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Another Epic Tale from the Sierra

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Second star from the right

Postby gdurkee » Sun May 28, 2006 4:46 pm

Randy et al:

Sorry about the delay getting back to you on your suggestions. I actually like the idea of a web page for Randy M.s photos. Judi, his wife, still has all of them -- though she has given several prints to Stewart, myself and a few others. I don't have time this year, but next fall I'll talk to her and see about scanning some of them -- good idea!

As for Where Are They Now?: Most of us haven't yet found honest work. Several of the people in the book have left, alas: Sandy, Lo and Rob Hayden. Cindy Purcell and Dave Ashe have transferred and Randy Coffman & Al DeLaCruz retired. The rest of us are still there, steering for the second star from the right and straight on 'til morning... .

g.



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Postby Rosabella » Tue May 30, 2006 4:29 pm

Ah... Neverland! Lead on, George!

As far as "The Last Season" goes, I just now picked up a copy of the book. As I started flipping thru it, looking at the pictures, I almost thought I remembered seeing Randy. We were on the JMT in July 1996, and ran into a ranger around the Big Horn Plateau area on July 24th. The ranger we saw was about my height (5'6"), in his 50's, and very tanned. I went back over my notes from that trip, though, and I realized it wasn't him. My notes were: "The ranger had wild hair and looked rather like a mountain man but without the beard, and really knew the area" The without the beard was what I had forgotten. The notes also said that he lived in Lone Pine and was the Crabtree Meadow Ranger. Oh well.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading this book...
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Postby OldGeezer » Wed Jun 07, 2006 4:40 pm

I bought the book yesterday afternoon and am well over half way through it. I can't seem to put it down.

One thing for sure .... I'll NEVER view a backcountry ranger the same way again. I have gained a reverence for the Sierra like never before and look forward to my next visit with a ranger, be it in the front country or the back country. George Durkee, if you ever pass through Sanger and are looking for someone to take you out to lunch or dinner, I'll be there.
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Neverland

Postby gdurkee » Thu Jun 08, 2006 8:46 pm

Bill: Sanger! I actually go through there occasionally. Thanks for the offer. Not impossible it might happen sometime.

Rosabella:

The ranger had wild hair and looked rather like a mountain man but without the beard, and really knew the area"


That was the legendary Dario. Terrific guy. After 30+ years in the park, he definitely knows the area... .

g.
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Re: Neverland

Postby OldGeezer » Fri Jun 09, 2006 8:05 am

gdurkee wrote:Bill: Sanger! I actually go through there occasionally. Thanks for the offer. Not impossible it might happen sometime.


I'd look forward to that.

I did a little research and found another key player in the book is a fellow ham radio operator and writes children's books. What a diverse group you backcountry rangers are.
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have read it: eerie, well-written, way too close to home

Postby giantbrookie » Sun Aug 06, 2006 1:28 pm

Wow,

I just finished reading The Last Season. I hadn't realized that the remains were found just upstream of Window Peak Lake, for I had heard backcountry rumors that the remains were found in the White Fork. I have read other outdoor disaster or survival stories before, my favorites being Touching the Void (Simpson) and The Endless Knot (Diemburger); the latter is sort of the equivalent to the "Fall of the Mountaineering Gods". Both are very intense, but there was at least a sense of detachment for me, because the mountaineering involved was totally out of my league and in places that I probabaly won't ever plant an ice axe. This on the other hand, really cut to the bone, and it wasn't only Morgenson's own disappearance and end. The death of the climber on Devil's Crag for instance was so poignantly written--I've been close enough to such circumstances on both ends (ie the injured climber and his partner) in similar terrain. I could so vividly imagine myself in that position and it just gave me a creepy feeling all over.

The specifics of the search and recover are just downright creepy because my wife and I were there at Window Peak Lake in early July 1997, the year after, but four years before the recovery. Here's our little story:
This was to be the last big trip my wife and I did before other priorities limited our high country time (first aquarium fish, then kids). Our trip was a Sawmill-Taboose trip with lots of off trail fun branching from it, although it was actually the least adventurous of our big trips taken from 1992-1997. We had heard of the lost ranger, but somehow I didn't believe he would have vanished very close to where we were. We had met backcountry rangers in Seki before and viewed them with awe and respect--sort of these supermen and superwomen of the backcountry. My wife was sort of creeped out at the whole missing ranger story--"what if we stumble upon a body". I told her that (without knowing anything about the inside story) I figured the fellow must have been an ace climber who went off to climb some virgin technical route in the middle of nowhere and had a climbing accident. In my mind, his bones were bleaching on some far flung ledge or in some deep chimney in the middle of nowhere. It never occurred to me that he might have taken his last steps in the very area where we were.

