He Was a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years of Experience. Then He Vanished.
Did ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to disaster or despair?
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A story from the Backpacker archive.
When morning broke on July 21, 1996, Randy Morgenson was midway through his 28th season as a backcountry ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. He was the most senior ranger in the High Sierra–the wise man of the woods, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the high country. To most he seemed immune to the hazards of remote wilderness travel. After loading his pack, the robust 64-year-old veteran went on a routine patrol from his station near Bench Lake. He was never seen again.
Randy fastened the note to the canvas flap that served as his station’s door, tightened the laces on his size 9 Merrell hiking boots, and pinned a National Park Service Ranger badge and name tag to his uniform-gray button-down shirt. With an old ski pole for a hiking stick, he walked away from the station.
That afternoon, thunder rumbled across the mountains and raindrops pelted the gravelly soil surrounding the outpost, washing away Randy’s footprints and any clue as to the direction he had traveled.
For nearly three decades, when someone went missing in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, standard operating procedure had included at least a radio call to Randy, the parks’ most dependable source of high-country knowledge.
“Randy was so in sync with the mountains,” says Alden Nash, retired subdistrict ranger and Randy’s former supervisor, “that he could look at a missing person’s last known whereabouts on a topographic map, consider the terrain and how it pulls at a person. And make a judgment call with astounding results.
“One time, a Boy Scout hiking in the park got separated from his troop and couldn’t be found before nightfall. Randy looked at a map for a few minutes, traced his thumb over a few lines, and then tapped his finger on a meadow. ‘Go land a helicopter in that meadow tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘That’s where he’ll be.’
“Sure enough, the Scout came running out of the woods after the helicopter landed in that meadow. He’d taken a wrong turn at a confusing trail intersection and hadn’t realized his mistake until it was almost dark and too late to retrace his footprints. The Scout was scared after a night alone, but he was fine.”
Randy’s career was filled with stories of ranger lore, a life he’d literally been bred for. He’d grown up in Yosemite National Park, where he had assisted Ansel Adams, lugging around the famous photographer’s heavy large-format tripod. He had joined the Peace Corps and been stationed in India, where he learned high-altitude mountaineering and expedition planning from the Sherpa. He had been a winter ranger in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, a Nordic ranger out of Badger Pass, and for 28 years a seasonal backcountry ranger in Sequoia & Kings Canyon. He was a writer who had been mentored by Wallace Stegner, and an environmentalist and naturalist who had spent more time in the Sierra than John Muir himself.
So, in summers past, Randy had anticipated boarding the park service helicopter and flying into the backcountry with the excitement of an 8-year-old on Christmas Eve. But the 1996 season had been different. The weather had grounded the A-Star chopper for more than a week, keeping the rangers on standby, in what Randy called “purgatory.”
Purgatory looked more like a UPS loading dock than an air base at a national park. Dozens upon dozens of cardboard boxes were stacked haphazardly in waist-high piles waiting to be airlifted into the farthest reaches of the backcountry. Each pile represented a ranger who had bought and boxed up enough food and equipment to last the summer and into the fall. Each box’s weight was written in black marker next to the ranger’s name and destination.
Many veterans reused boxes year after year, so station names and weights had been crossed out many times, telling the story of their travels like the tattered pages of a diplomat’s passport. Beside each pile of boxes was a backpack, maybe a duffel bag or two, and a crate of produce–oranges, apples, a head of lettuce, a couple of avocados–foods that would be eaten first and missed the most on the rangers’ tours of duty. The men and women who loitered about wore hiking boots, running shoes, or the odd pair of Teva sandals, usually with socks.
They were dressed in Patagonia fleece jackets, tie-dyed T-shirts, waterproof windbreakers, and shorts–usually green, but sometimes khaki–worn over long underwear. The ensembles showed the duct-taped or sewn scars of prolonged use and were topped off by beanies, floppy hats, and perhaps a forest-green baseball cap with the embroidered NPS patch.
The average tourist might have pegged the group as a mingling of Whitney-bound mountaineers, dirtbag climbers, and aging hippies. But make no mistake. These were America’s finest backcountry rangers–Special Forces, if you will–disguised as an army of misfits. And most of them were just fine with that description.
Not one of them wore the nostalgic cavalry-inspired hat so often associated with American park rangers. They weren’t there to appear officious in head-to-toe gray-and-green uniforms; in fact, many were uncomfortable wearing a badge and carrying a gun. They weren’t interested in being wilderness cops; in fact, they wanted to be as far as possible from the roads their counterpart frontcountry rangers patrolled in jeeps and squad cars.
