The search for Jeff Freiheit brought them together: Volunteers who became friends
Canadian hiker Jeff Freiheit disappeared on August 2 in Brauneck, Germany. In the weeks that followed, dozens of volunteers assisted his family. What motivates people to help total strangers? A story about searching and finding, a story full of love and about people who were willing to give something without expecting anything in return.
Lenggries - Jeff Freiheit loved movies. Especially those with Jack Nicholson. He knew whole passages by heart. He taught children, took special care of the weaker and made sure that nobody was excluded. He had a cat named Sugar. His dress style was sometimes a bit fancy, but he didn't care if someone grinned about it. Jeff was very attached to his mother from an early age. He loved his wife Selena. She was 19 and he was 23 when he first asked her out. He liked to travel. For this year, he had planned a special adventure: Crossing the Alps on the dream trail Munich-Venice. The 32-year-old had already conquered Kilimanjaro and reached Mount Everest Base Camp. In both cases he was with a guide. This time he left alone.
None of this was known to the people here about Jeff Freiheit when the Canadian lost his trail on August 2 in Brauneck. His mother Kathy would not tell some of these little things about her son until much later. Jeff was already dead, having fallen on the south side of the Achselköpfe. He was found there on August 25 - by his mother, his best friend Adam and volunteers. For although the Freiheits were complete strangers, hundreds of people decided in the days after the disappearance to help the family in their search for the 32-year-old.
Support varied widely. Some were on the phone to find out if anyone had seen the Canadian in one of the mountain lodges. Others hung search posters between here and Venice or distributed the search on social networks. Those who had time, like Monika Brandhofer from Lenggries, took over driving services to bring Selena and Kathy Freiheit to Jachenau or, like Ben Walz from Penzberg, who teaches English at the Tölz Gymnasium, translated the communication with the authorities.
The actions were coordinated by the Facebook group "Volunteers searching for Jeff Freiheit", which his sister Amanda and her husband Nick Devigne had created together with Rich Manfield. Manfield later made small English-language videos to keep friends in Canada who were following the missing persons search up to date.
"It can't be that someone gets lost in my 'living room‘“
When the mountain rescue service could no longer search because there was simply no further indication of the whereabouts of the 32-year-old, the "volunteers" also stepped in here. Martina Lachmuth from Penzberg explained her motivation by saying "I thought that it can't be possible that someone is missing here and we shouldn't be looking for him." The 38-year-old together with the Jachenau wilderness guide Susanne Williams (48) brought structure into the search, while Oliver Landolt (48) from Munich, together with his son Nicolas and Jeff's friend Carter Gregory, transferred all areas that had already been searched into a map.
Trevor McConnell (25) and Ashley Lowe (23) became aware of the search through social media. Both come from Toronto, but currently live in Munich. "My thinking was: I am Canadian, I should be doing something," said Lowe. One Saturday they left for Lenggries just like Kayla Kuefler (24) from Edmonton/Munich and searched in the area of the Tutzinger Hütte.
Anne Fuchs (37) also wanted to do something. "It can't be that someone gets lost in my 'living room'," the Tölzer thought and drove to Brauneck on the morning of August 25. Just like the Otterfinger Wolfgang Haider (54), the Jachenauer Allyson Chaple (48), the Sauerlacher Peter Huck (51), the Dietramszeller Klaus Lechner (47) and the Waakirchner Marion Müller (43) she was in the group that finally found Jeff Freiheit. For Lechner, help was a matter of course. "If it was about my child, I'd want someone to take care of him."
„It was normal for me to try to help."
One of the first to actively seek was Robin Simmerle. Even at night, he shone a light on the mountain slopes near Vorderriß - in the hope of a reflection and an indication of the whereabouts of the Canadian. "I've been lost so many times," said the 44-year-old from Kleinwalsertal. That's why he knows what it's like to need help. Susanne Williams also knows that. "If you've ever been rescued, you know you'll never be able make up for it to your own rescuers. But I see it as an obligation to give back some of the help you have experienced yourself." But maybe Simmerle has a little bit of it in his genes. "My grandfather founded a mountain rescue service," he said.
Peter Huck started the search at the same time as he did. The 51-year-old cycled or hiked on the tracks that Jeff Freiheit could have taken. But that was not so selfless, he argued. "I would have gone hiking anyway. And it doesn't matter if I do it somewhere else or at Brauneck and maybe help coincidence out a bit." Wolfgang Haider put it in a similar way: "Since I am already travelling a lot in the mountains and live in the region, it was normal for me to try to help." "Of course," said Huck, "the whole thing has once again become a matter of the heart after meeting Jeff's wife and mother personally for the first time. When it comes to people you've held in your arms, it's different, of course." Johanna Bartos agreed. "I'm a mother of two sons myself. I took it personally," said the 54-year-old from Munich. Like Roland Konopac (53) from Neubiberg/Germany, she is a member of the Munich Bergwacht (mountain rescue service), whose area of operation also includes Brauneck. By the way, Konopac never considered giving up: "I said I'd turn over every mountain pine and look into every gap."
Nevertheless, it was probably a coincidence or perhaps fate that Kathy Freiheit first discovered her son's shoe and then his backpack - only minutes after the volunteers set out on that cloudy Saturday to search. "I was in the same place the Wednesday before, only five meters away - and I didn't see him," said Robin Simmerle. Therefore, any criticism of the mountain rescue service is completely unfounded. "There was nothing on the videos I made of the area either," added Susanne Williams. The green backpack looked like leaves from above, Marion Müller explained. "It was indistinguishable from its surroundings."
"We are a clan," said Susanne Williams. "A troop of hearts"
The moment it was clear that they had actually found Jeff "can hardly be described," said Klaus Lechner. "Disappointment, relief" - everything was there. “Of course, one knew at some point that one would probably no longer find him alive,” Anne Fuchs added. “However, that didn't change anything in the unconditional desire to go on. It was important to me that his family could take him home with them."
The search welded many of the volunteers together. "We are a clan," said Susanne Williams. "A troop of hearts" - and here she included all helpers - from the searchers, the mountain railway operator, the police and the mountain rescue service to the Almleute who allowed access by car. Many of the group have exchanged numbers. "We'll probably go hiking together again," said Anne Fuchs.
The fact that no one wants to dissolve the Facebook group shows that the search for and fate of the Freiheits had a lasting effect on many. It now has more than 500 members. Many were in favor of keeping the group alive - in memory of the 32-year-old, but also as a reminder of this extraordinary supporting action and the cohesion that has emerged here. Nick Devigne just renamed it: The "Volunteers" have now become "Friends of Jeff Freiheit".
A few days ago, Kathy Freiheit brought her son home. He was buried on Saturday in his hometown of Brandon. Jeff Freiheit leaves a family in Canada that loves him - and many friends in Upper Bavaria. Friends who have never met him, but who will never forget him.
Wegen des großen Interesses in Kanada an diesem Fall haben wir uns entschlossen, eine englische Version des Artikels zu veröffentlichen. Zur deutschen Version geht es hier.