On July 7, 1997, we dayhiked to Window Peak Lake from a camp at the Twin Lakes. This was a pretty long dayhike but I had hoped to explore every potential fish bearing lake in the drainage, including the one upstream of Window Peak Lake. We were a bit slower getting up there than I had hoped, otherwise we would have had time to go to next lake up and hike by the eventual recovery site. We found Window a bit frustrating. The fish weren't all that cooperative, and we struck but saw some decent rainbows running to 12 or 13". We did agree that it was, in our estimation, one of the two most beautiful lakes of the several hundred we'd seen (Amphitheater which visited on our Dumbbell Lakes trip four years earlier was still the favorite). So the fishing was a dud, but we were very glad we were there. I guess the closest we got to the recovery site was fishing the inlet stream. Again, we had no idea or clue...Our trip eventually worked it's way north from Twin Lakes, first to Marjorie, then to Bench with some superb off trail explorations that stumbled upon some otherworldly fishing (of the can't tell variety). On July 10 we did Arrow from Bench Lake via the saddle to Arrow Creek. We also detoured down to fish the uppermost of the Arrow Creek lakes (fishless). I looked at the terrain and topo map and thought about creative off trail routes connecting Bench and Window, but my wife and I agreed such routes would have cost us the three best lakes of the trip. Still we were a bit dismayed that this was to be our only big trip in which we didn't have at least one off trail campsite (all the good off trail stuff was dayhiking, except for a last day that investigated the lake south of Taboose Pass).

In any case, reading the book and all those familiar places we love so much: Window Pk Lake, Dumbbells, Amphitheater, etc. and the entire tragic story line was really personally haunting. I couldn't sleep the night after I read it.

I final note to George (that you won't get to read for a few months until you come out): Even if the book had never come out, I could sense from your posts your intelligence, integrity, and humanity. The book painted a picture of you that was very much in keeping with how I imagined you through your posts. I very much hope to meet you in the backcountry someday, or, should you come through Fresno, over a good IPA. I also will probably never view a backcountry ranger the same again. While I've always held them in awe and respect, now I feel like taking a bit more time to talk to them when I meet them: I sort of feel like I'd like to get to know them better. Anyhow, my hat's off to you and your backcountry brothers and sisters. You are indeed awesome.

Cheers,

John
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Postby rightstar76 » Tue Aug 15, 2006 1:41 pm

I was also thinking about Randy Morgenson on my trip. My wife and I took a little walk from Rae Lakes south on the PCT to the overlook above Arrowhead Lake. I could see the Window Peak drainage north in the distance. It looked very beautiful. That's when I thought about Randy. It gave me a creepy feeling to think about how easy it is to die in one of these drainages and how careful you have to be if you're going to go cross country-not just physically, but mentally as well.
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Postby giantbrookie » Wed Aug 16, 2006 7:26 am

rightstar76 wrote:It gave me a creepy feeling to think about how easy it is to die in one of these drainages and how careful you have to be if you're going to go cross country-not just physically, but mentally as well.

Yeah, you got that right. The place where they think he went through a snow bridge is in what most off trail hikers would consider very benign terrain (note photos in the book), but if you put snow over that drainage you add that snow bridge hazard which is I guess is sort of like our gentle mountain range equivalent of a crevasse hazard. Yes, I would read all these extreme mountaineering books about the Himalaya, Patagonia, etc. and I never really thought of our largely non-technical Sierra as being so potentially lethal for it is such a mellow mountain range in comparison. Yet I myself came close to getting killed twice as a result of very poor judgement on non-technical off trail stuff: once climbing (foolish attempted glissade on super steep spring snow--had great difficulty self-arresting), once FISHING for crying out loud (traversing steep sandy toe of rock glacier to get better casting angle to go after 20" goldens--undermined giant boulder that nearly crushed me and I broke my ankle upon landing after I barely dodged it with a huge sideways leap). This brings us back to your second point about the mental aspect...
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Postby rightstar76 » Wed Aug 16, 2006 12:35 pm

How far were you in the backcountry? Were you medivaced?
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Postby giantbrookie » Wed Aug 16, 2006 4:17 pm

rightstar76 wrote:How far were you in the backcountry? Were you medivaced?

I hopped out, given that it was only a hairline fracture. I was 2-3 miles cross country from my camp, which was another 5 miles by trail to the car.

