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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


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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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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