National Geographic Adventure: April '06
A revered backcountry ranger vanishes.
By Anthony Brandt
On July 21, 1996, Randy Morgenson, 54, the dean of seasonal rangers in the vast, vertical wilderness of California's Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, set out on a routine patrol and disappeared. Morgenson was raised in Yosemite Valley (his father ran a park concession stand), and except for a few years in college and in Asia—first with the Peace Corps, then climbing the Himalaya—he had lived his entire life in the High Sierra. National Park Service personnel throughout the Southwest knew him and respected his experience rescuing peple from crashed planes, wrong turns, and various other mountain mishaps.
After Morgenson failed to make radio contact for six days, scores of people took to the ground and the air looking for him. The had reason to be hopeful. This was a veteran ranger, after all. And in the prior 20 years (due in part, to Morgenson's tremendous skills), only one hiker had ever gone missing in Kings/Sequoia and not been found.
Morgenson would be the second.
In The Last Season, author Eric Blehm, a snowboarder and journalist, deftly interweaves the story of Morgenson's lifelong devotion to wilderness with a rivetting account of the hunt for him. In modern search and rescue operations, specialists develop a probability map of routes to pursue. Park Service detectives analyse evidence and create a psychological profile of their target. Moregenson's marriage had recently gone south. He was struggling with depression and had remarked to a friend that, at the very least, he owed the mountains his body. Did he leave camp and head into the backcountry planning never to return?
"Back in civilization I begin the questioning," Morgenson wrote in his journal before he disappeared. "What to do with life? In wilderness ... The questions aren't answered, they dissolve." His words proved prescient. A trail-building crew discovered his remains in a ravine in 2001. How and why he died will always remain a mystery."