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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?

Quickly, Durkee’s headlamp beam found its mark: the steel footlocker where Randy would have kept his sidearm. As expected, it was padlocked. He gave the lock a tug, just in case. Solid. He then turned his attention to Randy’s military field desk–a drab rectangular wooden box with leather handles on either end. The front was a row of drawers and cubbyholes topped by a worn-smooth working surface that folded up to reveal a storage compartment. Inside, he found the expected stacks of mandatory reading: the new National Park Service Law Enforcement Policy and Guidelines binder; a few inches’ worth of backcountry policy, which Randy could recite from memory (nothing had changed much in the past decade); some EMT refresher manuals; a stack of citations; and the recently proposed but not implemented meadow management plan, which had been distributed during training to some of the backcountry rangers. The pages of this document were marked up with Randy’s notes and suggestions. “It was a work in progress,” says Durkee. “Which told me Randy intended to come back.” With that rationalization, the mentally exhausted ranger retired to his tent.

Meanwhile, Coffman continued to plan into the night. Dave Ashe was his point man in the frontcountry, to whom he relayed–among other things–the results of the Mattson Consensus. Ashe and fellow ranger Scott Wanek already had set up an impromptu incident command post at the Kings Canyon fire station. They transformed a dormitory into a planning room and began the process of contacting various state emergency response groups–a network of organizations that included the California Rescue Dog Association and volunteer SAR teams from counties throughout the state–with requests for personnel and other support. Even the military and California Highway Patrol were put on standby. Regarding potential search personnel, Ashe and Wanek emphasized the need for people with expert hiking skills. Coffman had told Ashe to make it very clear: “The search area is complicated, dangerous, off-trail terrain.” Ashe, in turn, conveyed that he wanted quality, not quantity. The underlying message was clear: Nobody wanted to have to rescue a rescuer.

Amid that chaos, Ashe found a few minutes to prep CASIE (Computer-Aided Search Information Exchange) for data. The program is designed to simplify most of the calculations involved in managing a search emergency. A computer printout provides basic information about the manner in which a certain segment has been searched (air, foot, dog team, and so on) and how effective the searchers believe they were in clearing that area. Using this method, the leader of the search–in this case, Coffman–would cross off search segments once he felt confident they were clear. Of course, the system has its limitations. For one, it presumes the missing person is not on the move and has not reentered an area already cleared. In addition, segments searches are generally limited to surface areas–meaning they don’t factor in locations underwater, underground, or under a rockslide.

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