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Climbing cops honor fallen comrades

By Sgt. Keith McPheeters, Farmington PD, New Mexico

It was 2:00 AM when the climbers arrived at their High Camp at 17,200 feet on Denali (Mount McKinley), North America’s highest peak. As the team struggled to erect their tents and melt drinking water from the endless ice and snow covering the mountain, their weather instrument froze. The last readings registered on the instrument before it became useless: minus 45 degrees temperature, and 55mph sustained wind speed.

One would have to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to such lifethreatening environmental extremes. In this case, it was because they were Cops.

They were members of Cops on Top, and they were on the mountain to memorialize and honor Trooper James Saunders who had been killed in the line of duty while serving the citizens of Washington State. The harsh conditions of the mountain paled in comparison to the sacrifice and loss that the Saunders family had been subjected to, as well as the collective family of the Washington State Patrol.Two days later, the team reached the 20,320-foot summit of the mountain, carrying with them flags, plaques, and photos of their fallen comrade. They would endure 21 days on the mountain and each of them had spent over $4,000 to be there.

Cops on Top, a non-profit organization, was founded in the spring of 1998, soon after the senseless murder of Cortez, Colorado Police Officer Dale Claxton. While searching for Officer Claxton’s killers, law enforcement officers from throughout the rugged and desolate Four Corners area could not help but reflect on the dangers of law enforcement and the effect that their profession had on their families. As a tribute to Officer Claxton, and as a way to educate the public on what it means to be a police officer, the decision was made to take Officer Claxton’s memory to the highest point in North America. Thus was the start of Cops on Top; born in tragedy, tempered by dedication, and driven to make sure their friends were never forgotten.

In the intervening years, Cops on Top has grown to hundreds of officers throughout the United Sates and three other countries. The Cops on Top team has climbed to the summit of four continents and dozens of challenging mountains throughout the world, all in memory of police officers killed in the line of duty.

The 1999 Cops on Top Officer Dale Claxton Denali Memorial Expedition was difficult and arduous. When weather conditions worsened and one of the team members fell ill, the decision was made to leave the mountain without reaching the summit. A small cairn of rocks was erected overlooking a prominent feature known as Rescue Gully and there the team cached the plaque honoring Officer Claxton. Placing the plaque at Rescue Gully was the most poetic honor they could achieve, as Rescue Gully is the emergency route that is utilized to rescue climbers, victims of accidents, illness, or injuries, who are unable to descend the difficult ridgeline. They vowed to return and finish what they had started.

In June of 2001, Cops on Top returned to Denali, this time to finally reach its lofty summit. Along the way, they recovered Officer Claxton’s plaque from its place of honor and carried it to the summit along with the one honoring Trooper James Saunders of the Washington State Patrol. The climb was textbook perfect, despite the weather extremes endured at High Camp.

When seventy-one police officers were killed in a single, tragic event: September 11, 2001, somehow it did not seem proper to climb only one mountain to honor so many of their heroic comrades. Instead, the team established annual expeditions to the highest point of each state, initially in honor of the victims of 9-11, but later in honor of all the officers killed each year across the United States. Someday, the team hopes to place a team of police officers on the summits of all 50 states, all on the same day. In 2004, Cops on Top climbed to the difficult 22,841-foot summit of Aconcagua, the highest point in South America, in memory of Detective James Cawley of the Salt Lake City Police Department. The team’s success on Aconcagua drew the attention of Horace Small and VF Corporation, parent company of The North Face, who rallied to Cops on Top’s aid. With their assistance, the Cops on Top team scheduled three difficult expeditions in 2005: Kilimanjaro, Denali, and Elbrus.

The 2005 Cops on Top Officer Isaac Espinoza Kilimanjaro Expedition reached the 19,340-foot summit of Africa in January, on behalf of Officer Isaac Espinoza of the San Francisco PD. In June, two teams of Cops on Top climbers again reached the summit of Denali, in honor of Officers Eric White and Jason Wolfe of the Phoenix, Police Department, Arizona both killed in the line of duty during the same incident. In August, the team will be traveling to the 18,480 foot Russian summit of Elbrus, the highest point in Europe. Nominations for a fallen officer to be honored with the Elbrus Memorial Expedition are now being accepted.

Unfortunately, the efforts of Cops on Top seem to be in demand these days.Yet, it is of distant summits that these officers dream at night. They do so for one reason: clarity. For them, it is in the rarefied air of high altitude that they can see clearly what it means to become police officers and why an officer’s ultimate sacrifice is worth so much.

For more information on Cops on Top, to nominate a fallen officer, join a Cops on Top team, or to support their cause, see the Cops on Top website at: www.copsontop.com or, write to: info@copsontop.com

May they never be forgotten.

Editors Note:

The Origin of Cops on Top:
Cops on Top was founded by Sgt. Keith McPheeters of the Farmington New Mexico Police Department. In 1998, Sergeant McPheeters was a member of that agency’s Special Response Team searching for the killers of Cortez Colorado Police Officer Dale Claxton. The manhunt was the largest of its kind in American history and conducted in the remote Southwestern United States Four-Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. During those months, McPheeters reflected on the nature of his occupation, the public’s perception of a police officer’s work, and the effect such a loss has on an officer’s survivors. From these thoughts, the concept of Cops on Top took form. The inaugural expedition in 1999 was in memory of Officer Claxton, and McPheeters chose Denali (Mount McKinley), Alaska for the team’s first climb.

Cops on Top 2005 Team List

Denali 2005-for Officers Eric White & Jason Wolfe, Phoenix PD
Spencer Berntsen-Ofc, Bremerton PD, WA, Chris Singleton-Ofc, San Jose PD, CA, Kaley Erickson-Battalion Chief (ret.), US Forest Service, Duncan Campbell-Saanich PD, BC, Canada, Henk Bezema Utrecht, Adriaan van Dorp & Frank Stevelmans-Dutch National Police, Trever Kissel-Mercer Island FD, WA, Sean Oliver-Bellevue FD, WA, Michel Caron-Team Photographer, Matt Jacobs, Seth Berntsen, Roy Johnson

Kilimanjaro 2005-for Officer Isaac Espinoza, San Francisco PD
Keith McPheeters-Sgt, Farmington New Mexico PD, Rocky Fails-Ofc, Farmington PD, NM, Stu Frink-Motor Officer, Washington State Patrol, Chris Singleton-Ofc, San Jose PD, CA, Kaley Erickson-Battalion Chief (ret.), US Forest Service, Shane Lueddeke- Ofc, San Jose PD, CA, Spencer Berntsen-Officer, Bremerton PD, WA, Mark Newcomb-Sgt, Narcotics & Vice Division, Whitehall PD, OH, Gerry Crispo-Constable, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, NB, Canada, Carson Hagerman-Quartermaster, Fredericton PD, NB, Canada, Rick Bruce-Cpt, Bayview District Commander, San Francisco PD, CA, Greg Suhr-D/Chief, Operations Division, San Francisco PD, CA, Steve Evans-Civilian, Cops on Top Board of Directors, Las Vegas NV.

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