Backcountry Baking

by Craig Monday, September 27th 2010

A few years ago I read a tip in Backpacker Magazine about how to turn your cookset in to an oven using a technique called the twiggy fire. The long and short of the method is to build a fire on top of your cookset using twigs the length of you palm, no larger in diameter than your pinkie. I like to do this when it is appropriate to have a fire so I can use the coals to help start the twiggy fire; also a light coal bed warms the bottom of the pan without burning. I just searched the Backpacker website and found the twiggy fire directions. They describe building the twiggy fire on top of the cookset while using a stove on the bottom. I’m sure that works great but I will continue to build my twiggy fires in my fire ring.

I can bake nearly anything using the twiggy fire and my cookset. My cookset, by the way, is the MSR Alpine 2; hyperbole aside, the finest, most versatile cookset known to man. I have had it since the early nineties and am sure it will serve me well for decades to come. I have baked lasagna, pita pizzas, cornbread, and dumplings in soup. Cake, however, is by far the crowd favorite. Serving a freshly baked cake to your friends in a beautifully remote locale is a sure fire way to garner a rep as a backcountry badass. So let’s walk through the process so you can amaze your friends on your next adventure.

Things you will need:

1. Cooking oil of choice. I use Canola oil. I have a 4oz nalgene bottle which is always more than enough.
2. Cake mix. I prefer the brands that are on sale.
3. Powdered egg. Backpacker’s Pantry scrambled eggs are simply powdered eggs and we have them at Summit Hut
4. Clean water
5. Mixing utensil. I use a long handled spoon, and you guessed it, we have them at Summit Hut.
6. Cookset with a 2 liter pot w/lid. I use a MSR Alpine 2 and we already know how I feel about that.
7. Bowl or separate pan to mix in.

At Home:

***Disclaimer*** I don’t measure, I eyeball. If you have concerns please do the math.

1. Divide the cake mix in half. Place half in zip top plastic bag quart size.
2. Place a little less than half of the egg package in with the mix.
3. Write with a marker on the zip top bag how much water and oil you will need.

On the trail:

Oh boy
Backcountry Bakery

1. Get your fire going. While a small coal bed develops gather lots of twigs ranging from pinkie size to very thin.
2. Mix the cake mix with the oil and water until there are no powder lumps visible. Cake batter is pretty thick. You can always add more water, you can’t take it out.
3. Once you have enough coals, move some aside for your baking and save some to keep the main fire going.
4. Dump some leftover oil in the 2 liter pan. Swirl the pan to coat the entire bottom and as much of the sides as possible. Heating as you swirl makes it easier and faster.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and cover with the lid.
6. Place the pan onto the coals. If you use too many coals the bottom will burn.
7. Place a few coals on the lid to help get the twiggy fire going. Lay on some tiny twigs, dry grass, pine needles or whatever you have that will catch easy and spark.
8. Once the flames catch, build the fire up with the twigs you have gathered. If you pile too high the fire will just fall over off the pan.
9. Repeat the process of building the fire up and burning down a few to several times before you even think about checking the cake.
10. Don’t try and rush the process. If you build the twiggy fire too high especially towards the end you will burn the top. Also if your main fire is close by and hot rotate the pan a few times.
11. Once you can smell the cake it is probably done. Be careful when checking the cake you don’t want to get any ash on it. Stick a knife in the center or wherever happens to be the thickest part, if it comes out clean its done.
12. Remove from fire and let sit for a few minutes
13. With the lid secure flip upside down and smack on flat surface. (I prefer the top of my lid) Lift the pan and hope it didn’t stick, if it didn’t you are a twiggy fire Jedi.
14. Enjoy!

cake in lid
Finished Cake in the Lid

I have burned a couple but have mostly had great results and they never fail to please. Get creative and you can bake anything. A quick tip on cleanup: boil water in the pan put the mixing bowl in the boiled water and wash it off then use the water to make chunky hot chocolate to share with the cake.

I will be baking a chocolate cake using a twiggy fire on Sunday, October 3 at 11 AM in the parking lot of our Wetmore location for our Food Tips & Tasting event. Please drop by, say hi and taste some samples from our food manufacturers; and if the force is with me a twiggy fired cake.


Pushing My Limit on Steel Crazy

by Emily Monday, September 20th 2010

We racked up to Steel Crazy, a four pitch 5.9 route on the spine of the Fortress, at just about two in the afternoon; not an entirely appropriate start for a party of four on long route none of us had done before.  Clare and I would start the route, and the boys would come up behind us.  I'm willing to sacrifice some dignity and admit that I was all psyched for the route, decided that being the most experienced climber in the group meant I should be the first to lead off the pitch, and got up a measly twenty-five feet before facing the crux of the climb, where I was shut down.  Some people will probably disagree with me, but I think the hardest part of a climb is when you're hanging on at your physical limit, you can still see what your next move should be but don't know what will happen in the move after that.  This isn't just a climbing thing; this is a test of how we deal with all the hard stuff in our lives.  The hardest part is trusting that you'll figure it out when you get there.  I did not trust this at all.  My next move involved grappling a little bulge above my head and attempting to thrust all my weight over it, and this part I could do, but I couldn't see what to hold on to after the leap.  Instead, I hung from my arms looking for the next hold until my arms turned to jelly.  And then I came down.

