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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?

One dog handler described the nature of a SAR in the High Sierra as an “organized search in chaotic terrain.” In an area as vast as the Morgenson SAR–where only two segments were smaller than 500 acres, the majority were around 2,000 acres, and one segment was more than 7,000 acres–a thorough surface search was difficult enough. Compounding the challenge, this slice of high country was covered by myriad streams and rivers emptying into hundreds, if not thousands, of lakes. Nearly every peak had dozens of active rockslide and snow avalanche paths, any one of which could conceal an injured victim–or a body.
Randy Morgenson himself had responded to tragic calls to retrieve climbers who had fallen hundreds of feet. These deaths were precipitated by loose rocks, a patch of ice, a momentary lapse of attention. Some of these incidents were so violent that clothes and even shoes were ripped off. The rangers knew well what granite could do to a human body. The rangers had to go about their business, prepared for the worst.

There was one other possibility that could make the search more difficult. Maybe even impossible. What if Randy didn’t want to be found?

By July 27–three days after six rangers had first convened at Bench Lake–the SAR operation had expanded to 55 people, and now included helicopter and dog teams. And as it had grown, so had the tension level of the rangers on the ground. George Durkee voiced frustrations after a long day in the field with a search dog. Lo Lyness broke down in an interview with an NPS investigator.

“The SAR, at that point, was just this amazingly powerful and emotional event that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” says ranger Bob Kenan, a longtime colleague of Morgenson who was part of the operation. “It encompassed the entire park. It became a desperate search to find Randy and save him if that was at all possible.”

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