Jim Detterline to the rescue

  • Jim Detterline climbs Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park



Jim Detterline


Rocky Mountain National Park ranger




80 (When Detterline was a kid)


Master's in vertebrate zoology, Ph.D. in invertebrate zoology


Plays the trumpet

Jim Detterline is a man of average size, lean, but not small. Still, he's dwarfed by his backpack, which he calls the Alpine Ranger. Detterline helped design the burly pack, whose color matches the green of his ranger's uniform, so it has room for heavy loads, loops to tie a backboard to, and - in a pinch - can serve as an overnight shelter. It's perfect for emergencies, which are what Detterline lives for.

Detterline has been a Rocky Mountain National Park ranger on Longs Peak for 21 years. He knows the 14,259-foot peak intimately - he's scaled it 289 times, perhaps more by the time you read this - and he has participated in, he estimates, over a thousand rescues. But according to the National Park Service, Detterline is not fit for his job. He is hearing impaired, which means he doesn't meet the minimum physical standards for law enforcement rangers adopted by the Park Service in the late 1990s. Though he still wears the uniform, the new standards have affected his career more than this trumpet-playing, doctorate-holding adventurer has ever let his so-called disability affect the rest of his life.

IN THE FALL OF 1980, Detterline and a buddy got caught in a storm on the North Face of the Grand Teton. The pair spent several days sharing half a peanut butter sandwich and a sleeping bag before Teton rangers finally reached them and got them off the mountain.

That sparked Detterline's interest in rangering. While he worked on a Ph.D. in invertebrate zoology, he spent summers at Rocky Mountain National Park. He returned for one last season, and it never ended: He became a full-time ranger and has been one ever since.

Of the hundreds of rescues he's been involved in, perhaps the most memorable came in 1995. Two people were stranded on a rock in the middle of a rushing stream. "Two times I tried to climb out to them," says Detterline. "The third time, when I got to about five feet of them, all of a sudden the guy looked at me and he said, 'We can't hold on any longer, we're going to jump.' And they were off (the rock). I don't know how this happened, but I reached my arm out and caught them both." Detterline was given a valor award for the rescue, just like the rangers who plucked him off the Grand Teton in 1980.

But that award, and all of his other accomplishments, provided no buffer when, in 1999, the Park Service enacted new physical standards for rangers. Because Detterline has trouble hearing without a hearing aid, he was put on light duty during the summer of 2001. After a fight, the Park Service granted Detterline a waiver to allow him to continue rangering. But he has to reapply yearly for the waiver, stymieing his chances for career advancement.

Though his speech is normally interspersed with jokes and bursts of laughter, Detterline becomes serious when speaking about this issue. "What am I going to tell those (hearing-impaired) kids when they ask: 'How can I become a park ranger?' What am I going to tell them?" he says. " 'I'm sorry, you can forget about that because you're a freak like me?' You know, it just makes me want to fight this standard all the more."

So Detterline sued the Park Service, alleging the agency discriminated against him, and even though a federal district court judge recently dismissed that lawsuit, Detterline continues the battle; he filed an appeal this October. For now, he's out the $100,000 he's put into the case. "I can't say I have a feeling of intense surprise," he says of the ruling. "My life's gotten more difficult. I've had some great experience with the parks. I've been able to serve the public, I've had a lot of really interesting cases in law enforcement, rescue in particular, and at this point I have nothing to show personally after 25 years."

But Detterline hasn't lost his passion for rangering, nor for Longs Peak. In fact, he might just run up to the summit again tomorrow.

The author is an English language tutor in Boise, Idaho.

Dec 07, 2007 09:07 PM

I hope Mr. Detterline will continue his fight. I know exactly what he's talking about because I also am hearing impaired as are about 23 million other Americans. The part of my life that has been the most adversely affected by hearing loss is my ability to find steady employment.

Before the Americans With Disabilities Act it was worse, but the situation is still far from ideal. Is it fair to ask an employer to accommodate a prospective employee by reconfiguring the duties of all the other workers in the office? In my case I have a profound hearing loss such that I can't effectively use the telephone even with hearing aids and other adaptive equipment.

I currently work seasonally as a state park aide, but my ability to respond in emergencies could be compromised by my hearing loss. I need to be within about three feet of a person to understand their speech at all, and there are some people whose speech is unintelligible to me no matter how loudly they speak.

In a service economy, what type of work is a hearing impaired person to do? Even though I have worked with the state department of rehabilitation and other agencies, nobody seems to have any concrete answers to the problem.

Dec 19, 2007 03:46 PM

Thank you Jim Detterline for your fight against arbitrary and capricious workplace rules, and thank you High Country News for reporting Jim's story. I thought you might like to see the faces of two of the kids you are fighting for, my daughters, seven and ten, both of whom were born hard of hearing. Both love being outdoors; the seven-year-old in particular is already thinking about careers in the wild.

To see images of my daughters made this past summer on the Lower San Juan River (UT), copy and paste these links into your browser:



Note to the editor: should you wish to publish this comment as a letter, contact me and I will send you higher resolution versions of the images.
May 05, 2008 11:53 AM

Why are Jim's employment options being limited, when he has done his job so well for so many years? I had the opportunity to climb with him for a few hours, fourteen or fifteen years ago. He was wearing hearing aids, but had no difficulty carrying on informative and enjoyable conversations with three others. It seems to be an arbitrary and capricious rule that hurts not only Jim but those who can benefit from his abilities to teach as well as rescue.

Shame on the bureaucrats and judge. We need better legislation.

jim detterline
Aug 13, 2008 09:50 AM
You haven't even touched on the issue Jim dealt with in the mid-90's. Jim's integrity led him to deal with an internal issue and he (and those SAR volunteers he recruited) were ostracized and taken off Longs in reprisal. Check out the Fort Collins paper around then (1997) for more information.
update - October 2008
Oct 10, 2008 09:54 AM
It appears that Jim has been fired by the National Park Service just a few months before he was/is eligible for the 20-year law enforcement pension. Contact the Chief Ranger Mark Magnuson at Rocky Mountain National Park (970.586.1218) and ask why.
I knew Jim
Apr 18, 2009 01:09 PM
I worked at Rocky during the time frame of '95-2000. Jim was and is a very nice man and extremely knowledgable. If I was ever in a bad situation in the parks I would want Jim there to help me!! Tracy
Where are you old buddy?
Aug 02, 2010 11:42 AM
As Jim's original climbing partner and little brother in our college's fraternity, I kept in touch with him up until about 1995. We both went our separate ways, but I always knew he would be there if I needed him. I am sad to hear that I wasn't there for him during his clash with the NPS. He loved his work. I felt hard pressed to even come close to keeping up with him on our climbing expeditions in RMNP - even when he was carrying his (what felt like 70 lb.) "ranger" pack! The man could RUN to the top of Longs Peak - and did so on many occasions.

I'd love to hear from him again.