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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?

“The fact is, the whole radio thing was massively screwed up,” she says. “Repeaters didn’t work, radios didn’t work–
I had at least three radios that summer–so it was not unusual to not be able to contact someone. It just seemed not to be a priority for anyone who had the power to do something about it.”

A few of the rangers gathered at Bench Lake recalled one of Randy’s more cynical jokes: “If you’re going to get hurt in the park, make sure you do it in a place where there’s good radio coverage.” The dark humor struck a little too close to home that evening.

Ironically, in his 1995 end-of-season report, Randy had reiterated what he’d been saying for years: “Radio communication&133;was difficult again this season; everyone knows.”

“We hope it’ll be better next year.”

AS THE RANGERS CONVENED, a soft, light-blue sky held a few drifting cirrus clouds–wispy, elongated remnants of the afternoon thunderstorms. Soon the clouds would catch the setting sun’s fiery reds and oranges bathing the basin’s surrounding peaks in the glorious light for which these mountains are famous.

Normally the rangers welcomed the evening light, even planned their days so they’d be positioned, come sunset, in front of a monolithic hunk of granite or west-facing cirque–a backcountry hike-in theater. But come dusk on the day that Randy’s SAR began, there was no pleasant anticipation. Instead, the evening light only ushered in the darkness that punctuated the end of Randy’s fourth day without contact and another cold night for him. Alone.

Upon the group’s arrival at the Bench Lake station, Randy Coffman, the incident commander, had instructed the rangers to read Randy’s logbook to glean any information that might hint where he had gone. As they huddled around the journal, they noted places he’d already patrolled and relayed them to Coffman, who was keeping a list of clues. It was the first step in a methodical, systematic search operation designed to bring order to the chaos of looking for a missing person.

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