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Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

Mattson’s approach was mathematical, directing rescuers toward seach areas that were most likely to yield a missing person or clues, but he also stressed the need to keep an open mind, use common sense, dig for clues, and never discard information. Coffman had pages of notes that proved just how hard everyone had dug for information.

In his logbook, Randy had twice reported going south on the John Muir Trail to Pinchot Pass, once to the summit and the second time over the top to Woods Creek. Leaning on their knowledge of Randy’s habits as a ranger, they deduced that it was unlikely he’d gone that direction again–either via the John Muir Trail or any cross-country routes that eventually met up with it to the south.

On the other hand, Randy had not yet been to Lake Basin–which Durkee and Lyness knew was a sacred place for him. Nor had he covered the cross-country routes in Upper Basin or visited any of the tucked-away gems north of the Bench Lake Trail, including Dumbbell Lakes and Marion Lake. With these observations in mind, the rangers threw out ideas of probable distances and places Randy might have visited on a 3- to 4-day patrol.

The information-gathering process had consumed hours, but the voting process took only 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the Lake Basin area (segment F) was the highest-percentage POA at 26.2 percent, while Marion Lake and its surrounding cirque (segment G) was the second-leading selection at 19.2 percent. The ROW option was voted as the lowest POA by everybody–except Durkee, who assigned that choice a curiously high percentage. That anomaly intrigued Coffman. “You think Randy might have left the park?” he asked. “Why?”

“I told Coffman that Randy’s life was in turmoil,” says Durkee, “though I didn’t go into details with Lo sitting right there next to me.” Durkee worried that Randy’s marital struggles and his recently ended affair with Lyness had left him in a dangerous emotional state. Durkee also kept quiet about his “very slight, but unshakable” suspicion that his friend might have gone off to some special place and ended his life.

After Coffman dismissed the group until morning and the other rangers had wandered off to their respective sleeping spots, Durkee made a discreet detour to the door of the station. Randy’s note was still pinned to the canvas. The date he’d written was June 21–even though it was July. Everyone else had discounted the mix-up of months as an honest slip of the pen, but Durkee couldn’t stop thinking that it was a potential clue to Randy’s mindset. He reprimanded himself for his paranoia and pushed aside the tent flap. As always, Randy’s residence was spartan. “Randy never was much for putting up pictures or drapes to make his stations more homey,” says Durkee. “It was a minimalist basecamp.”

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