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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?

And yet here they were, on July 24, 1996, gathering to launch a massive manhunt for Randy Morgenson.

All rangers know, even before they’re flown to their duty stations, that search-and-rescue (SAR) operations are inevitable. Despite potentially tragic outcomes, these exercises are still ranger reunions–morbid social gatherings of a sort, where rangers steel themselves against emotional ties with victims, usually park visitors who are missing, in peril, injured, or dead. In the worst-case scenario, operations shift from rescue to recovery. Those in the business of search and rescue say there’s only one thing that compares to the emotional strain of searching for a child: hunting for a friend. A recovery operation for either is without argument the most dreaded aspect of a ranger’s job.

The five rangers gathered at Morgenson’s Bench Lake ranger station had all witnessed death at some point in their careers–sometimes violent, horrific death. But what troubled them at this moment was not knowing what had happened to their longtime colleague and friend. A voice whispered an incessant list of worst-case scenarios into the ears of these rangers: a loose rock had pinned Randy; a rockslide had buried him; an icy log had caused him to slip while crossing a creek; lightning had struck. Any of these could prove fatal to a man alone and exposed to the elements. The rangers all feared that Randy was injured and unable to call for help because he was incapacitated, in a radio dead zone, or stuck with a non-functioning radio.

If an injury had occurred on the first day of his patrol, he would have been out there now for 4 days. Backcountry ranger Lo Lyness–with whom Randy had previously had an intimate relationship–was perturbed that it had taken 4 days to initiate the search. “Response time was always slow,” she says. “Probably because nothing ever happened to [the rangers] and because as of late, radios and repeaters had been unreliable.” In fact, she was surprised that an operation was under way at all.

Both Lyness and Randy’s longtime friend, ranger George Durkee, knew that Morgenson had been incommunicado for 8 days just the season before while stationed at LeConte Canyon. “Can you believe that?” says Durkee, who had read the logbook in which Randy had penned his frustrations. On the sixth day without contact, Randy wrote: “How long before they come to look? There’s a policy…” Then, 2 days later: “Do I have a safety net? Eight days and counting.”

Communication into the far reaches of Sequoia & Kings Canyon had always been a problem. In the 1920s and ’30s, hundreds of miles of telephone wire had been strung across the backcountry. Rangers at that time were trained linemen. If they needed assistance or spotted a forest fire, the standard operating procedure was to climb the nearest tree where the wires ran, tap in, and hand-crank a message to headquarters. In most cases, it would take days to reach outlying areas, a reasonable response time for that era.

Now, 60 years later, the telephone lines had long been removed, but radio coverage was far from perfect. And the thought that Randy might be out there in need of assistance and unable to call for help angered Lyness.

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