“Backpackers’ paradise, climbers’ nightmare.”
That’s how San Luis Obispo search-and-rescue expert Dean Rosnau describes the serene yet severe Ritter Range, “almost a quarter-million square acres of some of the harshest terrain” the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains have to offer.
During the day, climbers encounter oppressive heat, low humidity and swarms of hungry mosquitos, dodging boulders sent tumbling downward by powerful winds and slipping on loose, crumbly rocks as fragile as “a stack of graham crackers.” At night, the temperature drops below freezing.
“For climbers, it’s one of the most dangerous places you could ever think about climbing,” Rosnau said.
Yet, despite the risks, the 56-year-old has spent more than four years there searching for signs of a missing Pennsylvania man he never met.
“I’m doing what I’m doing for the family, so they have some closure,” said Rosnau, who writes about his experiences in his new, self-published book “The Shortest Straw: Search and Rescue in the High Sierra.” “That’s what I’m searching for.”
Lure of the Sierra
Even as a child, mountains mesmerized Rosnau, a retired custom-home designer and builder. He moved from rural Missouri to California at age 7 and remembers taking summer trips to Yosemite National Park with his family and church youth group.
At age 10, Rosnau hiked to the top of Half Dome. “That lit the fire,” he said.
“Every time I’d go to Yosemite, I’d stare up at those cliffs, and I would try to find the climbers there,” he recalled. “I would sit there for hours just watching them. ...
“I wanted to see what Yosemite looked like from the sides of those cliffs, not just look up at them. I just made that my mission.
“Finally, I told my parents at 13 that I wanted to take a climbing class. They said, ‘Hell, no,’ ” Rosnau recalled.
So the teenager started climbing in secret. The Southern California high desert — Joshua Tree National Park, Tahquitz Peak in the San Jacinto mountain range — became his training ground, and Yosemite his favorite summer getaway.
The week after he graduated from high school in 1979, Rosnau “got into this big blow-out argument with my father,” he recalled. “I told him I wasn’t going to college. I was going to go to the school of the Yosemite Valley.”
The search for Laura
Rosnau’s introduction to search and rescue came in 1984, when a young girl named Laura Bradbury vanished from her family’s campsite in Joshua Tree.
Her parents’ plight “really touched me,” recalled Rosnau, then a carpenter working in Southern California. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around the thought of that little 3- 1/2-year-old girl wandering around in that wild desert in October.”
“I just felt I had skills that I could contribute — and I had time,” he said, so he volunteered to join the search, spending a total of 162 days looking for Laura. “I never did find anything of hers, but what I did find was a passion in my life ... I just fell in love with search and rescue.”
Over 33 years working in search and rescue with sheriff departments in northern and southern California, Rosnau has helped save numerous lives, assisted in recovering 66 bodies and spent nearly 800 days in the field.
He’s scrabbled up sheer cliffs, forded raging floodwaters and waded through whiteout blizzards in sub-freezing temperatures to carry out that mission.
Requiring climbing and mountaineering skills as well as special training in everything from avalanches to first aid, it’s a job that comes with big risks and irregular hours.
“Most SAR calls come at the worst possible time,” Rosnau said with a rueful chuckle.
He’s forsaken sleep, cut short dinner dates and rushed out of birthday celebrations, church services and holiday feasts. “All of the sudden, the phone rings or the pager goes off, and it’s, boom, out the door,” he said.
A missing math teacher
It was such a call that alerted Rosnau to the disappearance of Matthew Greene, a 39-year-old math teacher from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who vanished on a climbing trip in the eastern Sierra Nevada. Greene left his campsite in Mammoth Lakes on July 17, 2013, and was never seen or heard from again.
Based on Greene’s conversations with friends and family members, as well as the pages missing from his guidebook and the gear he grabbed from his car and tent, it’s likely the climber planned a day trip to the Ritter Range, Rosnau said. But without evidence tying Greene to a specific starting point, the Mono County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t launch an official search.
That wasn’t enough to deter Rosnau. He decided to launch his own hunt that summer.
Rosnau, who had lived in the eastern High Sierra with wife, Leah, since 1989, has continued his efforts even after leaving the mountains. He and his wife moved to San Luis Obispo in July 2016 — just 10 days before their oldest daughter, who also lives here, discovered she was pregnant with their first grandchild.
Over the past four years, Rosnau estimates he’s covered almost 2,000 miles “pounding” the area looking for some sign of Greene. Every summer after the snow melts, he returns to the Ritter Range every other week or so — usually alone, sometimes with a friend — and hikes 10.5 miles to a basecamp at 10,550 feet above sea level. His searches often take him just above 13,000 feet.
Rosnau, who wasn’t able to launch this year’s search until Aug. 28 because of the deep snowpack, said a hands-on approach is key: “You can’t sit there with binoculars and scan. You have to step on” the evidence.
“You just train yourself to look at things that are out of place with the matrix of the landscape — whether it’s color, shape, shadow, glint, reflection, something flapping in the breeze,” Rosnau explained.
“If I can find at least one piece of his equipment that I can pin to Matthew” — a boot, an ice ax, a scrap of his backpack — “that shrinks our search area down dramatically,” he said.
That would give the local sheriff enough evidence to enlist a massive team to scour the area for more gear and, ideally, remains.
His last search
The odds are against Rosnau. His search area is vast, and his target is constantly moving.
“Snow is always being drawn downhill by gravity and melt cycles,” he explained. “As that snow moves downhill, it’s taking the evidence that I’m looking for and very slowly jamming it down between rocks and in holes and into places unseen.”
“I can’t check an area off,” Rosnau said, even after he’s searched it.
“It’s like trying to find one of your eyelashes in Disneyland,” Rosnau said. “It’s that astronomical.”
That would discourage some people, but Leah Rosnau said her husband is different. “There’s no holding him back,” she said. “This is his passion.”
According to Rosnau, Greene will be his last search-and-rescue case. “I have other goals, other things I want to do,” he said, such as climbing in Europe and Nepal, and writing a sequel to “The Shortest Straw.”
“The search is ... hard work, but what a great place to be working in,” Rosnau said. “One of the many things that keeps me going ... is the extraordinary places where I get to spend my time. The beauty and the starkness ... can’t help but make the pains of the world go away.”
‘The Shortest Straw: Search and Rescue in the High Sierra’
“The Shortest Straw: Search and Rescue in the High Sierra” by Dean Rosnau is available for sale at The Mountain Air in San Luis Obispo and The Parable Christian Store in Arroyo Grande, as well as REI stores. For more information, visit www.theshorteststraw.net.