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Mountain climbing adventurer, PhD biologist, trumpet player, world traveler – James Detterline has lived a life without limits. It’s all the more impressive when you learn that he has a hearing impairment.

Detterline recently was recognized for something other than his daring exploits; he received the Oticon Focus on People Award, which recognizes individuals providing advocacy and inspiration for the hearing impaired.

 Detterline (MS ’82, PhD ’89) is a former park ranger who served in Rocky Mountain National Park for more than 25 years and is a highly accomplished mountaineer. For most of that time he was the supervisory climbing ranger at Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park at 14,259 feet. He holds the all-time number of climbs of Longs Peak at 361 (not including helicopter rescue flights). This includes summits in every month of the year, nearly 200 solo climbs and seven new routes.

Detterline leads an ice route at Joe’s Valley, Utah, on a trip with his cousins in February 2010.
Detterline leads an ice route at Joe’s Valley, Utah, on a trip with his cousins in February 2010.
“I have climbed rock routes, alpine ice routes, water ice routes, and I have done the hiking route and also skied off the summit,” Detterline says. “Longs Peak offers a diversity of mountaineering experiences for everyone from the novice hiker to the world-class big-wall climber. I certainly have never been bored there.”

Detterline was “pulled” into ranger work on a climbing trip while he was a master’s student at the U of M. He and a friend became stranded during a violent storm while ascending Grand Teton’s treacherous north face. The pair spent five days clinging to a narrow ledge, sharing half a peanut butter sandwich and a sleeping bag while being assaulted by sleet, rain, snow and lightning. Finally six rangers jumped out of a helicopter and pulled the climbers to safety. The members of the rescue team earned the Medal of Valor, the same award Detterline would receive years later.

As a law enforcement ranger, he was involved in dozens of remarkable rescues. Perhaps the most dramatic was in 1995 when a couple became stranded on a rock in the middle of a raging river. Detterline tried twice to climb out to them. The third time he got to within a few feet of them and the man yelled ‘We can’t hold on any longer. We’re going to jump.’ “I don’t know how this happened, but I reached my arm out and caught them both,” he recalls. For his rescue he received the Medal of Valor from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

While serving as a ranger, Detterline became an advocate for other rangers with hearing loss. Ranger work is neither easy nor friendly to those with hearing loss, he says.

“My hearing impairment never affected the work that I did as a ranger,” explains Detterline, who lives in Estes Park, Colo. “I never received one complaint regarding my hearing abilities from either park visitors or staff. For my first three years in the service I did not have hearing aids, so I had to compensate in other ways. Once I got the hearing aids, and particularly with some of the recent quantum leaps in technology, they actually gave me an added benefit over ‘normal hearing’ people in working some difficult law enforcement and rescue cases.”

However, in recent years the National Park Service enacted new standards barring the use of hearing aids in law enforcement and firefighting. “This affected my work in that I was administratively reassigned and eventually prevented from doing my work,” Detterline says. “This is a major reason why I have taken up the banner against the Park Service’s illegal discrimination against the hearing impaired.”

Detterline (right) and fellow U of M alum Marc Nagel (BS ’84) pause in front of an ice route that they had just ascended at Ouray, Colo., last January.
Detterline (right) and fellow U of M alum Marc Nagel (BS ’84) pause in front of an ice route that they had just ascended at Ouray, Colo., last January.

In addition to volunteering with adults, the Oticon award also recognized Detterline’s work with kids at the Marion Downs Hearing Center in Denver. There he leads hearing-impaired youngsters on adventures like rock climbing, hiking up Longs Peak, mountain biking, a ropes course and scavenger hunts.

Hearing impairment has not affected Detterline’s ability to perform other activities, but it has interfered with his participation. “Years ago I was told by a high school guidance counselor that I could never be a professional musician,” he says. “I play as a regular member in five musical groups, and last summer I was featured on an album. There are a lot of misconceptions about hearing loss and there is also a lot of unwarranted stigma attached to hearing loss.”

Detterline earned two degrees from the U of M, vertebrate (MS) and invertebrate (PhD) biology.

“The University of Memphis had a very positive role in my life,” he says.“ I was able to pursue both a master’s and PhD in biology there, with Drs. Jim Jacob and Walt Wilhelm as the major professors. There were many professors who taught me valuable things from many courses.” Near the end of his master’s program, Detterline discovered the Park Ranger Training Program. “Dr. Bill Dwyer ran this outstanding program, which became nationally recognized,” he says. “He was a park ranger as well as a psychology professor. Bill was a great role model for many of us who became full-time rangers.”

Detterline now teaches biology at Front Range Community College. He extends his professional interest in biology through adventure sports and travel; he has taken 17 trips to South America and many excursions around North America, Africa and Europe. You’ll find him making informal studies of the indigenous animals and plants while climbing, mountain biking, boating, snorkeling and backpacking. And searching for his next adventure. 

-by Gabrielle Maxey

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