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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?

“His response was, ‘I don’t find much pleasure in the flowers anymore.’”

That statement went beyond any contempt Randy held for the NPS. There was something else going on, but Graber didn’t push the subject. Randy wasn’t the type to air his dirty laundry, recalls Graber, who patted Randy on the back when they parted ways.

“I hope you have a good season, Randy,” he said.

“You know,” said Randy, “after all these years of being a ranger, I wonder if it’s been worth it.”

“That,” says Graber, “chilled me to the core.”

RANDY’S LONGTIME FRIEND, backcountry ranger George Durkee, was removing a fallen tree from the trail switchbacks high above his LeConte Canyon ranger station when he got the call. Word was that Randy hadn’t checked in via radio in 4 days and that park officials were starting a search-and-rescue operation. The red-bearded, 6-foot-2 ranger with a distance runner’s physique had become known as “The Commander” both for the high-water jumpsuit he wore during training and for his ability to bite his tongue and be the smiling, diplomatic voice of the backcountry rangers.

Durkee was a hardened veteran of the ranger ranks. In the early 1970s, he’d been known to “stalk the SAR cache” in Yosemite, where his NPS career began. The SAR (rhymes with car) cache was the quick-access search-and-rescue storage facility for emergency medical supplies such as backboards, ropes, litters…and body bags. Between 1972 and 1977, Durkee assisted in the recovery of more than 25 bodies. It was during this SAR-junkie phase of Durkee’s life that he’d met Randy, 10 years older and at the time working as a Nordic ski ranger stationed out of Badger Pass, Yosemite’s ski area. Their friendship was born from a mutually sardonic sense of humor and love of wilderness.

Now 44, Durkee hadn’t lost his taste for adrenaline, but it had begun to ebb and flow, depending on the level of catastrophe. Same with his friendship with Randy, which only recently had become strained.

At the time of the radio call, Durkee was 40 minutes from his station. He dropped what he was doing and hoofed it back in 20 minutes, stuffed 3 days’ worth of food into a backpack, and was pacing the designated helicopter-landing zone in less than an hour. Having been privy to some of the personal issues Randy was dealing with, he was concerned for his friend. As he waited, three particular memories surfaced.

The first was the time he and Randy almost simultaneously met their demise at the blades of a military helicopter’s rotor while rescuing two hikers on Mt. Darwin in August 1994. One climber was trapped on a ledge and the other was severely injured after falling 140 feet down a steep snowfield. It was precarious, you-slip-you-die terrain, with few landing zones and lots of wind. A gust spun the helicopter’s tail, causing the main rotor to lurch dangerously close to some protruding granite just above where they were huddled around a litter on an indentation on Darwin’s northern slope, trying to hoist the injured climber into the helicopter. Just the thought of it made Durkee duck.

The rescue was a success, but as Durkee had moved down a rocky couloir, he knocked loose a rock the size of a softball. He yelled “Rock!” an instant before it hit Randy squarely on the head, knocking him senseless. If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, Randy probably would have died. They earned an award for small-unit valor for that rescue. It had been the second of only two awards for exceptional service Randy received from the park service during his entire career. In his personal report of the rescue, Randy never mentioned the rock that Durkee had knocked loose. He hadn’t wanted the incident to reflect poorly on his friend.

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