There are few blacktop passageways running east to west for any distance in the Sierra, and none running north-south. In the high country south of Yosemite, there is a conspicuous absence of paved roads for more than 200 miles. The most traveled thoroughfare is actually the John Muir Trail, which ends atop 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48.
Jokingly referred to as a freeway, the JMT is rarely wide enough for two backpackers to walk shoulder to shoulder. Elsewhere in this craggy, high-altitude desert of granite and metamorphic rock, the crowds thin; it’s estimated that 99 percent of the parks’ backcountry visitors stay on designated trails. Which leaves the bulk of this rugged landscape to backcountry rangers.
The rangers at the base that day held master’s degrees in forestry, geology, computer science, philosophy, or art history. They were teachers, photographers, writers, ski instructors, winter guides, documentary filmmakers, academics, pacifists, military veterans, and adventure seekers who, for whatever reason, were drawn to wilderness. In the backcountry, they were on call 24 hours a day as medics, law-enforcement officers, search-and-rescue specialists, and wilderness hosts. They were interpreters who wore the hats of geologists, naturalists, botanists, wildlife observers, and historians. On good days they were “heroes” called upon to find a lost backpacker, warm a hypothermic hiker, or chase away a bear.
On bad days they picked up trash, extinguished illegal campfires, wrote citations, and were occasionally called “f*^%ing assholes” simply for doing their jobs. On the worst days, they recovered bodies.
Park service administrators often referred to these rangers as “the backbone of the NPS.” Still, they were hired and fired every season. Their families had no medical benefits. No pension plans. They paid for their own law-enforcement training and emergency medical technician schooling. And there was no room to complain because each one of them knew the deal when he or she took the job.
They were seasonal help. Temporary. In the 1930s, they were called “90-day wonders” who worked the crowded summer season. Stereotypically, seasonal rangers were college students or recent grads taking some time off before starting “real” jobs. They would hang out in the woods for a few summers and then move on, or start jumping through the hoops required to secure a permanent position with the NPS or Interior. Sequoia & Kings Canyon, however, sucked in seasonal rangers like a vortex. More than half of the backcountry rangers who reported for duty in 1996 had been coming back every summer for more than a decade, many for two decades. Randy was the veteran, with almost 30 years of experience.
He was one of 14 paid rangers budgeted to watch over a 1,350-square-mile backcountry area. Two of them patrolled on horseback, the other 12 on foot. Some of the park administrators called the backcountry crew at SEKI (government-speak for Sequoia & Kings Canyon) “fanatics.” Most of the rangers were OK with that also. They were OK with just about anything as long as the weather would hurry the hell up and clear so the helicopters could transport them and their gear into the backcountry before their fruit began to rot.
As Randy milled about waiting for the weather to clear, his colleagues noticed something was amiss. By most accounts, he was “in a funk,” “out of sorts,” and conveyed little excitement for the season to come.
SEKI’s senior science adviser, David Graber, considered Randy the parks’ most enthusiastic and dedicated expert for all things backcountry. He felt something was amiss when he saw Randy briefly at park headquarters at Ash Mountain.
They shook hands, and Graber–who had always counted on Randy to offer his passionate, curmudgeonly opinion on how the NPS wasn’t doing enough to preserve his beloved backcountry–brought up an ongoing wildlife study they had been compiling for years and a current study on blister rust, a fungus that was spreading through the park, infecting and killing white pines. Randy didn’t even entertain the topic.
“Why bother?” he said with a shrug.
Graber at first assumed that this blasé response had something to do with Randy’s discontent with the park service, which was no secret. In the past, Randy had conveyed his feeling that higher-ups in the NPS didn’t appreciate backcountry rangers’ duties–that the rangers, like the backcountry itself, were being increasingly overlooked. “Out of sight, out of mind” was a popular cliché among the veteran rangers, who joked that they put up with their second-class-citizen status because of the excellent pay.
After covering bills, gear, food, and the gas it takes to get their vehicles–old Toyota pickups, rusting Volkswagen vans, and the like–to park headquarters, where they’d sit and leak oil till October, maybe a few dollars would trickle into a savings account. They certainly weren’t in it for the money. It is an accepted truism that rangers are paid in sunsets.
