Thailand: Escape from Paradise - Part One

by Richard Wednesday, April 20th 2011

Planning for my trip to Thailand began in November 2010. The vast options for quiet beaches on small islands seemed daunting, but after a few hours of research I had narrowed my choices down pretty easily. I settled on an island in the south called Koh Pha Ngan. It is just north of the larger island Koh Samui, which is a more popular and easily reached destination. Koh Pha Ngan is famous for its Full Moon Party that occurs every month on the full moon. It is a very large gathering of travelers from around the world who are looking for a crazy beach party. I was looking for something much quieter and more secluded, so I settled on a small beach on the northwest side of the island called Haad Salad. Boasting idyllic images of white sand beaches and turquoise water, it seemed perfect for a relaxing week of sun and adventure. I booked a week at Asia Bungalows, which are situated in the middle of the beach. They are a very clean and well-kept group of bungalows that I would recommend to anybody looking for a place to stay on this beach. They don’t offer all of the amenities that the other business do, but they are very well priced, and everything on the beach is within a three minutes’ walk from anything else. I’d like to spend some time talking about the gear I brought, but I’m going to leave that until the end.

I left on Friday and arrived in Bangkok on Sunday because of the time difference. From Bangkok, it’s a 45 minute flight to Koh Samui airport. From the airport, a short ride in a cab gets you to Big Buddha pier, where the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan is a 30 minute jaunt across the sea. When I arrived in Thongsala, the pier on Koh Pha Ngan, it was raining a little but the sun was trying to come out and I was optimistic about the weather for my time there. I took a taxi to my bungalow and set about unpacking and trying to unwind to enjoy the vacation. In the spirit of vacation, I quickly changed into my swimming attire and jumped in the ocean. After a quick rinse, I walked down the beach and found a restaurant that was grilling fresh seafood. A filling meal of grilled king prawn and Thai beer finished my evening and I headed back to the bungalow.

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March 28th - The next morning I awoke to heavy rain and wind, and a high tide that was breaking against the wall at the edge of our bungalow complex. I was surprised at the weather, but I managed to get dressed and head to one of the other restaurants that had breakfast and an internet connection, so I could eat and update my friends and family on my location. I tried to resist the urge to check the weather forecast but I quickly gave in to temptation, and after a little searching (reliable weather forecasts in Thailand are hard to find), I found a radar image that was quite alarming. A very large tropical depression had moved in over most of southern Thailand and was moving VERY slowly to the north. I grew up in North Carolina so I have been through my share of hurricanes and bad weather. Unfortunately, had not packed for bad weather and I started to get worried.

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I headed quickly back to my bungalow, where I began packing and heading for the pier at Thongsala. I ran into the proprietor of the bungalows, who let me know that the sea was very rough and all of the ferries for that day had been canceled. This meant that I would be on our island for at least one more day but, taking a deep breath, I tried to take a positive attitude and realized that being stuck on an island in Thailand could be a pretty good place to get stuck. I set out to make the best of the day. I found a Thai Massage house set on the beach and had a fantastic one-hour massage. After lunch and a nap, I went back to try to send out another round of emails when the main power for the island went out. I decided to have an early dinner that night and headed to bed, hoping that the next day would be better.

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March 29th – I woke up around 2 AM to the sound of very heavy wind and rain. I ventured onto the porch of my bungalow and was immediately struck with the spray of a wave breaking over the wall on the beach. Bad timing had allowed the storm surge to arrive near high tide. The wall stood about 4.5’ tall over the sand and the bungalows are on stilts another 3’ over the ground. My bungalow was one unit and about 20’ back from the wall. Needless to say, this was a big wave. The bungalows in the front were only about 5’ back from the wall and were being hit directly by the waves. After retreating back inside, I could feel the bungalow shake as more waves found their way over the wall. I tried to get back to sleep but after a few hours I went outside for a look. I was able to snap a few pictures with my phone, but I was not brave enough to bring out the camera. These shots were captured as I ran to and from the edge of the wall between the larger waves.

