Jim Detterline to the rescue

  • Jim Detterline climbs Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park

    JESS ASMUSSEN
 

NAME

Jim Detterline

OCCUPATION

Rocky Mountain National Park ranger

NUMBER OF TIMES STRUCK BY LIGHTNING

Three

MOST TURTLES EVER OWNED AT ONE TIME

80 (When Detterline was a kid)

DEGREES

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

HOBBIES

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.