In truth, there was one financial benefit backcountry rangers could count on. All rangers with federal law-enforcement commissions are eligible for the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program, enacted by Congress in 1976 “to offer peace of mind to men and women seeking careers in public safety and to make a strong statement about the value American society places on the contributions of those who serve their communities in potentially dangerous circumstances.” The law offers a “one-time financial benefit paid to the eligible survivors of a public safety officer whose death is the direct and proximate result of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty.” In 1976, the amount was $50,000; in 1988, it was increased to $100,000.
After 28 years of summer service for the NPS, this was the only employment benefit for which Randy was eligible. Of course, he would have to die first.
As Graber’s conversation with Randy progressed, he interpreted the ranger’s apathy and uncharacteristic lack of passion as depression. “His eyes were blank,” says Graber, “but I knew how to push Randy’s buttons–he’d lobbied for meadow closures his entire career. I never knew anybody who took a trampled patch of grass more personally than Randy. And wildflowers–he was a walking encyclopedia. You could always get him going about flowers, so I brought that up, something along the lines of, ‘Nice and wet up high, good year for flowers.’
“His response was, ‘I don’t find much pleasure in the flowers anymore.'”
That statement went beyond any contempt Randy held for the NPS. There was something else going on, but Graber didn’t push the subject. Randy wasn’t the type to air his dirty laundry, recalls Graber, who patted Randy on the back when they parted ways.
“I hope you have a good season, Randy,” he said.
“You know,” said Randy, “after all these years of being a ranger, I wonder if it’s been worth it.”
“That,” says Graber, “chilled me to the core.”
Randy’s longtime friend, backcountry ranger George Durkee, was removing a fallen tree from the trail switchbacks high above his LeConte Canyon ranger station when he got the call. Word was that Randy hadn’t checked in via radio in 4 days and that park officials were starting a search-and-rescue operation. The red-bearded, 6-foot-2 ranger with a distance runner’s physique had become known as “The Commander” both for the high-water jumpsuit he wore during training and for his ability to bite his tongue and be the smiling, diplomatic voice of the backcountry rangers.
Durkee was a hardened veteran of the ranger ranks. In the early 1970s, he’d been known to “stalk the SAR cache” in Yosemite, where his NPS career began. The SAR (rhymes with car) cache was the quick-access search-and-rescue storage facility for emergency medical supplies such as backboards, ropes, litters…and body bags. Between 1972 and 1977, Durkee assisted in the recovery of more than 25 bodies. It was during this SAR-junkie phase of Durkee’s life that he’d met Randy, 10 years older and at the time working as a Nordic ski ranger stationed out of Badger Pass, Yosemite’s ski area. Their friendship was born from a mutually sardonic sense of humor and love of wilderness.
Now 44, Durkee hadn’t lost his taste for adrenaline, but it had begun to ebb and flow, depending on the level of catastrophe. Same with his friendship with Randy, which only recently had become strained.
At the time of the radio call, Durkee was 40 minutes from his station. He dropped what he was doing and hoofed it back in 20 minutes, stuffed 3 days’ worth of food into a backpack, and was pacing the designated helicopter-landing zone in less than an hour. Having been privy to some of the personal issues Randy was dealing with, he was concerned for his friend. As he waited, three particular memories surfaced.
The first was the time he and Randy almost simultaneously met their demise at the blades of a military helicopter’s rotor while rescuing two hikers on Mt. Darwin in August 1994. One climber was trapped on a ledge and the other was severely injured after falling 140 feet down a steep snowfield. It was precarious, you-slip-you-die terrain, with few landing zones and lots of wind. A gust spun the helicopter’s tail, causing the main rotor to lurch dangerously close to some protruding granite just above where they were huddled around a litter on an indentation on Darwin’s northern slope, trying to hoist the injured climber into the helicopter. Just the thought of it made Durkee duck.
The rescue was a success, but as Durkee had moved down a rocky couloir, he knocked loose a rock the size of a softball. He yelled “Rock!” an instant before it hit Randy squarely on the head, knocking him senseless. If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, Randy probably would have died. They earned an award for small-unit valor for that rescue. It had been the second of only two awards for exceptional service Randy received from the park service during his entire career. In his personal report of the rescue, Randy never mentioned the rock that Durkee had knocked loose. He hadn’t wanted the incident to reflect poorly on his friend.
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.
