The climbing community surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, mourned the death of Jim Detterline on November 1. Detterline was a climbing ranger in RMNP from 1987 to 2009 and rescued more than a thousand people who needed help in the mountains he considered home. He is famous for summiting Longs Peak (14,259′) a record 428 times, earning him the nickname “Mr. Longs Peak.” He apparently died while rope soloing on the Ironclads rock formation near his home in Allenspark, Colorado. He was last seen alive October 23 and his body was found October 25 at the base of a thirty-five-foot cliff with the gear that would be used for rope soloing. He was sixty years old and is survived by his wife, Rebecca.
“He was a great friend and inspiration to many in our tight community,” said Quinn Brett, a climbing ranger who worked with Detterline before he retired. “It was unexpected and untimely. That man was still fit as a fiddle and excited to get out and get after it.”
An outpouring of stories flooded Internet forums. On Mountainproject.com, Rick Witting wrote: “I met Jim while assisting with a rescue…and ran into him many times during the time I had a cabin in Estes [Park, Colorado]. I remember one time when he was on patrol and approached us as we were ice climbing. He politely asked if he could join us for a lap on the ice. He produced a harness and crampons out of his pack and I gave him a belay. He was a climber’s climber.”
Lisa Foster, a friend of Detterline since the mid-1990s, wrote a eulogy that was shared on several climbing forums, which she has now updated for Alpinist.com: “He climbed Longs Peak more times than anyone in history…. I was lucky enough to share eight of these successful Longs Peak summit trips with Jim, as well as innumerable failures where we went out to attempt to climb the peak but got thwarted for various reasons, mostly due to high winds and unstable snow conditions. These ‘failures’ were some of my favorite times with Jim, as we laughed and shared stories and reveled being in the elements. Outside of our time shared on Longs Peak, Jim and I spent many, many hours rock climbing, ice climbing and mountaineering in RMNP and elsewhere in Colorado.
“Jim was larger than life. He lived passionately and vibrantly, and had a dry, witty sense of humor and infectious laugh that became his trademark. He was a dear friend and an impressive climbing mentor. He was the toughest guy I knew.
“Jim was a talented trumpet player who played with the Estes Park Village Band for many years. He graciously volunteered to play music for weddings, funerals and all kinds of community events.
“Jim was well educated, with a Master’s Degree in vertebrate zoology, and a Ph.D. in invertebrate zoology. As a herpetologist, he kept many reptiles as pets, including several species of turtles, a caiman, snakes, a chameleon, and other creatures. He saved an African spur tortoise from the Colorado flood in 2013.
“[He] was [hard of hearing] but it didn’t slow him down. He was an effective advocate for those with hearing loss and routinely helped children with hearing problems.
“Jim took me under his wing in the mid-1990s and taught me how to ice climb, and instilled a great respect and sense of admiration for Longs Peak in my soul. He encouraged me to pursue the female ascent record on Longs Peak, which became a reality in August of 2015. Jim fueled my passion for the outdoors and always supported my alpine dreams and goals.
“[He] had many stories to tell. Thankfully, he recorded many of them in his unpublished book, From Zero to Hero and Back Again. I have read this book and it is enviably well written, excessively engaging and ultimately entertaining. In the introduction, he states, ‘There is a fine line between being a ‘Zero’ and a ‘Hero.’ I don’t believe that anyone actually desires to be a Zero. And most persons who outwardly desire to be Heroes are incapable of becoming such, as the very nature of being a hero generally precludes those who lust for the status. Although I have been cited both as a Zero and as a Hero, I didn’t ask for, nor aspire to either title. I simply tried to do my best when faced with certain critical situations.’ Jim was presented the Department of the Interior’s Medal of Valor for the 1995 rescue in which he saved two people from drowning in a rushing river near Horseshoe Falls in Rocky Mountain National Park…. This was the rescue for which Jim was most publicly lauded, but he mused that his ‘most difficult rescues were not those we had been commended for.’ He went on to say ‘The Horseshoe Falls rescue, for example, took place in only ten minutes, compared to the continually dangerous and frigid all-night rescue of Matt McClellan from the Narrows of Longs Peak in 1991.’ He performed over 1,200 rescues in his career, saving many lives. He always made it a point to spend extra time with the victim’s families and treated every person he met with honor and respect.
“Jim married Rebecca…on November 17, 2012, and I am so grateful that she came into his life. She brought him immeasurable joy, and I am so happy that the last few years of his life were spent with someone so loving, kind, and generous. Oh, and she’s hilarious too!
“Jim touched tens of thousands of people with his passion for Longs Peak, his dedication to the sport of climbing, his interest in statistics and history, and his devotion to his friends and family.
“[He] freely presented hundreds of slideshows and talks, inspiring countless people with his stories of adventure and hard-won life lessons. Steve Volker was impacted by one of Jim’s slideshows in 1986: ‘From Jim I learned not only what adventures he had experienced, but also what adventures I could experience.’
“Although Jim never had children, he loved kids and always took a keen interest in my daughter, Ellie. Ellie climbed Longs Peak for the first time when she was six years old, and then again for her second time this past summer at the age of seven. The last time she saw Jim, he got down on his knees and gave her a hug. ‘I’m so proud of you!’ he told her. ‘Do you know how old I was when I first climbed Longs Peak?’ Ellie stared up at Jim with interest. ‘Nope,’ she said. ‘I was twenty-nine!’ he exclaimed. She let out a squeal of delight and told him, ‘I beat you!’ Jim threw his head back, laughing. ‘You sure did!’
“Jim was the kindest and best of men. He was a talented climber on rock, ice and snow. I am so fortunate to have known him so well and to have been able to share so many amazing and beautiful adventures with him. I will be forever grateful that I knew Jim, and he will continue to inspire me, and thousands of other people, to be the best we can be at all we do in life. Jim always put his best foot forward and encouraged others to do the same. He was an inspiration and a LEGEND. I will always miss him.”
Longs Peak Summit Club reported on Facebook that more than 1,000 people attended Detterline’s memorial service: “Jim, of course, never used Facebook or any social media. Jim met all these friends the old fashioned way: face-to-face, a handshake, a hug, maybe a hike with Jim up his favorite mountain, Longs Peak. Jim Detterline was an amazing friend to this roomful of people. We’re all better off for having known Jim.”