, Wang said she heard whistles and noises that sounded like rescue signals. But she couldn’t find where they came from.
She climbed 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 1:00 am that night, she said, she was awakened by what she thought were searchlights 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 couldn’t give up.”
As dawn broke on Wednesday, she decided to climb back up the mountainside to try to find the path she had descended the day before.
But when she tried to locate what she thought were the sounds of whistles, she slipped and hit her head on the rocks. She then heard “barking” noises far away and climbed a neighboring mountain peak in hopes of attracting the attention of rescuers.
Wang says she is still recovering from surviving alone in the wilderness for two nights. (Submitted by Ridge Meadows RCMP)
Despite her efforts to be seen, salvation was just beyond her 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 her orientate
CBC News has contacted Ridge Meadows RCMP and Ridge Meadows Search and Rescue for comment.
During the search, the RCMP said attempts to ping Wang’s cell phone were unsuccessful, as there is little to no reception in the park.
In her letter, she explained that her mobile phone battery was dead and that she later lost the device altogether when she scrambled up a slope.
She said she spent Wednesday, her second lost night, under a tree on top of a mountain, seeking shelter from the cold.
As the sun rose on Thursday, it occurred to her that she had taken a series of photos with her digital camera. Looking through the camera, she recognized one of the photos as matching a snowy mountain peak her hiking group had seen in the distance two days earlier.
The photo helped her to orient herself and she decided to follow a river.
Then she found her first sign of relief.
“I saw pink tape on some trees around me and my hopes rose 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 saw the parking lot, where she found her parents waiting for updates from searchers.
Paramedics examined scrapes and bruises on her arms and legs, and where her feet bled from wet boots rubbing her skin.
Wang says the experience has given her gratitude, but also physical and mental trauma that she is only now beginning to process.
“My body and mind are still recovering and processing what happened,” she wrote.
She credited her faith and her training in cadets to her safe return.
“I believe God has led me home to my safety,” she reflected. “The sheer willpower to keep moving forward is the reason I’m still alive,” Wang said.