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I knew that a taxi was leaving at 10AM that day for the pier, and I desperately want to be in it. I decided to brave the beach and try to get to the meet-up point. Most of the businesses had a wall similar to the one at my bungalow. That meant that I would be trying to hold my own between the wall and the breaking waves. I packed my bags assuming I would get very wet and headed out. I very quickly knew that I had made a bad decision. I was being beaten against the wall in one second and violently being pulled out to sea in the next. After about 30’ of travel, I gave up and hopped back on the wall and made my way up to the bungalow there. Lucky for me, the woman who had given me the massage the previous day was there and she showed me how to get back to my bungalow via the confusing maze of roads behind the beach.

I reached the bungalow soaking wet and drained both physically and emotionally, knowing that there would be no escape that day. I did my best to start trying to dry off and clean up and I unpacked again to let my bags start to dry out. After a cold shower and a long nap, I went out and had a meal. Tonight’s meal was deep fried shrimp in a sweet/spicy Thai chili sauce. It was fantastic and very welcome after the day’s events. I retired early that night and hoped that the morning would bring better weather and luck.

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March 30th - I woke up and found that the sea, while very rough, was calmer than the day before. The wind had also changed direction, which told me that we were on the other side of the storm. I hung my hopes on these thoughts and went to the office area of the bungalows to see if they knew if there would be any boats that day. “No Boat” was about all of the English they knew to tell me about what was going on, but it was enough to get the message across: no rescue today. As I was heading back to my bungalow, I saw a few other people loading into a taxi and I walked over to see where they were heading to. They said they were going to the pier to try to find more information and possibly catch a boat later that day. I asked if I could ride with them and quickly ran back to get my stuff and hopped in. They were two couples from Germany, and we quickly bonded over our shared experience.

We got to the pier where the Thai officials were making lists of who was there and where we were trying to go. There were three options: Bangkok, Koh Samui, or an undetermined destination on the mainland to the east. We got on the Koh Samui list since that was where our flights were leaving from and found seats to wait. Shortly after we arrived, Neil from the British embassy, arrived and starting giving out more information. The news that day was that the Thai navy was in route and would be rescuing us! Not realizing that things were quite that bad, it was both good news and a little sobering that conditions were that bad. Neil told us that the island to the north, Koh Tao, was in much worse shape than we were, but the boat could not dock there so it was coming for us first. The boat had around 1000 seats and would be able to accommodate everybody who was presently at the pier. Once we boarded, however, we would not know where we were heading. The news was that conditions on Samui were worse: No power, no water, and the airport was closed. The tentative plan was to sail north to an area of the mainland that was in good enough condition to bus us the rest of the way to Bangkok. Evidently, conditions due west on the mainland were very bad. Most of the roads were washed out and even the train could not get through due to missing pieces of the rail line.

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Several hours went by and Neil came to us with more information. The Navy vessel had continued on to Koh Tao and was shuttling people to the boat via smaller vessels. They would be returning past our island, but there were only 150 seats on the boat so we would not all be able to leave. Before the words were out of his mouth, several hundred people were pushing toward the chair Neil was on to get on the list, which meant we would not. In hindsight, it was very lucky that we did not get on that boat. We waited the rest of that day at the pier, hoping that the news would change again, but around 5 pm we gave up and went back to Asia Bungalows. We felt defeated for the day but we were hopeful that the next day would be better. We all had dinner together, another fabulous meal. I feasted on a whole Red Snapper that was deep fried and swimming in a chili sauce. The evening went well. After several beverages, I was even convinced by my new friends to eat the eye of the snapper. I’m not easily persuaded into trying strange things and, in retrospect, I’m not quite sure how that conversation went. But you only live once, and the eye was essentially tasteless. What was alarming was the crunch that I was not expecting. Who would have guessed that a fried fish eye would crunch? We decided to meet again early the next morning and to try to be at the pier before anybody else.

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Look for Part 2 of Thailand: Escape from Paradise later this week to see how Richard got off the island and back to Summit Hut!

Trips

Peak 5001 and the Saddleback Ridge

by Dave Baker Monday, April 11th 2011

The big ridge that separates lower Sabino and Bear Canyons is one of the great ridges of the Santa Catalina Mountains. To the north, this ridge rises out of Sabino Basin and runs southwest all the way to the mouths of the two canyons. Thimble Peak dominates the middle section, while the southern end is called Blackett’s Ridge. (On maps a distinctive saddle on the ridge is labeled “Saddleback”, so I refer to the entire feature as “Saddleback Ridge”.) The ridge’s magnificent location is hard to beat. Views along the crest take in an impressive sweep of some rugged and beautiful portions of the Catalinas.

