Yi-Jien Hwa - Strange deaths in U.S. national parks

Yi-Jien Hwa glacier park

Yi-Jien Hwa, Disappeared August 11th 2008, Body Found July 3, 2011, Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountains, Montana

Malaysian, Yi-Jien Hwa,  aged 27, was a graduate student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He loved the wilderness and wrote content on the website backpackgeartest.org, about his experiences with various kinds of outdoor gear and his hikes.

Hwa had started backpacking as a teenager and he and his wife, Siu Yin, planned to embark together on the most ambitious hike to date. This would be a dangerous 96 mile trek across Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park is a 1,583 sq. mile wilderness area in Montana's Rocky Mountains, with glacier-carved peaks and valleys running to the Canadian border. It's crossed by the mountainous Going-to-the-Sun Road. Among more than 700 miles of hiking trails, it has a route to photogenic Hidden Lake. It has diverse wildlife ranges from mountain goats to grizzly bears.

The couple would begin their eight day trip at  St. Mary, then across extremely difficult terrain south of Logan Pass, and then north in the direction of Kintla Lake Campground.

Hidden lake by logan pass

However, just before they were to begin this trip in the summer of 2008, an unexpected family emergency forced Siu Yin to abandon the hike. After months of planning Hwa decided he would go anyway despite the obvious risks of a solo hike. His hike would include a risk of hypothermia, animal attack by mountain lions and bears, altitude sickness due to a climb up to 14,000 feet, water and weather.

logan pass, glacier national park

When Hwa arrived at the park at the St. Mary Visitor Center for a backcountry permit, rangers were extremely concerned. Beginning at Logan Pass on August 11th, where he left his car, he would begin with a long hike to Sperry Campground, then through Floral Park and the Sperry Glacier basin. On his second day he would trek towards Reynolds Creek Campground, northwest of St. Mary Lake, and pick up supplies at Logan Pass. His third night would be spent in Granite Park Campground,  seven miles or so from Logan Pass, and then on to 50 Mountain Campground at the Continental Divide for his fourth night, Kootenai Lakes was his fifth-night destination, and a day's hiking from there would take him to Hole in the Wall Campground. Hwa planned to reach the Upper Kintla Lake Campground on his sixth night and continue north from there to the Kintla Lake trailhead, a final hike of 11.6 miles. He planned to finish on August 18, 2008.

The rangers at St. Mary tried to talk him out of the trip, but Hwa refused to listen to the advice after all the planning and preparation and they reluctantly issued the permit. Park spokeswoman Norma Sosa said in early September 2008  “Even for a seasoned mountaineer, this is an extremely hard and dangerous itinerary," she said. “The biggest red flag was that he was a solo hiker. This is not a hike we would advise to attempt solo.”

On the first day of Hwa's hike he descended into Floral Park, an area of grassy slopes and wild flowers in Spring, between Logan Pass and Sperry Chalet which follows the comparatively easy Hidden Lake Trail for three miles, passes near the southern edge of Bearhat Mountain, and then climbs above the lake and almost immediately drops into a basin. Crossing the basin leads to a gentle route up to the Sperry Glacier and then onto Comeau Pass. A short distance to the right, hikers reach the top of a high ridge with a view of Avalanche Lake some four thousand feet below. From here the downhill route to Mary Baker Lake leads into Floral Park.

In fact, the hike on the 1st day was so steep and challenging, that there was a very low chance of even meeting anyone else.  The day's efforts were even more extreme as  Floral Park would not be a final destination and Hwa's plan needed him to reach Sperry Campground, which was several miles more of difficult hiking beyond the meadows in rock and boulder strewn terrain. The area was also full of ice and crevasses, loose scree, steep slopes, fast flowing and freezing streams. 

A week later, Hwa's family notified rangers that he had not called them on the appointed day to tell them he was at Kintla Lake Camp. What happened to Hwa on that first day on the route to Floral Park? Hwa could have fallen into a crevice in a snowfield, become concealed by overgrowth by a fall or fallen into the numerous fast flowing streams. He might have crawled into a hole or under an overhang for shelter, making him invisible to helicopters searching for his body. Any fall from a cliff might have dislodged enough loose rock to conceal him.

Rangers found Hwa's car still parked at Logan Pass, fully loaded with the supplies he had planned to pick up after his second night in the park so he can never manage to complete the circuit back. Search and rescue teams interviewed every hiker to whom they had issued a backcountry pass to the Sperry Campground, and no one remembered meeting a solo hiker. 

Rangers believed that the highest probability was that he went in from Logan Pass and tried to make it to the Sperry Campground through the Floral Park, because he had expressed a high desire to go through Floral Park to those at St. Mary before he started his hike.

No human footprints were visible on the glacier's surface as three inches of new snow had fallen since the day Hwa might have passed through the area.

By the end of August,  more than 2,500 man hours had been spent searching, including helicopters, canine teams and horse back riders, but surprisingly with no luck as they were looking in a defined area due to the discovery of the car loaded with supplies. The choppers had FLIR, heat seeking equipment. 

On the seventh day just two search teams continued on the ground in the park, including one fifteen-member team with technical rope training, who focused on Sperry Glacier and the surrounding area. These searchers descended into the cracks and crevices in the area. Several veteran mountaineers said that if such an animal attack had happened, searchers would have found his walking poles, boots and at least part of his backpack

Park officials made the decision to end the full scale search, though they made a commitment to Hwa's family that they would continue to look into new leads and any evidence that came to light. The complete lack of clues made park officials question if Hwa had even hiked in the park as they had searched so thoroughly. They considered every possibility, including that Hwa might have headed north into Canada or been picked up by someone else and driven out of Glacier. But the team found no evidence of problems that Hwa might try to flee from.

Yi-Jien Hwa avalanche lake, glacier national park

But, nearly tree years later, on July 3, 2011, something was eventually located.

John Wagner and his son, Christopher, were on the headwall of Avalanche Lake as a possible route to Floral Park. They didn't succeed but as they climbed up a dry creek bed on the east side of the lake, John saw something he did not expect. He got closer and found the bits of color he spotted in the weeds to be a nylon strap and a pair of long underwear. He thought it odd that someone would leave or even lose clothing in a gully at this remote location, so he reported his find to Park rangers and took them to the area. They found bone fragments from the decomposed body and equipment that  Hwa  detailed on  his equipment  list when he applied for his backcountry permit. Rangers believed that this evidence was transported down the slope from the cliffs above by water and avalanches. 

Yi-Jien Hwa avalanche lake, glacier national park

The park sent the bone fragments to the National Missing Persons Program at the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. There they were examined over a period of several months and on May 31, 2012, they announced that the bone fragments and clothing were indeed the remains of Yi-Jien Hwa. But it was impossible to tell the exact cause of death with so little remaining evidence.

A sad tale of a solo hiker probably succumbing to the terrain in this dangerous part of the Glacier National Park. But the cause of death remains a mystery on that first day of hiking around Avalanche Lake. A slip, rock fall or something more sinister? It was surprising that Hwa's body was never found much earlier after such a comprehensive search.