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A Rocky Road

The ranger known as Mr. Longs Peak has to climb down. His friends wonder why.

Lumpy Ridge, in the northeast section of vast Rocky Mountain National Park, is home to a wall of rocks that was just too inviting for a pair of climbers in the unpredictable weather this past March. Hayner Brooks, a 44-year-old Loveland electrician, and Ken Miller, a 35-year-old electrical engineer from Colorado Springs, started climbing the area of Lumpy Ridge known as Thunder Buttress in the afternoon. On what they had planned as their last climb of the day, Brooks grabbed a bad handhold and fell twenty feet, shattering his left thigh bone just below the hip. He then rolled fifty more feet until coming to rest on a small ledge. "I remember seeing rock, sky, rock, sky, and thinking 'Okay, when is this going to end?'" recalls Brooks, an experienced mountaineer who has worked as a climbing instructor.

Miller went for help and put the park's search-and-rescue crew into action. Calls went out to volunteers who were qualified for what looked to be a difficult night rescue with snow in the immediate forecast. A crew would have to climb above Brooks, anchor some ropes and then rappel down to his spot. Once there, they would have to strap him onto a litter, lower him down a sheer cliff face and then carry him down a steep slope for about two miles.

One ranger on duty that night was park veteran Jim Detterline, known to many people as "Mr. Longs Peak" for his intimate knowledge of one of the park's main attractions. On that night, Detterline decided to break some rules.

The ranger was already in trouble. He had been reassigned from one of the great jobs in the National Park Service--as the official Longs Peak ranger, which he had been for a decade--to a job in which he says his chief duty is to dig latrines in a remote part of the park. His bosses say he took a routine transfer too personally. Others say Park Service officials may be jealous of Detterline. In any case, the dispute has helped create such an air of mistrust that the Park Service convened a special panel last week to discuss morale, volunteers and other issues. The imbroglio mostly revolves around two men, Detterline and a seasonal ranger named Bernie Holien, and has been the center of attention--as well as of rumor and gossip--all winter for the small community of people whose job or passion for climbing keeps them attached to the park they call "Rocky."

No one seems more passionate than Detterline, a gung-ho ranger known for his extreme earnestness and an avid interest in the history of Longs Peak. The 14,255-foot-high mountain, named for Stephen Long, an Army surveyor who never did scale it, is a landmark not only for all of northeastern Colorado but also for Detterline, who has scaled it hundreds of times. "Longs Peak has always captured my fancy," he says. And he simply doesn't want to climb down.

Not that there aren't other beautiful spots in Rocky. Founded in 1915, the 412-square-mile park north of Boulder is the most popular single tourist attraction in the state, full of meadows and mountains and glaciers, traversed by the highest paved highway in the world, Trail Ridge Road, and 355 miles of hiking trails.

And the park's rangers are the top guns. They handle the rugged stuff, they enforce the law, they rescue the helpless and they dispense guidance to thousands of tourists. Because of where they work, they're listened to by the top climbers in the world. It's easy to see why rescued victims, co-workers, volunteers and mountain fanatics have developed a strong loyalty to Detterline, 40, and Holien, 44. Both have been trained in climbing and rescue at the best schools, in places as far away as Scotland. They have climbed to the summit of Longs Peak from dozens of routes, starting when they were teens. They've both made successful climbs of serious mountains like Denali (Mt. McKinley), although neither likes to talk about himself.

Talking about each other--that's different. Detterline describes Holien as a climber's climber and says he can walk straight up the side of a mountain without breaking a sweat or saying a word. At the end of the day, says Detterline, Holien will go home and repair equipment so that he'll be ready to climb again the next morning before sunrise. Holien sold his construction business in Denver four years ago in order to be near the park that he has loved since he was a teen.

In turn, Holien says Detterline is not only a great climber but skilled at turning visitors into friends and friends into park volunteers. Detterline, he says, is also excellent at assessing climbers quickly and giving them the crucial tip they may need to avoid getting in trouble later on. "He's probably saved dozens of people before they get 100 feet from their car," Holien says.

Both Holien and Detterline have the leathery skin that betrays their years in the sun and wind. It is only during a lengthy conversation that their similar easygoing demeanors fade away and stubborn streaks emerge. Even friends say that while Detterline is more outgoing and Holien more laid back, they both have the kind of stiff backbones that would put them on a collision course with the bureaucracy of the National Park Service.

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