Peak 5001 and the Saddleback Ridge

From the top of Blackett’s Ridge: Thimble Peak left, Peak 5001 center

With the exception of Blackett’s Ridge, no trails traverse the ridge top, and from Thimble Peak south, big cliffs and intimidating, steep slopes complicate the challenge of picking cross country routes to explore the craggy spine. An interesting high point on the ridge is the unnamed peak between Thimble Peak and Blackett’s Ridge, marked with an elevation of 5,100’ on the USGS 7.5 minute map of the area.

Approaching Saddleback

Steep terrain along the Saddleback Ridge

To avoid the many high cliffs draped around Peak 5001, it is best approached from the south; we chose to approach via the saddle marked “Saddleback” on the USGS map. There are several possible ways to reach this saddle: on our visit to Peak 5001, we picked a way down a steep gulley near the top of Blackett’s Ridge and then traversed some steep slopes into the saddle. From there we worked our way northeast up the ridge to the summit of Peak 5001, avoiding several cliff barriers along the way. Back at Saddleback on the return trip, we decided to work northwest down steep slopes into Sabino Canyon and on to the Phone Line Trail for the return trip to the parking lot.

Thimble Peak

Thimble Peak as seen from Peak 5001

Warning: Carefully consider the risks before attempting this hike. Several sections are very steep with loose rock and gravel, and cliff barriers -- potentially dangerous falls are certainly possible. Route finding can be difficult and it may be necessary to retrace steps to find easier alternatives. Mountain lions are known to frequent the area. Some other risks include heat, rattlesnakes and plenty of thorny cactus and shrubs.

View from Peak 5001

Blackett’s Ridge and Sabino Canyon from Peak 5001

Park at the entrance of the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, a short drive from mid-town Tucson. First find the Phone Line Trail and then the Blackett’s Ridge Trail. A short distance before the end of the Blackett’s Ridge Trail, we scrambled east off the top of the ridge and found a very steep gulley that plunges northeast through a cliff barrier. Near the bottom of the gulley, we contoured towards the “Saddleback” saddle across a loose, steep, and intimidating slope. From the saddle head northeast, angling up and right a bit to avoid more cliffs, and then work towards the ridge top and a spectacular walk to the top of Peak 5001. Back at Saddleback on the descent, we headed downhill towards Sabino Canyon, weaving around more cliff barriers to reach the Phone Line Trail below.

Season: Late fall, winter and early spring. This low elevation area is very hot in the summer.

Water: None. Bring plenty of your own

Note: This is a Forest Service fee area.

Difficulty: Difficult and advanced. About 8.5 miles total for the route described here, with 2,300+ foot elevation gain. The climb to Peak 5001 involves much cross-country travel, so advanced route finding skills are necessary; map, compass and/or GPS can be useful. Brushy; wear long pants.

Maps: Green Trails Santa Catalina Mountains

Map

Click map for larger image

Trails

Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile

by frank Wednesday, April 6th 2011

On Monday morning, December 27th (in celebration of one month of marriage), my new bride (Rachael) and I set out on a backpacking trip to the highlights of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile called “The W”. The first couple miles are all uphill and we hadn’t been hiking much with all the wedding and honeymoon planning. After a couple hours we were left feeling a bit dejected at the first trail sign. However, we had apparently reached the crest of the trail and the next several miles were downhill and went by rather quickly. We hit our first refugio at around 2pm. Refugios are much like Mountain Huts in the US, but are quite fancy (and expensive) but they also have less expensive campgrounds next to them. We paid to camp here so we could leave our gear and head further up to the Mirador Las Torres (Lookout). The last half mile or so to the lookout was really steep but once we made it over the ridge to the lookout, all the exhaustion went away! The view was absolutely amazing. Three huge towers sticking out nearly 2000 meters above an almost teal glacial lake. After a long break and tons of pictures, we made our way back down to our camp. We made dinner and were in bed by 9:45pm…and it was still light as day!