Suicide became just one of many plausible theories that swirled around the backcountry in ensuing days as nearly 100 rescue personnel converged to join the search in 80 square miles of rugged, high-altitude wilderness. Foul play couldn’t be discounted either. On two separate occasions just the season before, Randy had reported feeling “threatened” by an irate climber and a cowboy. A special investigator assigned to the case quickly learned of the suspicion by some that Randy had hiked out of the mountains to start a new life. But most in the ranger ranks believed he was seriously injured and unable to call for help due to SEKI’s unreliable radio system–a system Randy had complained about throughout his career.
As numerous search-dog teams, search-and-rescue volunteers, and air-support squads converged on the park, a tight-knit group of Randy’s friends–fellow rangers–gathered around the picnic table outside the outpost ranger station at Bench Lake where Randy generally ate his meals. They employed modern search strategies and their own recollections of Randy’s wilderness travel techniques to narrow down the possibilities of where he might be.
Unbeknownst to them, in a remote location far from a marked trail, a clue was waiting to be found near a waterfall–a backpack and some other gear, in a dangerous water-carved ravine, which matched the description of the equipment a backcountry ranger would be issued. This cosmic spot was also one of the beautifully wild and lonely places Randy loved.
Would these clues lead search parties to Randy Morgenson’s location? Or would they only draw the rangers deeper into the mystery of his disappearance?
“See you at the SAR.” Six veteran rangers had parted just weeks earlier with that foreboding, though not unusual, goodbye. They had never expected to reunite so soon at the Bench Lake ranger station–or that they would be summoned from their remote backcountry posts in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks to search for one of their own.
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.
“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 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.
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.
In 1976, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force named Robert Mattson came up with a method for prioritizing ground-search areas. His then-innovative strategy, first published in the Spring 1976 issue of Search and Rescue Magazine, came to be known as the Mattson Consensus. It was inspired by the pioneering work of B.O. Koopman, a member of the U.S. Navy’s Operations Evaluation Group, who created a mathematical approach to locating enemy submarines in the vast oceans during World War II. The strategy was so effective that Koopman and his group were credited with helping win the battle against German U-boats in the Atlantic.
The Mattson Consensus has remained a favorite technique of SAR professionals like Coffman, who implemented its classic approach as leader of the search effort at Bench Lake. According to Mattson, a successful search required the presence of experts who knew something about either the missing person or the terrain.
In this case, Coffman had assembled both. After collecting as much information as possible about the victim and the territory and dividing the overall search area into smaller segments, Coffman conducted a secret ballot. Each ranger was asked to assign each segment a number value–high for areas where Randy most probably was, low for least-probable locales. According to Mattson, it was “best to do this privately because it will insure that even the meeker individuals will be able to express their opinion without being intimidated by the more vocal members of the group.”
Though Coffman ran the show and knew the history behind the theory, the rangers knew the drill and spoke the same acronym-heavy language. POA, for example, was code for probability of area, the odds that Randy was in a certain sector. ROW was the rest of the world and represented the possibility that Randy was somewhere outside the designated search area.
The percentage points assigned by each ranger for 16 segments plus the ROW segment had to add up to 100 points. Nobody could assign a zero for any area. That would mean he or she knew with certainty that Randy was not in that particular zone, which was impossible. In his 1976 article, Mattson had taunted readers for such false confidence in the face of unknowns: “If you KNOW where the survivors are, why are you searching!”
Mattson’s approach was mathematical, directing rescuers toward search areas that were most likely to yield a missing person or clues, but he also stressed the need to keep an open mind, use common sense, dig for clues, and never discard information. Coffman had pages of notes that proved just how hard everyone had dug for information.
In his logbook, Randy had twice reported going south on the John Muir Trail to Pinchot Pass, once to the summit and the second time over the top to Woods Creek. Leaning on their knowledge of Randy’s habits as a ranger, they deduced that it was unlikely he’d gone that direction again–either via the John Muir Trail or any cross-country routes that eventually met up with it to the south.
On the other hand, Randy had not yet been to Lake Basin–which Durkee and Lyness knew was a sacred place for him. Nor had he covered the cross-country routes in Upper Basin or visited any of the tucked-away gems north of the Bench Lake Trail, including Dumbbell Lakes and Marion Lake. With these observations in mind, the rangers threw out ideas of probable distances and places Randy might have visited on a 3- to 4-day patrol.
