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Oldest ranger in Kings Canyon NP celebrates 41 years of service
Story and photos by Leonie Sherman
Adam left me delirious in a hastily assembled tent, 16 miles from the trailhead and three miles from the nearest trail. After five days of climbing, I’d collapsed in a meadow at 11,600 ft, shivering under the blazing mid-day noon sun. Alone and hallucinating, hours passed in feverish slow motion.
At the sound of footsteps I grasped for consciousness like a swimmer hitting the surface after almost drowning. A grizzled face appeared in the tent doorway. A regulation ball cap, a badge, a ranger. Adam bobbed into focus behind him. “This guy just hiked me into the ground!” Adam gasped. “He’s like twice as old as I am!”
As I battled meningitis over the next three weeks, I saw dozens of doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers, from Plumas County to Santa Cruz. The calm demeanor, respectful treatment and quiet confidence of that first ranger stayed with me. I always meant to track him down and thank him in person. When I finally sat down with him, four years later, I realized I’d been rescued by a living legend.
Dario Malengo is the oldest and longest-serving back-country ranger in Kings Canyon National Park. This summer he celebrated his 41st year of service and his 70th birthday. Despite claims of an aching back and slowing down, he can still walk four miles an hour with a fully loaded backpack. Adoring co-workers call him a pair of lungs on two legs.
A lot of kids fantasize about being back country rangers. Dario never did. But in the summer of 1970 he joined four fellow counselors from a Boy Scout camp on his first High Sierra backpacking trip. The next two weeks determined the course of his life. “We didn’t have any grand ambitions,” admits Dennis Williams, the only other guy to complete that fateful trip. “We were just looking for a free place to stay.”
They left from the Old Cottonwood Rd., aiming for 12,310 ft. Old Army Pass. After climbing a grueling 5,000 vertical ft, they arrived in the blessed cool of Horseshoe Meadows at 10,000 ft. They were stopped in their tracks by the appearance of a road. Then a garbage truck rumbled by. Three of the group quit on the spot. Dario and Dennis grabbed some extra food from them before they departed. While their friends went looking for cold beer and comfort, Dario and Dennis went looking for adventure.
They visited with Lorenzo “Larry” Stohls, who had scored a position as a back-country ranger at the Crabtree Ranger Station in Kings Canyon National Park. “Larry was our idol,” admits Dennis. “He worked like four or five months a year in the back-country and spent the rest of his time traveling around and living in Mexico.”
“It’s really thanks to the generosity and hospitality of Larry Stohls that I’m still here,” Dario explained, gesturing at the panorama of McClure Meadows, where he’s stationed this summer. After climbing Mt.Whitney in the moonlight, sleeping on the ground for two weeks and exploring neighboring peaks, Dario was hooked. He’s been back every summer since.
“I applied to work in Kings Canyons National Park for four years,” Dario says with a sigh. “I was determined. I finally got an offer in 1975. My first job with the park was surveying for blister rust. So I spent a couple of seasons wandering Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, surveying and measuring giant trees. But the whole time I knew that I really wanted to be a back-country ranger.”
He finally got his chance in 1978, stationed on Forest Service land in Rowell Meadow and patrolling in the park. Since then he’s been stationed at Rae Lakes, Charlotte Lake, Le Conte, Crabtree, Tyndall Creek, McClure and Bench Lake, as well as several seasons as a roving ranger.
When asked which one is his favorite, Dario shakes his head and says, “They’re all great.” We pause to gaze out at the bulk of the Hermit, rising above the lush green of McClure Meadow, with the jagged Evolution range at the head of the valley.
“I guess my favorite is maybe McClure,” he admits. But I suspect he’s like Peter Croft, whose favorite climb is the one he just completed. Dario’s favorite place in the Sierra is right where he finds himself when you ask.
This summer marked his 38th year of being a back-country ranger, making him the oldest and the longest serving back-country ranger KCNP has ever seen. “I’ve never been tempted to leave,” he explains. “It’s really a privilege, this opportunity to interact with people who love the back-country and the mountains. I love the place where I work, the people I work with, the job that I do.”
The job he does and the way he does it have earned him a reputation that stretches hundreds of miles from northern Yosemite to the Golden Trout Wilderness. “All the new rangers want to be like Dario,” a LeConte back-country ranger told me. “He’s a living legend.”
This year the park required Dario to take a Search and Rescue fitness test for the first time in 38 years. “You have to walk three miles with a forty-five pound pack in 45 minutes,” Dario explains. “Though there’s a lot more to being good at rescue than the ability to walk a four minute mile.”
Without any special training, Dario competed this fast walk in 44 minutes. “Young folks these days are so nice,” he explained. “Two kids passed me at first but then slowed down and walked with me the whole way.” I suspect they were thrilled to accompany the legendary Dario Malengo.
Of course he’s seen significant changes in almost four decades of patrolling the back-country. “Thanks to the advent of solar power, I now have to monitor my radio constantly. When we were using batteries I only had to check in every four hours,” he says with a small laugh. “And now over half our rescue call-outs are initiated by some kind of spot or GPS device.”
He hasn’t seen anyone die and the worst injury he’s experienced is a broken finger when a rock fell on him during the search for missing ranger Randy Mortgensen. “A lot of times I show up with crackers and nut butter and a blanket, so even if the person has a broken leg, they’re happy to see me,” explains Dario. One time he had to follow a mentally unstable person out of the park, but medical search and rescues operations are not that big of a deal for this seasoned ranger.
“These Fresno doctors come out to do our back-country medical training,” he explains. “They deal with about 150 ambulance calls a day in the ER. We do a half dozen or so evacs in a season, a dozen if you’re stationed near Whitney. So we’re pretty lucky that way.”
One of the most noticeable changes he’s seen over the years is a dramatic increase in visitor numbers. “There’s so many people hiking the John Muir Trail these days. Cross-country travel used to be much more typical,” he explains. “Now I get a hundred people a day through Evolution Valley. Pretty soon, camps will start showing abuse from constant use every night.”
On the other hand he sees a lot more diversity on the trails than he used to. “I spoke to the only guy from Mexico attempting the entire PCT this year,” Dario says. “And I see a lot more young people and women traveling alone. Knowing that more and more people feel safe out here, that’s pretty cool.”
“A lot of visitors are pretty wrapped up in their city lives,” he continues. “But time out here, immersed in this beauty and splendor, that can’t do anything but good for a person.”
Immersion in alpine splendor has certainly done a lot of good for Dario. Despite working for the government for over forty years, living for months without fresh vegetables or running water, and having to hike eight hours just to get cell service, Dario has not a single complaint about his job or his life.
“After that first trip, he became like John Muir,” explains Dennis’s wife Colleen, who accompanies her husband on regular visits to Dario’s back-country office. “One time I was with him up high somewhere and a hummingbird flew really close to me. I’d never seen a hummingbird so high up before. I turned to Dario and said ‘Some people say hummingbirds are messengers from God.’ Without missing a beat, Dario said, ‘Everything out here is.”
The lessons Dario has learned from a lifetime of service to wild beauty are simple and straightforward, like the man himself. “Pay attention, whatever you’re doing,” Dario muses. “Travel light.” He pauses, considering the thousands of people whose lives he has touched and the wilderness that has been his backyard for over four decades. “And don’t go too far too quickly, ‘cause you might miss something.”