Torres Del Paine
Rachael and I at the Towers

The next morning we set out on what would turn into our longest day of the trip. A brief uphill was followed by a LONG, sunny day of downhill hiking. We reached a refugio at around 6:30pm and as we’ve been known to do, we said “we can keep going”! We continued on to Camp Italiano. We made it to camp at around 8:30pm. This campground is a free campground with no amenities. It had a bathroom and a small cooking “shed” but not much else…oh, and lots of tents! There were probably 30 or 40 other tents the nights we were there, and this was apparently a slow night.

After a great night of sleep, we hit the trail a bit after noon and made our way up the French Valley. The French Valley is a canyon lined from top to bottom with hanging glaciers. There are two lookouts that are the main highlights of the canyon. The first lookout was at the base of a large glacier and we were lucky enough to see it calve a few times. It was amazing to be able to hear the ice crashing down the cliffs. As we hit the second lookout we had just pulled out the stove to start to make lunch when we realized we didn’t have any of our utensils with us, which makes it quite difficult to stir and eat a freeze dried meal! So, armed with a pocket knife and a pringles can, we made our own spoon. We probably couldn’t patent the idea but we enjoyed our lunch! After lunch we quickly made our way back down the valley to the first lookout. At this point we were the only ones there and the weather had taken a slight turn for the worse. We got a little bit of rain but it didn’t seem threatening and the views were just as amazing. We got back to the tent, cooked our dinner and went to bed.

French Valley Panoramic
French Valley Panoramic (Click on the image to see full size)
Our Make-Shift Spoon
Our Make-Shift Spoon

The next day was rather uneventful and we made it in to camp by 3pm. This lodge was also one of the options for getting off the trail once we were done. They have a catamaran that runs across the lake to the main park road. We were trying to figure out what our best option was since there was also a boat from the next refugio but we knew it would be a little more expensive. As we started doing the math…it added up to more than we had (and everyone only took cash unless you spent over $60)! It was the strangest feeling to realize that we were in the middle of all these people, tons of food, great lodging, and we couldn’t buy any of it! We convinced the lodge to let us pay with a credit card but we had to also buy dinner, which was another $40! But it gave us a little extra cash and we also found out we could probably pay for the more expensive boat ($70 per person) with a credit card. We were once again feeling pretty good about our chances of getting out of the park!

Campsite
Campsite near Lodge Paine Grande

That night we finally got to experience some of the infamous Patagonian Winds! Neither of us slept too well as we were constantly woken up by 50+ MPH winds shaking our tent! I was quite impressed with how well our Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 stood up to the challenge! For a two pound tent it did pretty well! The next morning the winds were still howling and we had a little bit of rain but by the time we hit the trail, the rain was gone and all that remained was a horrific headwind! We spent the next several hours walking directly into 50 MPH winds! We covered up the best we could to avoid wind burn with our Beanies over our heads, sunglasses over our eyes, and our rain jackets zipped up to our nose.  We also threw on some gloves for good measure and began our trek up the trail.  Every so often the trail would duck into the forest and would shelter us from the wind which was bitter-sweet as we would instantaneously begin to cook from the sun and lack of breeze.  So we found ourselves shedding our gloves and hats only to turn the corner back into the wind where we would re-layer ourselves.

Rachael Walking Into The Wind
Rachael Walking Into The Wind

We finally made it to the first outlook which was a huge rock outcropping sheltered by nothing that looked over Lago Grey, the lake created by Glacier Grey.  This brought on the 70+MPH winds as we struggled to stay standing there long enough to take in the icebergs and sneak-peak of the Glacier.  We made it to the refugio and decided we’d better check with the boat that left from this campground to make sure they would still run the following day, New Years Day. Upon confirmation they ran on the 1st and that they accepted Credit Card we felt much better and decided to enjoy our last* full day in the park by sitting at the Mirador (lookout) of the Glacier while eating lunch before heading to the free Camp Site, Campo Los Guardos.  We arrived to the campsite and to our surprise were greeted with another amazing Mirador (lookout) looking directly at the Glacier from only a few hundred yards away.  We sat and relaxed until just before sunset when we got back to camp, cooked our last freeze-dried dinner and set our alarm for midnight, as we knew we were destined to fall asleep from being so tired.  Finally at 1:45am we heard the alarm, woke up, said our happy new years and Rachael went back to sleep while I decided to try to get a few pictures of the stars outside. 

