Jim Detterline to the rescue
Rocky Mountain National Park ranger
NUMBER OF TIMES STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
MOST TURTLES EVER OWNED AT ONE TIME
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.