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Backpacker Magazine – October 2006

Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

by: Eric Blehm


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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Pissed
Apr 01, 2012

This piece masquerades as a full story when in reality it is just a teaser.

FUCK YOU, Backpacker. I will never buy another issue.

Don
Jan 11, 2011

Just finished the book, "The Last Season," and pretty much recommend it to anyone who is attracted to hiking / backpacking and the risks involved.

The subject of the story, Randy Morgensen, was a literal expert at outdoor living and surviving. He was beyond, in experience, what 98% of American outdoor people think they are. But, then, he was lucky enough to grow up in Yosemite with a father who bred him for the outdoors and then he just extended that training on his own starting with mountaineering training in India.

There is a location in the book of where a search dog went through the ice and had to be med-i-vaced out due to a paw injury. It had just alerted to something. The GPS location in the book doesn't make sense. Anyone understand that location ? It was easier for me to simply google "Window Peak, CA" and observe the terrain of Window Peak Lake which put me about 1/4 mile away from the spot referenced.

Em
Nov 01, 2010

What I hate is that they don't tell us how Judi felt or did after she found out

Emily
Nov 01, 2010

I have read the book The Last Season, all about his life and disappearance. I think he left the park, sent the divorce paper thing, and than came back and commited sucide.

LION 01
May 21, 2010

I ATE HIM YUM YUM

Anonymous
May 21, 2010

NOBODY IS AN EXPERT IN A WILD HARSH ENVIORNMENT
LEAVE IT TO THE MOUNTAIN LIONS

Anonymous
May 21, 2010

NOBODY IS AN EXPERT IN A WILD HARSH ENVIORNMENT
LEAVE IT TO THE MOUNTAIN LIONS

Scott
May 07, 2010

I knew Randy well during my six years as back country ranger. I can see both scenarios. If he left the back country I don't he could have stayed gone. He loved it to much. It was his home and rangering was the only way of life he knew.

Mario
Oct 18, 2009

It's all America's fault! Happy eco freaks?

DArmenta
Oct 14, 2009

Q. Did High Sierra ranger, Randy Morgenson, succumb to depression or disaster?

A. Both. One led to the other. End of story.

Aj
Jan 23, 2009

Great Book. Buy it. (please)

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