Rachael at Glacier Grey
Rachael at Glacier Grey

The next morning, New Years Day, brought the return of beautiful weather and much less wind. We got up a little later than planned but still plenty early to tear down camp and make our way back down to the refugio. The hike that took 2 hours a day earlier took us almost exactly an hour and we got to the refugio at around 11am. We made the last of our freeze dried food, a blueberry cheesecake, for lunch (amazing!) and waited for the boat. As the boat pulled up to shore people seemed to appear out of nowhere to line up and we quickly realized we were the only ones without reservations. As one of the crew stepped out of the boat to hand out lifejackets, he started taking names. When we told him we didn’t have reservations, he told us the boat was full. I’m pretty sure he could see the devastation in our eyes as we both dropped our bags to the ground. He told us to wait a minute and as soon as everyone else had gotten on the boat he told us that we could get on but not to tell anyone we didn’t have reservations and he warned us there wouldn’t be seats for us. We said that was fine we didn’t mind standing! So aboard the cruise we went, not really knowing what was going to happen, but then again, it didn’t really matter, we were getting back to civilization!

The cruise was amazing! The captain brought the boat right up to the glacier within about 100 yards as the crew used a fishing net to scoop up small icebergs. Later, another crew member passed out pisco sours and whiskeys using the glacier ice!

Toasting with Glacier Ice
Toasting with Glacier Ice

As we enjoyed our drink we started chatting with the crew member who let us on the boat and found out his name was Lucas. We chatted a bit about the park and our trip. Then we asked him what we needed to do when we got to the other side. He told us that if he took us in to the reception area to pay that he would get in trouble for taking too many people on the boat…so our trip would be free (saving $140)! After a short chat he realized we “sure hadn’t planned all that well”…but he also said “sometimes you can plan, plan, plan but it’s when you don’t plan that things work out perfect”. Thus the motto of our trip became “it’s just like Lucas says”. We made it to administration (after hitchhiking) and found out we’d have to wait another hour and a half for the last shuttle of the day. At this point we started to worry that we wouldn’t make it out of the park if we had to go get a bag we had left at the start of the trail and our concerns of no cash and no food quickly returned! We came to terms with the idea of camping one more night by telling ourselves we were saving money on another night of lodging! We ended up lucking into a free shuttle ride to the hotel which brought the day’s savings up to nearly $200 and gave us a few extra dollars in cash to spend on food for the night and the next morning, so we bought some pasta and chips for dinner and set up camp for one more “last time”.

The next morning we organized our packs, wandered around the gift shop, worked on our travel journal and waited for the 2pm shuttle. Everything worked out and we made it to the 2:30pm bus back to Puerto Natales…where we didn’t have a hostel reservation for the night! We got into town and walked to the B&B we had stayed at a week earlier…no luck. We turned the corner and saw a nice sign that read “Casa Lucy Bed & Breakfast” and decided to check it out. As soon as we walked in we were greeted by two very excited women (mother & daughter) and quickly found out they did have a room for us. They both seemed really excited to have us and we soon found out they are new to the business and have only been open a month. The room was gorgeous, and huge! Breakfast was amazing, and huge!

I guess it really is just like Lucas says…

Trips

Banff Film Festival & Summit Hut Grant Recipients

by frank Thursday, March 31st 2011

First off, I want to offer a big thank you to everyone who came out to this year’s Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour at the historic Fox Theatre. I hope you all enjoyed the evening and left feeling inspired to get out there and enjoy your own adventure.

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Sold out crowd of 1150 at the beautiful Fox Theatre

The evening of films was filled with some incredible characters, Ueli Steck is just an incredible climber and his speed ascent of the Eiger made for possibly the most amazing moment of the night. And we can probably all agree that we now know more about paragliding than we ever thought we would - but what an incredible ordeal!

