Thomas Heng - Disturbing deaths in U.S. national parks

Thomas Heng, body found July 25th 2012, Sequoia National Park, California

Thomas Heng, Sequoia National Park.

Thomas Heng, 31, from San Rafael, went hiking on Mount Langley (14,042 feet) in the Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park on Sunday, July 22nd, 2012 with three other friends from the Bay Area "Anything Active Hiking Club". The three of them had originally planned to climb the mountain the previous day, but changed their plans. Mt. Langley is about midway between Fresno and Death Valley in east-central California. The group spent the weekend of July 21-22 hiking up White Mountain Peak in Mono County on Saturday, camped overnight and then headed to Mt. Langley on Sunday.

Mount Langley California

For some reason Thomas decided to hike on a separate trail to the other two hikers, but he did sign the guest book at the top of the mountain. This was a little out of character, since Heng was an organiser for the group and always put effort into supporting other hikers. His companions reached the summit of Mt. Langley before him.

They waited until dark, but stormy weather made them turn back as Heng apparently continued on to the summit. No one panicked when he didn’t appear because there was a camp site nearby. However, no one at that campsite or in nearby Lone Pine, Calif., had seen Heng. 

His wife, Petra Heng, said her husband was an accomplished hiker, having climbed about eight of California's 14,000-foot peaks. Heng described himself as a San Francisco native who enjoys hiking, camping, climbing, running, snowboarding and mountaineering. His Facebook page describes his climbs on Mount Russell and Mount Carillon. He also posted about future climbs on Mount Rainier and Nevado Salkantay in Peru.

He was last seen alive at around 14,000 feet on Mt. Langley at 1pm.

The Inyo County Sheriff's Department notified Sequoia and Kings National Park that Thomas was missing at about 5:45 p.m. on Monday July 23rd. By noon Tuesday, 20 people were searching and one helicopter was deployed. An additional helicopter and related staff from Yosemite National Park also joined the search. 

Trained specialists from Montrose and Sierra Madre search and rescue teams were part of the search, in addition to: China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue, Inyo National Forest, Manzanar National Historic Site, Tulare County Sheriff's Department and Yosemite National Park. 

Old Army Pass area of the John Muir Wilderness

On July 25th, they found Heng's body in the Old Army Pass area of the John Muir Wilderness in Inyo National Forest at around 11,000 feet about 300 feet from a ledge. A positive identification was made at around 5 p.m.

Old Army Pass area of the John Muir Wilderness

The autopsy revealed he had died of “multiple traumatic fractures and hemorrhages due to a mountain hiking accident,” according to the Inyo County Deputy Coroner’s Investigator Jeff Mullenhour. He also said “We have no way of knowing where he was before he was found. We don’t know how far he fell. There was a ridge and ice in a crevasse above Heng’s body".

This story is a little strange. Given that Thomas was a group leader, why did he decide to climb to the peak of Mount Langley alone, on a separate trail to his two friends? Did he summit too late and in darkness stumbled over a cliff edge? Given he was so experienced, it would seem a stupid thing to do. Perhaps it was altitude sickness at over 14,000 feet which caused an irrational decision? The storm hitting the mountain would have also had an impact on descending at speed.