We were browsing the shelves of Boulder Bookstore just before the holidays, and my wife handed me a copy of The Last Season by Eric Blehm. I’d never heard of the book, but it looked intriguing, with a photo of a man clinging to a cliff face while walking a very narrow trail, and the text “Randy Morgenson was legendary for finding people missing in the High Sierra…Then one day he went missing himself.” That had me hooked, and we walked out with the book.
I have a special affection for the High Sierra. Growing up in California, the Sierras hold a special draw. Summer vacation trips to Yosemite, Sequoia and Lake Tahoe provide some of my best childhood memories. The High Sierra has been described as a “gentle wilderness” and has offered generations of city dwellers the opportunity to experience back country hiking through some of the most spectacular and diverse scenery imaginable.
Open and accessible, the High Sierra back country is a magnet for nature lovers and would-be adventurers of all stripes. Rugged and vast, the country presented challenges. Even experienced hikers run into trouble and lose their lives.
In The Last Season we learn about the disappearance of Randy Morgenson, a veteran Park Service back country ranger. While working in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Morgenson spent most of his time dealing with routine questions from hikers and providing routine services like checking permits and helping with directions. But more demanding situations often required his detailed knowledge of the land and understanding of human psychology to find missing hikers, and, sadly, recover bodies of those killed from hikers or climbers who fell, or were stricken by freak health problems with no easy way to get complete medical attention.
In the book we learn a lot about Moregenson’s personal difficulties as he headed into the 1994 wilderness season. His marriage was strained because of his long stretches away from home. He had an affair with another ranger, and felt conflicted. He was disillusioned with the lack of recognition and paltry employment benefits that come with his seasonal job, though he loved the wilderness and could not seem to pull himself away from the draw of the Sierras. Moregenson went missing in July that year.
The Last Season is a good read, but it’s not an outdoor adventure book in the spirit of Into Thin Air. Because Morgenson was solitary during his disappearance, not a lot details are known about the days he went missing. Blehm instead focuses on the story of Morgenson’s life and the search and rescue efforts to find him. The author’s extensive research exposes the reader to behind-the-scenes details about Park Service politics and the changing role of back country ranges as they evolved into law enforcement officers in response to changing times.
Also interspersed throughout the book are stories about Morgenson’s upbringing in the Yosemite Valley, his father, who led photography workshops for park visitors, and his connections with writer Wallace Stegner and photographer Ansel Adams.
I won’t reveal the story’s end. I will say that with such a long buildup, the story of the search and rescue effort seemed a bit drawn out, and almost anticlimactic by the end. More biography than true adventure, The Last Season will probably be most interesting to those who know the High Sierra well, to Park Service employees, or those interested in learning more about the workings of the back country politics and policies in a National Park.