In the aftermath of a tragic highway accident last month that killed a mother and son, the fatalities of three hikers on Joffre, and one of the only suspected homicides in resort history, Whistlerites were due for some good news.
And it came on Saturday, Jan. 24 in the form of the miraculous recovery of 21-year-old Norwegian student Julie Abrahamsen, who spent three cold and soaking nights alone in the backcountry before being evacuated to safety.
While she declined to be interviewed for this story, Abrahamsen did post her thanks to the community on Facebook shortly after her rescue, and described her actions to several other national and international media outlets.
It was a happy ending to a story that no search and rescue personnel would have predicted.
"I've never seen it before in my years of doing this with someone that age and skill set to survive for three nights, and in really rough weather, too," said Vincent Massey, a 27-year veteran of Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) who was the first to find Abrahamsen. "I thought for sure I was going to find a frozen dead girl."
The search itself, which began on Friday, Jan. 23 after Abrahamsen's roommates confirmed she was missing and contacted police, was fairly routine, according to WSAR director Brad Sills. What wasn't normal was the level of attention the story has received, with Sills fielding dozens of calls from media outlets across Canada, as well as ABC News, and even interview requests from Good Morning America, which he declined.
"I've never seen anything like it and I've been doing this close to 40 years," Sills said. Abrahamsen's harrowing backcountry experience began last Wednesday, Jan. 21 when she went snowboarding on Blackcomb Mountain. Following some hikers, she ventured out of the ski area and eventually lost the group's tracks. With a dead phone battery, and little knowledge of her surroundings, Abrahamsen kept moving before eventually hunkering down for the night underneath a rock.
In the following days, Abrahamsen survived on leftover pasta and snow, and eventually made her way to Decker Meadow, approximately five kilometres outside the ski area.
Luckily, Blackcomb Aviation pilot Andrew Murdock had spotted the woman's tracks the day before she was reported missing, and notified WSAR as the search was getting underway, a move that Sills believes shaved a day or two off the mission.
On Saturday morning, RCMP, WSAR and Whistler Blackcomb patrollers resumed the search. A helicopter quickly picked up Abrahamsen's tracks, which showed she had entered and exited Wedge Creek at least three times. The water reached her neck at one point. Soon after, a pair of searchers exited the aircraft and followed the woman's tracks into a wooded area. They heard the Norwegian before they saw her, Massey said.
"She was overwhelmed," he added. "I skied up to her and took her shoulders and said, 'I am so glad to see you alive.'"
She was airlifted to hospital and released with no major injuries.
At an estimated cost of $5,000, there have been some in the media who have questioned whether Abrahamsen should be responsible for covering the cost of her rescue, a notion Sills is vehemently against.
"The biggest concern that every search and rescue group in the province has is that if somebody reports somebody missing and then that person is going to incur the cost of a search... that is going to retard the time that people take to call us," he said. "It's going to make our jobs way harder."
While relieved at Abrahamsen's safe return, Sills said her survival was an exception, not the norm, and that others would do well not to follow her example.
"The strategy that this subject used was not one that we would recommend," he said. "If you're lost, stay put, build a shelter, make yourself as visible as you can in an open area, save your energy and stay dry."
To donate to Whistler Search and Rescue, visit www.whistlersar.com.
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