The information-gathering process had consumed hours, but the voting process took only 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the Lake Basin area (segment F) was the highest-percentage POA at 26.2 percent, while Marion Lake and its surrounding cirque (segment G) was the second-leading selection at 19.2 percent. The ROW option was voted as the lowest POA by everybody–except Durkee, who assigned that choice a curiously high percentage. That anomaly intrigued Coffman. “You think Randy might have left the park?” he asked. “Why?”
“I told Coffman that Randy’s life was in turmoil,” says Durkee, “though I didn’t go into details with Lo sitting right there next to me.” Durkee worried that Randy’s marital struggles and his recently ended affair with Lyness had left him in a dangerous emotional state. Durkee also kept quiet about his “very slight, but unshakable” suspicion that his friend might have gone off to some special place and ended his life.
After Coffman dismissed the group until morning and the other rangers had wandered off to their respective sleeping spots, Durkee made a discreet detour to the door of the station. Randy’s note was still pinned to the canvas. The date he’d written was June 21–even though it was July. Everyone else had discounted the mix-up of months as an honest slip of the pen, but Durkee couldn’t stop thinking that it was a potential clue to Randy’s mindset. He reprimanded himself for his paranoia and pushed aside the tent flap. As always, Randy’s residence was spartan. “Randy never was much for putting up pictures or drapes to make his stations more homey,” says Durkee. “It was a minimalist basecamp.”
Quickly, Durkee’s headlamp beam found its mark: the steel footlocker where Randy would have kept his sidearm. As expected, it was padlocked. He gave the lock a tug, just in case. Solid. He then turned his attention to Randy’s military field desk–a drab rectangular wooden box with leather handles on either end. The front was a row of drawers and cubbyholes topped by a worn-smooth working surface that folded up to reveal a storage compartment. Inside, he found the expected stacks of mandatory reading: the new National Park Service Law Enforcement Policy and Guidelines binder; a few inches’ worth of backcountry policy, which Randy could recite from memory (nothing had changed much in the past decade); some EMT refresher manuals; a stack of citations; and the recently proposed but not implemented meadow management plan, which had been distributed during training to some of the backcountry rangers. The pages of this document were marked up with Randy’s notes and suggestions. “It was a work in progress,” says Durkee. “Which told me Randy intended to come back.” With that rationalization, the mentally exhausted ranger retired to his tent.
Meanwhile, Coffman continued to plan into the night. Dave Ashe was his point man in the frontcountry, to whom he relayed–among other things–the results of the Mattson Consensus. Ashe and fellow ranger Scott Wanek already had set up an impromptu incident command post at the Kings Canyon fire station. They transformed a dormitory into a planning room and began the process of contacting various state emergency response groups–a network of organizations that included the California Rescue Dog Association and volunteer SAR teams from counties throughout the state–with requests for personnel and other support. Even the military and California Highway Patrol were put on standby. Regarding potential search personnel, Ashe and Wanek emphasized the need for people with expert hiking skills. Coffman had told Ashe to make it very clear: “The search area is complicated, dangerous, off-trail terrain.” Ashe, in turn, conveyed that he wanted quality, not quantity. The underlying message was clear: Nobody wanted to have to rescue a rescuer.
Amid that chaos, Ashe found a few minutes to prep CASIE (Computer-Aided Search Information Exchange) for data. The program is designed to simplify most of the calculations involved in managing a search emergency. A computer printout provides basic information about the manner in which a certain segment has been searched (air, foot, dog team, and so on) and how effective the searchers believe they were in clearing that area. Using this method, the leader of the search–in this case, Coffman–would cross off search segments once he felt confident they were clear. Of course, the system has its limitations. For one, it presumes the missing person is not on the move and has not reentered an area already cleared. In addition, segments searches are generally limited to surface areas–meaning they don’t factor in locations underwater, underground, or under a rockslide.
One dog handler described the nature of a SAR in the High Sierra as an “organized search in chaotic terrain.” In an area as vast as the Morgenson SAR–where only two segments were smaller than 500 acres, the majority were around 2,000 acres, and one segment was more than 7,000 acres–a thorough surface search was difficult enough. Compounding the challenge, this slice of high country was covered by myriad streams and rivers emptying into hundreds, if not thousands, of lakes. Nearly every peak had dozens of active rockslide and snow avalanche paths, any one of which could conceal an injured victim–or a body.
