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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?

After they got the climbers off the mountain, the park helicopter had picked them up at the base of Darwin and flew them to McClure Meadow. The two found a comfortable flat spot and lay on their backs watching the clouds, still feeling the adrenaline coursing through their veins. Durkee commented that it was a great day to be alive.

Randy’s response had been, “Oh, I don’t know.” He sat up and scanned the meadow and the mountains that rose up from Evolution Basin–spectacular peaks named after Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, and other evolution theorists. And then he said, matter-of-factly, “The least I owe these mountains is a body.”

By itself, that remark was more maudlin than suicidal, but when a man later disappears in those same mountains, a friend starts adding up the clues.

The second memory was of an argument Durkee had had with Randy during training the year before, in June 1995. A low-key conversation had escalated and Durkee released a boatload of resentment that had been simmering for more than a year about an extramarital affair Randy had been having.

“Whether it was a midlife crisis, filling a void, or just a side of Randy I didn’t know existed, he was hurting his wife, who was also my friend,” says Durkee. “Not only had he put me in an extremely difficult position, he was also losing my respect, so I told him so.”

Randy lashed back, telling Durkee he was being judgmental. Durkee countered that he was only judging the pain Randy had been causing his wife, Judi. “Don’t you think I know I’m causing Judi pain?!” Randy erupted. “I was this close”–thumb and forefinger a centimeter apart–”to not coming back this season!”

Then he admitted that after Judi had found out about the affair, he’d started thinking about suicide. “Not seriously,” Randy assured Durkee, “but I’ve been having those kinds of thoughts.”

The third memory was from July 20, 1996–the night before Randy went on patrol–when he had radioed Durkee and his wife, volunteer ranger Paige Meier, to ask some mundane questions that Durkee interpreted as “Randy just wanting somebody to talk to.” The short conversation had ended when Randy said abruptly, “I won’t be bothering you two anymore.”
Durkee and Meier looked at each other with the same bewildered expression and shrugged it off.

Now, with his friend missing somewhere in the backcountry, Durkee found the memory of Randy’s words deeply troubling. He realized his friend had been in a downward spiral for some time. Randy had once conveyed a confident, strong, opinionated presence–the calming presence of an elite ranger. As of late, Randy had been described more than once as being vulnerable.

Durkee couldn’t wait to get to Bench Lake, not only to start the search but also to see if Randy had taken along the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum he’d been issued for the season.

The decidedly heavy 2 pounds of steel plus ammo was a required part of the uniform. But Durkee knew that Randy always left it locked up at his station while on off-trail patrols. He despised the gun for what it did to the once-approachable park-ranger uniform, and had conveyed serious doubts about being able to pull the trigger against another human being, even in self-defense. If the gun wasn’t at the station, Durkee feared that Randy might have had plans to use it on himself.

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