To the relief of many, 16-year-old Esther Wang walked out of Golden Ears Provincial Park on her own Thursday night, after being missing for around 54 hours.
The Langley teenager had become separated from her air cadet group that was planning to hike and camp in the area. A total of 16 search and rescue teams from across the province were involved in the effort to look for her, along with helicopters, police dogs and drones.
Crews were “elated” when she appeared in the Gold Creek parking lot, after being on her own for more than two days in the wilderness.
Now, Wang is sharing her story of survival.
In a letter written by the teenager sent to CTV News, she details her incredible journey back to safety, including two nights in the forest and her strong will to continue hiking while injured.
On June 27, Wang and three others headed out to Golden Ears Provincial Park, planning to camp until June 28 and hike each day, she describes. The group consisted of two fellow air cadets and an adult supervisor.
“It is true that participating in the air cadet program may have saved my life,” Wang writes. “The information I have learned from aviation to survival skills played a huge role in my ability to sustain myself in the wilderness.”
She says that the group hiked the Golden Ears Trail, starting from their campsite at North Beach. “For anyone who is unsure about the Golden Ears trail, the terrain is very challenging as it is steep with lots of rocks and bushes,” Wang writes.
After reaching Steve’s Lookout, the group began their descent. Wang says she was around two meters away from the rest of the group, not lagging behind.
“At one point, the group made a turn somewhere along the trail, but I did not notice because I was solely concentrating on following the trail right in front of me. Because of this, I turned the wrong way and ended up on the wrong path,” she recalls.
When she realized she had become separated from the group, Wang tried to turn around, but tripped and fell down until she hit a flatter part of the mountain.
“Scared and lonely, I curled into a ball and I tried to stay as calm as possible,” she writes.
Soon later, Wang says she heard whistles and noises that sounded like signals. She started to climb towards the sound, but couldn’t locate them. By then it was almost dark, and her instinct was to find water.
She trekked down the mountain until she reached a river, where she refilled her water bottles.
“I tried to get some sleep on the rocks nearby, but I was cold and freezing,” she remembers.
Around 1 a.m., Wang remembers seeing spotlights above her flashing down at the mountains. “I tried to flash my headlight towards the spotlights; however, they did not notice my desperate plea for help. I was filled with hopelessness and fear, but I knew I could not give up,” she writes.
In the morning, around 5 a.m., Wang says she was determined to find her way home.
“Filled with courage, I decided to climb back up the same mountain in hopes to find the trail again. I spent the majority of the morning finding my way back up the mountain, but I still could not pinpoint the whistle sounds.”
She then climbed back down the mountain and further downstream. While climbing down, her foot slipped and she hit her head.
Thankfully, Wang did not lose consciousness and she could still move.
“Out of nowhere, I hear high pitch barking sounds in the distance. Motivated, I crossed the river and made my way up the other mountain to pursue the barking noises,” she writes.
She describes climbing over cliffs, plowing through bushes and being careful not to fall down the mountain. All through the day, she saw a yellow helicopter flying over her head.
“I tried making noise, singing and even shaking nearby trees to grab their attention, but everything I tried failed,” she remembers.
Wang spent the rest of the day hiking to the top of the mountain to sleep for the second night. She tried to make noise with her phone, but it ran out of battery and she later lost it from her pocket. Exhausted, she found a tree to rest under.
She woke up at 5 a.m. on Thursday. She then remembered she had taken pictures on her digital camera. In the photos, Wang recognized a snowy peak she passed when hiking up the mountain.
“Finally, I had some concrete direction I needed to go and I started to look for this landmark,” she writes.
She began retracing her steps to the landmark, stopping to fill her water bottles up again at a small creek on the way down.
She then found a rapid river flowing downstream. Wang followed the river, and noticed pink tape on some trees. “My hopes soared high,” she recalls.
Wang found a gravel path, which she followed until she reached a beach. A sign there was labeled “Hikers’ Beach,” and pointed in the direction to the Gold Creek parking lot.
“I dragged my feet back to the river and crossed the rapid river as carefully as possible and followed the path. I never noticed my pain and soreness until I was forcing my body forward on the gravel path. I began to feel dizzy and I started to imagine things in front of me when there clearly wasn’t anyone around me,” Wang writes.
“I continued to encourage myself to keep moving forward and to not give up yet.”
Wang finally reached the parking lot around 9:15 p.m., where she saw her parents waiting for her.
Nearby park rangers radioed the search and rescue teams to inform them that Wang was safe, and paramedics arrived to check on the many scratches and bruises she had received in the woods, as well as her head injury.
“The medics cleared me to go home and I was finally able to get a good night’s sleep in my bed,” Wang writes.
In her letter, Wang expresses deep gratitude to the search and rescue teams, the RCMP, the volunteers who searched for her in the mountains, the Salvation Army who provided food for the rescuers and the thoughts and prayers she received from her family, friends, church community, cadet squadron and the public.
“Although I was able to ‘walk out’ of the mountain by myself, I could not have done it without the search and rescue teams, police, volunteers and park rangers. They led the way and I was able to follow,” she writes.
As for Wang’s current state, she says she can barely stand on her own or walk properly, as her body and mind are still recovering from her harrowing time in the wilderness.
“I am overwhelmed by all the support and care everyone has shown me and I am forever grateful for everyone involved with the search effort. I believe God led me home to my safety. The sheer willpower to keep moving forward is the reason I am still alive,” she concludes.