The whole thing was the result of undercutting an immense boulder that was embedded in the sand matrix of a rock glacier toe that bounded one side of this amazing lake with 20" goldens. The boulder lurched toward me from 10-15' above and I pretty much figured I was doomed, given it was so close and I had so little room to avoid it. There was no time for my life to flash before my eyes. I resigned myself to death and anticipated the feeling of getting crushed to the thickness of a credit card. The graphic mental imagery is forever etched into my mind. A desperate reflex sideways leap, aided immensely by the fact that my vertical jump those days was in the 30" range, just barely got me out of the way. Oddly enough, I broke the ankle touching down in snow--a small price to pay, however. I saw the lower leg sort of rotate in slow motion to a very unnatural angle, and expected much worse. I was pleasantly surprised to see no protruding bones and less swelling than I've had in some of my more severe ankle sprains. It still couldn't really support weight, though, leaving me in a pickle. To get back to camp I had to get around the lake. I didn't want to recross the lethal slope (the accident had occurred right as I was finishing my crossing of it), but the alternative was a steep snow climb w/o ice axe and using one foot, surmounted by a 10-15' class 3 pitch. The kicking steps with one foot (without losing my balance and going down), was an adventure, as was the class 3. This was followed by crawling some otherwise easy talus boulders to return to the lake shore where the shoreline was much more benign (low angle talus and slabs).

Here I took my fishing gear back out of the rucksack and attempted once again to do what I was there for catch those infernal 20" goldens. I had an 18-incher to within inches of the shore, but then had it unceremoniously flop off. After all that, zero fish. I then hopped the 2-3 mi of cross country down to the lower lake where I was camped with my dad. "Dad, I think I broke my ankle. Maybe it's just a little sprain or something, but I'll know tomorrow morning. If it's just not a big deal we'll bag Basin Mtn. tomorrow." I then described the accident. My dad had in fact been at the lake on the opposite side until about an hour before the accident; we had both jetted there after bagging a peak. He had witnessed the big warning sign that should have turned me around earlier. I had hopped onto this van-sized boulder that looked to give me a 180 degree casting platform, only to have it roll and pitch me into the lake. "At that point you should have clued in and turned around". Yup.

The next morning I crawled out of my bag toward the tent entrance in order to take the morning pee and cook breakfast. The first little push off while crawling sent electric pain up from my right ankle. "Dad, we're not doing Basin today. Sorry." After the usual boring oatmeal, I hopped on one leg around this lower lake to a good casting spot then rang up double figures in medium sized brookies, a few of which I kept to cook for a departure brunch. We then broke camp and headed to the car. My dad always hiked with an old wooden walking stick. I borrowed it and pogo sticked my way the 5 mi 2250 feet of loss to the car, never once stopping (starting up hurt quite a bit), and making it back somewhere in the two hour range with a somewhat tired right arm and sore hand. My poor dad, who hiked like a demon with his stick, was hurting without, and reached the car much later.

After returning home I still didn't believe the ankle was badly damaged and I drove to work the next morning (couldn't of been too bad given that I could still depress the gas pedal), only to find I couldn't climb the stairs to my workplace. I went back to the car, drove to the hospital, where they x-ray'd it, determined the ankle to have a hairline fracture, and casted it up, after which I returned to work.

The funny postscript to a not so funny story comes from my wife's reaction upon coming home. I expected to receive a well-deserved tongue lashing for my idiocy. After telling the story, I cringed and waited for the barrage. My wife's reply:" So HOW big are those goldens? And, how hard is it to get to that lake?"
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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Postby rightstar76 » Wed Aug 16, 2006 8:07 pm

Glad you made it out in one piece! I remember seeing someone ahead of me while climbing the MR on Whitney nearly dodge a large boulder after reaching the top of the col. I had originally planned to go around the west face but after seeing the boulder come down, I decided to go up the gully to the left.

Speaking of wives, when I was backpacking with my wife last week, I went on a dayhike from Rae Lakes to Sixty Lake Basin and cross-country up to the overlook above Gardiner Basin. I told her I would be gone 5 hours. Coming back took me a little longer than I thought and I actually took about 6 hours. By that time, she had gone to the ranger. When she arrived at the ranger station there was somebody already there saying his daughter had real bad altitude sickness and needed help. Meanwhile I was back at camp just about to relax when I saw the note. I then went back to the main trail and intercepted the three, my wife, the ranger and the man as they were coming the opposite direction. Later, my wife did give me a big lecture about taking longer than I told her and going too far off the trail, etc. I guess it's hard not to resist going cross-country when you're in the mountains, even when you have a wife waiting for you.
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Postby giantbrookie » Thu Aug 17, 2006 12:21 pm

rightstar76 wrote:I remember seeing someone ahead of me while climbing the MR on Whitney nearly dodge a large boulder after reaching the top of the col.

