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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?

Intermittently, Coffman threw questions into the mix: How many miles would Randy travel in a day while hiking on a trail? While off-trail? Did he prefer to camp in protected, wooded areas, or in the open? Would he scramble up and over a difficult class 3 ridgeline, or take a longer but easier route around such a feature? The queries helped key the rangers into Randy’s profile as a wilderness traveler–a mindset that would help them make more educated guesses as to his actions.

Coffman encouraged ideas. “If you remember Randy mentioning someplace he wanted to check out during training, some peak he wanted to climb,” he said, “speak up.”

During the course of the discussion, Coffman maintained radio contact with Dave Ashe, acting Sierra Crest subdistrict ranger and Randy’s former supervisor, back at frontcountry headquarters. At the same time, Coffman “inked up” a topographic map on the picnic table, dividing it into 16 segments labeled A through P. Each segment was deliniated by obvious geographic features–rivers, ridgelines, trails, meadows, passes, or mountain peaks. Together, they formed a zone that was roughly 80 square miles, the area that the rangers agreed represented the outer limits of where Randy might have traveled on a 4-day patrol.

The sheer size of the operation sank in. Search areas this massive were most often for downed aircraft. A missing person on foot could usually cover far less mileage. And on the map, the shape of the search area was anything but a clean circle or square grid spreading out from the red X that marked Randy’s last known whereabouts. Such computerized representations are unrealistic in mountainous terrain. This search area’s boundary lines were chaotic, like the terrain itself. The lines were scrawled ungracefully and resembled, at best, an incongruous shape that could have been drawn by a 4-year-old.

But just as a toddler might see a dinosaur through a haphazard assortment of lines, the rangers saw topographic familiarity beneath the ink. Erratic curves and squiggles represented ridgelines and cirques, elevation gains and losses; sweeping strokes were canyons carved by water; amoebalike shapes were basins; the corridor of Cartridge Creek jutted away from the search area like an arm; the Muro Blanco, a boomerang-shaped valley dangled like a leg to the south. The rangers weren’t terribly worried about the configuration of the search area–it was the sheer magnitude and ruggedness of the terrain. A geographic monster full of hazards that could swallow a man.

The rangers knew this all too well. Airplanes and their crews had crashed in the High Sierra and were still missing. Others had taken decades to be found. Fortunately, times–and search techniques–had changed.

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