Randy Morgenson himself had responded to tragic calls to retrieve climbers who had fallen hundreds of feet. These deaths were precipitated by loose rocks, a patch of ice, a momentary lapse of attention. Some of these incidents were so violent that clothes and even shoes were ripped off. The rangers knew well what granite could do to a human body. The rangers had to go about their business, prepared for the worst.
There was one other possibility that could make the search more difficult. Maybe even impossible. What if Randy didn’t want to be found?
By July 27–three days after six rangers had first convened at Bench Lake–the SAR operation had expanded to 55 people, and now included helicopter and dog teams. And as it had grown, so had the tension level of the rangers on the ground. George Durkee voiced frustrations after a long day in the field with a search dog. Lo Lyness broke down in an interview with an NPS investigator.
“The SAR, at that point, was just this amazingly powerful and emotional event that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” says ranger Bob Kenan, a longtime colleague of Morgenson who was part of the operation. “It encompassed the entire park. It became a desperate search to find Randy and save him if that was at all possible.”
In the ensuing days, an ever-building sense of unease gnawed at rangers chasing the ghost of Randy Morgenson. Dogs followed scents that seemed to evaporate on lonely mountain passes, leaving the animals sitting on their haunches, stopped dead in their tracks. Intriguing, random pieces of gear were found in several different locations, but none could be positively linked to Randy. Tracks were inconclusive at best; rain showers certainly weren’t helping. Meanwhile, an NPS criminal investigation team found Randy’s car where he’d parked it. Bank records showed no withdrawals. Credit cards hadn’t been used.
Read More: Ranger Randy Morgenson’s Epitaph in the Sky
Then a letter arrived at Randy Morgenson’s home in Sedona, Arizona. His wife, Judi, who had sent him into the backcountry with divorce papers to sign, opened the letter, read a few lines–and had to sit down. It was clearly from Randy himself. By this time, she had become certain that something tragic had occurred, but this letter made her think differently. It had been postmarked 2 days after his supposed disappearance. Since there is no postal service in the backcountry, she couldn’t understand how Randy could have mailed this letter if, indeed, he was still in the mountains.
Days passed, and the search grew increasingly hopeless. Psychics were even being considered as viable options. Most of the rangers felt the mystery behind Randy Morgenson’s disappearance would never be solved. Others pledged to never quit searching–not until the truth was known.
Then, at a time when the effort to find Randy, or at least some answers. seemed futile, a clue was found.
An unlikely group of wilderness sleuths was making its way up a slippery, rugged gorge very near the outermost borders of the search area. Something caught their attention–a weathered backpack cast to the side of a rushing torrent, below the pools of a waterfall. They discovered other items, too. A boot was the most telling piece of evidence–halfway submerged in water, halfway out, with something white protruding. Upon closer examination, searchers made a horrible realization: It was a legbone. The boot and pack seemed to match the description of gear that Randy reportedly had been using–all but guaranteeing that this gorge was the ranger’s final resting place.
Investigation and recovery teams were flown in. The gorge took on the appearance of a wilderness crime scene–yellow tape marking gear and human remains. Nothing could be discounted. Many of Randy’s friends volunteered to help with the morbid recovery process. Soon thereafter, someone found a park-issue radio–but curiously, it was resting atop the falls, not at the bottom like the other evidence. This discovery confused matters even more. Although these remains seemed to confirm Randy had been in the mountains the whole time, ranger Bob Kenan wasn’t so certain this spot was where Randy had met his end.
Kenan, in particular, had remembered searching this very gorge, and crossing at the exact spot where the radio was found. It was the same creek crossing he always used while in this area of the park. He was certain he would have seen it, which made at least one other ranger muse, “Had Randy left the park, and then come back?” Foul play was still a possibility, as was suicide, which if proven would cancel the payment of the public safety officer’s benefit of $100,000 to his next of kin–in this case, Judi Morgenson.
Other horrific possibilities were considered, spurred on by evidence found at the scene and by dark, prophetic-sounding writings in Randy’s diary. Further, the radio was turned on, which the rangers decided could signify only two possibiliites. Randy–if the coroner indeed proved these remains to be his–had been monitoring his radio at the time of his death. Or he had been trying to call for help.
For some, the mystery was solved. For others, one critical question remained as enigmatic as ever: Exactly what happened to Randy Morgenson?
Eric Blehm spent 8 years researching and writing The Last Season (HarperCollins, $25). The former editor of TransWorld Snowboarding lives in Southern California with his wife and son.
First published in 2008; last updated December 2021