I get a sense of awe and respect when I’m around someone who has mastered a subject or profession as a result of experience. To attain the status of “expert”, particularly when designated as such by one’s peers is a worthy aspiration. Experts are often the most valuable employees in an organization as well as the most sought after. They probably aren’t the most highly paid, but they are the most esteemed.
And so it was with Randy Morgenson, a backcountry ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park in the High Sierra of California. He seemed born to the task, having grown up in neighboring Yosemite National Park. In 1996, Randy was in his 28th year of backcountry rangering and was the go-to-guy when it came to search and rescue (SAR) operations in the park. His knowledge of the park’s terrain was so thorough, that with the knowledge of missing persons’ last locations, he could make amazingly accurate predictions about where to find them. I read about Randy’s life in the Eric Blehm book, “The Last Season”.
Backcountry rangers are seasonal employees that work as medics, wilderness cops, SAR specialists and naturalists. These dedicated rangers don’t take this job for the money – they will tell you they get paid in “sunsets” – they do it because they love the wilderness. They are viewed as heroes for finding lost hikers, or jerks when they write citations for littering or other violations. Their worst duty is when a SAR operation results in recovering a body. Park administrators call these rangers the backbone of the park service. Despite the lack of long-term job security, medical benefits for their families or a pension plan, many rangers serve year after year. In 1996, more than half of the 14 rangers who reported for duty to watch over 1,350 square miles of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon backcountry had more than a decade of experience. Randy was the most senior.
The morning of July 21, 1996, Randy left his station at Bench Lake to go on patrol. When he failed to check in via radio at the designated time, other rangers began to look for him. The concern was not initially for his safety, because no one was better equipped or had more experienced in the wilderness than Randy. The concern was for his emotional and mental condition, because due to some marital issues, Randy seemed depressed when he started his assignment at the start of the 1996 season. The search for Randy escalated and by July 27th, the operation had expanded to 55 people and would eventually involve almost 100. There was conjecture that he had committed suicide or perhaps run away to start a new life. Speculation about foul play was also considered, because even though Randy was a great ambassador for the park, he had made a few enemies during his career.
In addition to the ground search, helicopters and search dogs were brought in, but the main search area encompassed 80 square miles of high-altitude, rugged backcountry that was extremely difficult to traverse. There are planes that have crashed in the High Sierra and were never found. The SAR yielded no trace of Randy, and after several weeks, the operation was reluctantly called off, leaving everyone who knew Randy wondering what had happened to him. He was presumed dead, but because there was no evidence of his demise, his wife was unable to claim a $100,000 survivors benefit paid when a public safety officer dies in the line of duty.
Five years later, the wilderness finally gave up some clues to Randy’s disappearance. Hikers found his backpack near a waterfall, the belt still buckled indicating that he was wearing it when he disappeared. His radio was found, as was one of his hiking boots that contained part of a leg bone. A crime scene-type search of the area yielded Randy’s shirt, his park service badge still attached, which was wedged under the rocks of the waterfall. A full understanding of what happened to Randy is not known, but the clues seem to indicate that he fell through a snowdrift while crossing a creek. It is likely that he drowned or succumbed to hypothermia as a result, and his remains were washed down the creek to the waterfall where they were hidden for five years.
Randy was the least likely person to get in trouble and need rescuing. His expertise and experience made it almost unthinkable that he would have a problem in the wilderness he loved. Author Eric Blehm says that one of the lessons of Randy’s story is that nature always wins. The same is true for markets. We admire companies and their experts who not only seem to have mastery over a market, but shape it and make it what it is. But no company is bigger than the market, and the market’s rules always apply. Having an expert on staff with 30 years experience is comforting, but it does not grant immunity to an organization from the consequences of taking a wrong step. There is still no substitute for experience with the realization that no one person or organization is bulletproof. In business, the market always wins.
In May 2003, George Durkee, a fellow ranger and close friend of Randy, honored his friend with a public eulogy when Randy’s name was added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. He shared some lessons he took from Randy’s life and death, including this one: “be careful out there. If the best of us can fall in what struck us as easy terrain, that’s a clear warning to spend the time to look for an easier crossing; to study an area a little more closely before moving across it; to take longer naps.”