Speaking of wives, when I was backpacking with my wife last week, I went on a dayhike from Rae Lakes to Sixty Lake Basin and cross-country up to the overlook above Gardiner Basin. I told her I would be gone 5 hours. Coming back took me a little longer than I thought and I actually took about 6 hours. Later, my wife did give me a big lecture about taking longer than I told her and going too far off the trail, etc. I guess it's hard not to resist going cross-country when you're in the mountains, even when you have a wife waiting for you.


At the risk of diverting this thread too far off topic, I can't resist responding (although I WILL return to the original subject of this thread at the end of this post).
The Whitney MR does have some hairy rockfall, much of it getting knocked onto/into it from by climbers on various E. Face routes (the call of "rock" was occasionally heard). I climbed it in 1970 with my family and I still remember the eerie, echoing, "crack" "crack" sounds as the rocks flew and bounced from points uncertain. While resting at the notch a big one came down. I flattened myself against a 10' vertical, north-facing cliff I thought should protect me and I saw this 3-foot-boulder vault into space above my head. Later, during the descent, my dad and mom were the last ones out of the chute, well behind the others (my dad, the strongest of the party was helping my mom down); the rest of us watched them from Iceberg Lake. A 3-foot boulder came rumbling down the chute. I saw them move one way, and, as these stories go, the boulder seemed to bounce the way they were dodging. I then saw them run sideways out of the chute--the fastest I ever saw my mom move in the Sierras--and the boulder missed them by about 5 feet. Because our night had been miserable at Iceberg L. before (super cold with high altitude headaches), our group decided to descend as far as they could before camping. We didn't get very far and we bivouacked among the talus at the base of the steep rise below Iceberg Lake. That night the odd position of our camp attracted the attention of a SAR group looking for someone who had their chest smashed by a boulder somewhere on the east face. The next morning a helicopter was flying all over the place.

Regarding wives, my wife was my ace backpacking and fishing partner, on all sorts of amazing trips from the late 80's until our first one came in 2002--she will rejoin me again someday when the kids start backpacking (we just dayhike right now). We almost never split off on our own--she was very much against any solo effort, especially if it involved bagging a peak. However, she was very understanding about slop in terms of estimated time (realizing from experience that plus or minus 50 percent is really ballpark up there). One time we did this epic split (gone for a long time), and she didn't flinch. We were moving our packs from South Guard L. to the Sphinxes. She figured on dropping the pack en route and hitting Big Brewer, because I had in fact split off and fished it the day before rather successfully and we were both hurting from a fishing standpoint after finding no fish in South Guard. On my part, I wanted to explore inaccessible North Guard Lake and I needed to really fly with my pack to the Sphinxes in order to have time to dayhike to the distant lake. I gave her a pre-arranged meeting place at the uppermost Sphinx Lake, hiked to the meeting lake, dropped my pack in a visible place, and took off. It was the spookiest solo thing I ever did. I don't know why but I had very bad vibes about the whole thing. It was a creepy feeling I had never had before and hope to never have again in the Sierra. I don't know if it's because the long hike is a net downhill and I had to "climb back out of the hole", but my confidence and psyche weren't good, even though the entire route is class 2. Fortunately nothing happened, I explored the lake, hiked back easily over the top and got back to the uppermost Sphinx around dinner time to see my wife concentrating very hard on fishing the lake (and enjoying herself). The closest I've come to having someone go get a rescuer for me was in 1973 when my dad and I were gone 13 hours from Thousand Island Lake climbing Mt. Ritter (huge route finding gaffe turning a class 2 route into a hairy class 4 thing--I was so scared I took the entire next year off from peak bagging). My brother and mom were just about to leave camp to get help when my dad and I arrived. Thank goodness we got back before they left, otherwise we would have had to send a real rescue party for my bro and mom who couldn't find their way out of a paper bag and would have gotten lost for sure.

Getting back to the Last Season, which is what the thread is all about, the fatal spot on Window Creek reminds me somewhat of Renato Casarotto's tragic end at the base of K2 in 1986 (he fell into a crevasse just when it looked like he had narrowly escaped on a retreat from a daring solo on K2--he had in fact gotten off the face and was in radio contact of base camp and within binocular sight when disaster struck) in the sense that the tough part of that part of Morgenson's route was over (Explorer Col, especially the north side of it), and the angle of the route was easing. Even if he had been in a better mental state, there would be the tendency for anyone to ease up a bit in terms of alertness after getting down into the more gentle topography. If you don't know the Casarotto story, it is one of the multiple tragedies that felled a number of the world's greatest climbers on K2 in 1986. That horrific chronicle is very well told in Kurt Diemburger's classic "The Endless Knot", a book that makes Into Thin Air sound like child's play (even though the latter is certainly well written).
Since my fishing (etc.) website is still down, you can be distracted by geology stuff at: http://www.fresnostate.edu/csm/ees/facu ... ayshi.html
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