Don Warsavage - Person to Person

The Emergency Telephone:  Rocky Mountain Long’s Peak

The following was originally published in the 2018, Issue-3, of the AUSWR CO/WY Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

 Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

The Emergency Telephone:  Rocky Mountain Long’s Peak

 This article first appeared in the Telecommunications History Group Dial-Log, Spring 2012 Issue, and is used with their permission.

Emergency Telephone
Photo taken by Fred Rickauer

It was the summer of 1963 at 4:00 a.m. when Fred Rickauer (retired) mounted the horse assigned to him.  Rickauer was a telephone installer-repairman on loan to Estes Park, Colorado.  His telephone training had taught him how to climb poles, repair telephones and shoot trouble—but nothing about riding horses.  Once Fred was in the saddle, his horse set off at a trot, bouncing him up and down and heading in the wrong direction.  Rickauer was a gamer; hanging on, he shouted to his foreman, voice vibrating in rhythm, “How do I steer this thing?”

His foreman, however, was having troubles of his own.  The horse he swung up on had, over time, earned the nickname “Snakepit,” and was trying to buck him off.

This was not an uncommon beginning to the 2½ hour trek to once again repair the emergency telephone located at The Boulder Field near the summit of Longs Peak.  The horses shouldn’t be blamed for hating that seven-mile trail.  It was rocky and steep. It twisted its way up to around thirteen thousand feet above sea level.  And if these horses sensed their riders’ inexperience, they tried for a different destination—back to the barn.

The telephone line itself was an intrusion on that beautiful, harsh environment.  It was just a bracket circuit; a pair of wires strung on small, brittle poles that ran straight up the side of the mountain.  It was frequently out of service; in winter because of fallen trees and drifting snow, in summer because of recurring lightning storms and there was always the wind.

The genesis of this storied line began with a famous and tragic death.  Back in January 1925, Agnes Vaille and her partner, Walter Keimer, made a grueling winter climb, reaching the 14,259-foot summit of Longs Peak.  It was the first successful winter climb of Longs via the East Face.  The weather worsened.  There were high winds and sub-zero temperatures.  Agnes slipped  on their descent of the North Face and slid one hundred-fifty feet to the Boulder Field, where she eventually died of exposure.  Walter Keimer survived but with severe frostbite injuries.

Herbert Sortland, a volunteer rescuer, lost his life in the rescue attempt.

Shelter Cabin
Shelter Cabin built in 1927, funded by the Vaille family

The tragedy made headlines.  Agnes Vaille was an accomplished mountain climber, Secretary of the Denver Chamber of Commerce and daughter of Frederick O. Vaille, the man who started the first telephone company in Denver in 1879.  That summer of 1925, the emergency telephone was established at the Boulder Field by the Rocky Mountain National Park, owner of the line back then.

The Rocky Mountain National Park maintained and repaired the line until 1962, when Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph contracted to take over the Longs Peak line along with all the other telephone lines in the park.

Gerry Kinney (retired) was there from the beginning.  He was the Telephone Exchange Manager from 1962 to 1968.  In addition to Estes Park and the National Park telephone lines, his responsibility included the smaller communities of Peaceful Valley, Allens Park, Raymond, and Glen Haven; all in rugged mountainous terrain.  The annual population surge of returning summer residents, tourists and business re-openings created an avalanche of telephone service demands.  To help with this, Kinney borrowed people each year (like Fred Rickauer) from other areas to help out.

By 1963, Kinney had learned first-hand the difficulties of servicing the Longs Peak line, while trying to balance all the other demands of the area.  Already one of his crews had been caught in a lightning storm at the Boulder Field.

The line itself was knocked out of service while the crew was returning down the mountain.  Kinney had to be concerned about the safety of the people he sent up there, as well as the potential consequences of the emergency phone being out of service.  Kinney planned a job to improve the electrical grounding of the emergency phone and thereby reduce the lightning-caused outages.  He took two men with him – Don Warsavage (retired), and Bill Willbanks (recently deceased) – and horses up to the Boulder Field.

Don Warsavage with the emergency telephone on Long’s Peak. Photo taken by Fred Rickauer

Kinney recalled that it was starting to cloud up in a threatening way.  They were preparing to leave and he was bringing the horses down the trail to meet the other two men.  The horses became frightened and began pulling back.  “I was pretty amazed at what I saw next,” he said.  “Warsavage was waving a copper ground rod around.  As he did so, the top of the rod was making a blue-white arc in the air and it created a weird, electrical buzzing sound.

“Wilbanks was running and his rather long curly black hair was standing straight up.  His hands were making the same bluish arcs with each stride along with the buzzing sound.”  The three of them gathered at the end of the Boulder Field.  They got the horses under control and led them down to timberline where, to the men’s relief, the only trouble was a pelting rain.  None of them had ever experienced such conditions before.  It was believed they had encountered a rare phenomenon associated with electrical storms referred to as static discharge, corona discharge or St. Elmo’s Fire.

Bracket Circuit
Image Courtesy of the National Park Service, ROcky Mountain National Park. Digital Image Gallery, jpg #12727.

It took a sizeable effort to keep that emergency phone in service for over forty years.  It was done through the efforts of the people of The Rocky Mountain National Park and in later years, the repairmen of the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company.  The phone was removed in the early seventies as the Park moved to more radio communications.  The phone is gone, along with the insulators and all the miles of wire.  Even all the poles are gone, and the environment has been restored to its natural state.

The Rocky Mountain National Park is a beautiful gift for the people of the United States; it will reach its 100th anniversary in 2015.  Longs Peak, the jewel of the Park, overlooks Estes Park and is a magnet for thousands of hikers and climbers.  Those who cross the Boulder Field are likely to wonder at the awesome beauty of the peak at that altitude.

They are also likely to see a strange looking beehive shaped stone hut near the trail.  It is the Agnes Vaille Memorial.

There have been many adventures on Longs Peak, most of them exciting and rewarding, some dangerous and frightening, and some tragic.  It is fair to conclude that the emergency shelter hut and the emergency telephone played a helpful role in some of those stories.

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