Kari Swenson: Survivor, Part I

For this Missing Person Monday post, I am going back to the mid-1980s to discuss the case of Kari Swenson.

Unfortunately with many disappearances, there is a beginning of the story, perhaps a short middle, but no ending.

We grieve for the families and the persons involved, but never find out what happened to those reported missing—unanswered questions are all that remain.

As such, I like to discuss some of the investigations that have been solved; cases that allow for readers to better understand the actions of law enforcement, the perpetrators, and sometimes, as in Kari’s case, hear from the victim.

This is the first of my series on what became known as "The Incident at Big Sky."



In January of 1985, Kari Swenson won the gold medal for the biathlon at the U.S. biathlon championships in Quebec City. Such an award is near the pinnacle of achievement for an athlete.

Kari’s inspirational journey prior to the medal podium is a story that needs to be retold.

In the wilds of Montana on July 15, 1984, twenty-two year old Kari Swenson's life changed forever.  

Just six months before she became a champion athlete, she was Kari Swenson, missing person.   



Between the lunch and dinner rush at the Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana, while most of her restaurant co-workers napped or rested, Kari Swenson ran.

Enjoying her summer break, the honors student from Montana State University would push herself on 10 km trail runs through the picturesque but rugged hills about 40 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

Earlier that year, Kari had placed 5th at the world championship biathlon in Charmonix, France—the best finish for an American in the post war era. She had set her sights on competing in the next Olympic games.

On this Sunday, she was trying a new trail that included ridges and passed along a small lake. Her boss and owner of the ranch, Bob Schaap, had told Kari about the grizzly bear warnings that had been posted earlier in the area.

Fearless, Kari replied that she would be excited to see such a sight in the wild.

Despite the ominous sign, bears would be the last danger that Kari needed to worry about.


On the run, her cleats dug into the changing ground—dirt to rock to mud—as she gracefully followed the contours of the land. As wise trail runners do, her eyes focused on her steps, trying to ensure that she did not twist an ankle.

That day, the area was peaceful and seemingly untouched by human hands.

The mosquitoes and flies were thick in places, but she trudged forward--conquering the environmental challenges with each step.

As she passed near the end of the lake, two men suddenly appeared not ten feet away.

An older man stood to the left with one foot on the trail, while a younger man watched from the trees off to the right. Both men were bearded and dirty—not like the trout fisherman or hikers she was accustomed to seeing.

She slowed and could see backpacks and rifles leaning against an adjacent tree.

Startled but not terrified, Kari made the quick decision to simply run past them, but the older man moved and further blocked the path.

Stopping, she then decided that perhaps if she asked for directions, it would diffuse the situation and she could quickly return to her car.

After a short exchange, the older man grabbed her wrist and restrained her.

Kari struggled and screamed, but the attacker punched her in the face while the younger man tied her hands with a nylon cord. She was unable to break free.

After some more restraining, the kidnappers had developed a leash to drag Kari with them.

They led her up a slope, off of the managed section of the trail and into the wilderness.


I'll have Part II of Kari's inspirational story ready next Monday.

Note: For this series, I used law enforcement's version of the incident recorded in the book
Incident at Big Sky as well as several other available articles.  The book also uses statements from the victim, and notes from one of the kidnappers who kept a journal. 

Recently, I saw that Kari Swenson's mother also authored a book on the story that recorded more of Kari's perspective, and I ordered it as well.


joanny said...

Oh that indefatigable optimistic attitude of youth. It concerns me that we do not teach our children to be more discerning.

Have a lovely week....


Helen Ginger said...

Far out like that, on a run, it's understandable that she let down her guard.

Travel Nurse Extraordinaire said...

I vaguely remember her story. It's a good one.

My Husband's Watching TV... said...

UGH!!! A whole week to wait!?! I might have to Google this to find out what happens if curosity gets the best of me.

obladi oblada said...

Ugh..the very reason I dont go venturing into the wilds by myself...and Im not talking about the bears.

ladyfi said...

Oh gosh - not sure I can bear to find out what happened to her...

Rhiannon Nicole said...

oh gosh, this is scary. but now I am hooked. I'll be back for part 2 Slam!

aconnectiontomyheart said...

What a beauty and what an inspiration!! I have a feeling it is has a happy ending, can't wait for the Part II..!

Tam said...

A cliffhangar! I will look forward to next week but I can say that apparently she was found and at least that makes me happy. I'll resist the urge to Google :-)

BobKat said...

Long ago I think I heard this story, but have since forgotten it, if I had. Time to relive it once again. However as intriguing it may sound, it makes me uncomfortable and angry.

Having spent much of my life in the outdoors it angers me that a woman can't be free like I've been free to enjoy the wilds. There is no reason, other than sheer luck and long odds of her running into predators such as these men, in the middle of nowhere.

What further surprises me is you said this was a new trail for Kari... so the men couldn't possibly have known she would be coming unless they "lived" out there and were opportunistic.

The fact is, one IS far safer in the wilds than in a city such as Boston, NY or LA.

Although i'm confused as to how she could have won an award months later, given the events you described just now, I'm going to refrain from looking into her story and wait until next week.

Slam Dunk, you've got my full attention here!

Kimi said...

Okay, you've got me wanting to know more. Can't wait for Part 2. Hope all's well.

SuziCate said...

I don't remember this story...I want to look it up and read ahead, but I'll wait for your next post. Have a fabulous day.

carma said...

I have not heard of this story before - very interesting. Looking forward to learning more about it

Z Joya said...

that is one sad story.

Kristin said...

I saw a movie about her experience. Such a brave lady!

Reggie said...

I cannot believe that you're making us wait a whole week for the next part! This is RIVETING writing! I wanna know what happened next!

You aren't planning on writing a crime novel, by any chance, hey? I think you'd be excellent at that.