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October 2006

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.”

In the ensuing days, an ever-building sense of unease gnawed at rangers chasing the ghost of Randy Morgenson. Dogs followed scents that seemed to evaporate on lonely mountain passes, leaving the animals sitting on their haunches, stopped dead in their tracks. Intriguing, random pieces of gear were found in several different locations, but none could be positively linked to Randy. Tracks were inconclusive at best; rain showers certainly weren’t helping. Meanwhile, an NPS criminal investigation team found Randy’s car where he’d parked it. Bank records showed no withdrawals. Credit cards hadn’t been used.

Then a letter arrived at Randy Morgenson’s home in Sedona, Arizona. His wife, Judi, who had sent him into the backcountry with divorce papers to sign, opened the letter, read a few lines–and had to sit down. It was clearly from Randy himself. By this time, she had become certain that something tragic had occurred, but this letter made her think differently. It had been postmarked 2 days after his supposed disappearance. Since there is no postal service in the backcountry, she couldn’t understand how Randy could have mailed this letter if, indeed, he was still in the mountains.

Days passed, and the search grew increasingly hopeless. Psychics were even being considered as viable options. Most of the rangers felt the mystery behind Randy Morgenson’s disappearance would never be solved. Others pledged to never quit searching–not until the truth was known.

Then, at a time when the effort to find Randy, or at least some answers. seemed futile, a clue was found.

An unlikely group of wilderness sleuths was making its way up a slippery, rugged gorge very near the outermost borders of the search area. Something caught their attention–a weathered backpack cast to the side of a rushing torrent, below the pools of a waterfall. They discovered other items, too. A boot was the most telling piece of evidence–halfway submerged in water, halfway out, with something white protruding. Upon closer examination, searchers made a horrible realization: It was a legbone. The boot and pack seemed to match the description of gear that Randy reportedly had been using–all but guaranteeing that this gorge was the ranger’s final resting place.

Investigation and recovery teams were flown in. The gorge took on the appearance of a wilderness crime scene–yellow tape marking gear and human remains. Nothing could be discounted. Many of Randy’s friends volunteered to help with the morbid recovery process. Soon thereafter, someone found a park-issue radio–but curiously, it was resting atop the falls, not at the bottom like the other evidence. This discovery confused matters even more. Although these remains seemed to confirm Randy had been in the mountains the whole time, ranger Bob Kenan wasn’t so certain this spot was where Randy had met his end.
Kenan, in particular, had remembered searching this very gorge, and crossing at the exact spot where the radio was found. It was the same creek crossing he always used while in this area of the park. He was certain he would have seen it, which made at least one other ranger muse, “Had Randy left the park, and then come back?” Foul play was still a possibility, as was suicide, which if proven would cancel the payment of the public safety officer’s benefit of $100,000 to his next of kin–in this case, Judi Morgenson.

Other horrific possibilities were considered, spurred on by evidence found at the scene and by dark, prophetic-sounding writings in Randy’s diary. Further, the radio was turned on, which the rangers decided could signify only two possibiliites. Randy–if the coroner indeed proved these remains to be his–had been monitoring his radio at the time of his death. Or he had been trying to call for help.

For some, the mystery was solved. For others, one critical question remained as enigmatic as ever: Exactly what happened to Randy Morgenson?

Eric Blehm spent 8 years researching and writing The Last Season (HarperCollins, $25). The former editor of TransWorld Snowboarding lives in Southern California with his wife and son.

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