As the result of a sold-out crowd we were able to donate $5,500 to local non-profit groups as part of a grant program. We here at Summit Hut are incredibly grateful for all the amazing work our five finalists do in our community, and incredibly thankful for your support of this year’s grant. Each and every one of the five finalists, and the other 15 applicants, do wonderful things for the Tucson area. Everything from trail maintenance to getting our area’s youth outside. I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight, in a little more detail, our three runners-up and our two winners.

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Our finalists on stage with Summit Hut owner Dana Davis.

Each of our three runners-up were awarded $250 in partnership with Patagonia as well as a $250 Summit Hut gift card.

Inner City Outings: The folks at ICO do an amazing job getting kids outside, most of whom would otherwise have no chance to do so. As a subsidiary of the Sierra Club, they partner with local schools and youth agencies to lead hiking, camping, kayaking, caving, mountain biking and many other adventures.

Friends of Kartchner Caverns State Park: Kartchner Caverns State Park is definitely a gem of our region. Friends of Kartchner is dedicated to advocating preservation of the caverns through research, education and public awareness. They are also responsible for docent training and scientific research at the caverns.

Sonoran Desert Weedwackers: The Weedwackers started in 2000 as a small group committed to remove non-native grasses in Tucson Mountain Park. Now, they are the hosts of the incredibly well known Beat Back Bufflegrass Day and have been incredibly productive in removing tons of invasive grasses.

The two winners of this year’s grant were each awarded checks for $2,000.

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Our winners, Southern Arizona Rescue Association and Tucson Wildlife Center.

 

Southern Arizona Rescue Association: SARA is an incredible group of men and women who all volunteer their time to provide a vital service to our outdoor community. Members go through extensive training to be able to perform rescues under just about any conditions Southern Arizona could throw at them. This team of dedicated volunteers responds to over 100 search and rescue missions each year which results in over 4,400 hours of their time at absolutely no expense to taxpayers. Just about every one of us who has been enjoying the outdoors around Tucson for any amount of time has had some sort of interaction with this team. I know I’ve run into members of the SARA team out on the trail and here in the store and every single one of them is excited about the opportunity to do what they do, and on top of that, they are all genuinely nice people. They are all great people and obviously dedicated to providing a great service to those in need. They also have some wonderful outreach programs including the nationally acclaimed Hug-A-Tree system for educating children about outdoor safety. If you are interested in learning more about SARA, they host a monthly meeting at 7:30 pm the first Friday of each month at their SARA House near Sabino Canyon.

Tucson Wildlife Center: The team over at Tucson Wildlife Center was established in 1998 and is dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured and orphaned wild animals. Specializing in birds of prey and javelina, this team of specially trained and passionate people is able to handle large and potentially dangerous animals. Since the first year, the center has rehabilitated between 250 and 300 animals per year. TWC also has a 24/7 emergency help line and a 24-hour emergency room. All services are provided free to the public. They also conduct wonderful educational programs out in the community which include live animals and provide wonderful information to children and adults alike. In working with Lisa and her team for a couple events, it has become incredibly evident that they are as dedicated as it comes. They are committed to the care, rescue and rehabilitation of the majestic wildlife of the Tucson area and love to share their passion with the community. And as an aside, they also have some of the cutest animal pictures in the world!

Events

The Authors

Dave BakerDave Baker

I'm Dave Baker, founder of Summit Hut, an independent outdoor retailer based in Tucson, Arizona since 1969. As an experienced and passionate hiker, climber and backpacker, my blog is intended to be an informative and interesting look into the outdoors and the outdoor industry.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis

I’m Dana Davis, co-owner of the Summit Hut. I mostly enjoy hiking and road biking though I often do other things to keep it interesting (mountaineering, motorcycling, backpacking, climbing, you name it!) My biggest challenge is sometimes finding the balance between career, family, and fun but it’s working out so far!

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

I'm Dan Davis, after retiring from the National Park Service as a Ranger and manager, I worked for the Summit Hut until 2009, then retired for good (maybe). I'm now spending my time traveling around the southwest writing and working on my nature and fine art photography business.

Emily Gindlesparger

Emily Gindlesparger

I’m Emily Gindlesparger, a member of the Summit Hut floor staff. Since moving here from the Midwest, I’ve been taking advantage of all possible adventures in Arizona: rock climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, whitewater kayaking, caving and trail running; I’m always excited to see what’s next!

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