The other hard part of climbing: getting your ego smashed in front of boys.  One of the guys lead the pitch and popped right over the spot where I struggled; maybe some of it was that he's six foot four and I'm five foot three, but most of it was that he's fearless.  On the drive up the mountain, we were talking about fun routes we'd done before, and he related some stories about getting in over his head leading on harder climbs; I asked why he didn't just back off of those situations, and he said it just hadn't occurred to him.  In some ways I was envious; climbing for me includes the task of constantly sorting out the real dangers from the stomach flips.  For him the guidelines were clear, and the stomach flips were no big deal.  On my second attempt I got over the crux just fine.

View from the first belay
View from the first belay

The best part of climbing (again at least in my opinion) is the exposure and the view, and by these criteria the belay station on top of the first pitch of Steel Crazy is superb.  Clare and I sat on top of a little pinnacle, looking out at the jagged front range and on toward Tucson.  On the horizon we could see the outlines of Mount Wrightson and Baboquivari Peak.  Behind us was an alcove where the boys were starting the second pitch.  Clare really wanted to lead this part; she had climbed harder but had little leading experience.  The second pitch is a steep headwall that requires balance on little crystals everywhere, and as we watched the leader dance up the face, he whistled and occasionally sang the chorus of a song stuck in his head, and Clare got nervous.  She said he always whistles when the climbing is hard.

Clare got to the second bolt of the second pitch, and then told me she wanted to come down.  I said okay, but instead of asking me to take up the slack, she took another step, and then another.  She was silent the rest of the way up, until she was at the anchors eighty-five feet later.  She told me not to tell the boys about her momentarily lost confidence, but I thought she deserved a shout out anyway; hopefully they don't read many blogs.  I think I know just how she felt.  After you push past that point of fear there's a delicious sense of focus; it's like the part of your brain that's dwelling on falling gets drowned out by the part that wants to hang on.  The second and third pitches of Steel Crazy are like that:  you're balancing on almost vertical rock on small holds, and after nearly every move it seems like there's nothing left to move to, until you find something that seems impossibly small and you realize you can make it work.  It's an accumulation of tiny steps, and every step is an accomplishment and a celebration that you're still hanging on.

Clare at the summit
Clare at the summit

We ended the climb exactly at sunset.  So exact, in fact, that as I was pulling up from the shade of the rock to the summit I planted my hands in a bright swath of pink light.  We sat at the top coiling our ropes, eating dried mango and candied ginger and watching the colors change, sinking down over the Tucson Mountains.  We hiked out in the dark, headlamps like fireflies among the trees.

sunaet steel crazy
Sunset on the descent


Hopi Lands

by Dan Davis Monday, September 13th 2010

The most terrifying event of my life happened in Old Oraibi when I was 8 years old.

I haven’t been back since, but I’m heading uphill out of Moenkopi Farms and onto the Hopi Reservation toward First Mesa and Old Oraibi. Huge sensually green expanses of Mormon Tea remind me of spring Kansas wheat fields, with lone trees replacing grain silos on the flat landscape. Things are a little different up here. People drive slower and are in less of a hurry to walk through their daily goings on. The graffiti common in Flagstaff and Tuba City is absent. The roadsides are surprisingly free of litter.

Mormon Tea
Mormon Tea

All geographic landmarks are lost for awhile except for the omnipresent Nuvatukaovi (San Francisco Peaks) to the west, home of the Kachina gods and the sacred mountains of the Hopi people. All of a sudden the land falls away to your right and you are reminded that you are on a high northern Arizona mesa. The village of Old Oraibi appears almost invisible, blending into and perched on the tan cliffs high above Oraibi Wash.


The last time I was here I was with my father on a visit to a Hopi friend to attend a Hopi dance and sacred ceremony. This was when kachadas (non-Hopis) could attend ceremonies as friends of a Hopi and before the days when the dances became entertainment to the outside world.

Four large and hideously masked kachinas with large sharp teeth and long sticks appeared suddenly from a narrow alley and one of them struck me hard on the leg with his stick. They were not shy about using their sticks and pieces of rope as they chased every person off of the dirt streets and into the closest doorway. My father grabbed my arm as we ran into the nearest home, not knowing who lived there. The room was packed with Hopis gathered there for the same reason we were. We sat on the dirt floor, the only kachadas in the room. No one dared to peek out of the sheet covered windows while the Kachinas conducted their secret and very sacred and serious business outside. This is the first time I recall truly recognizing mortality and the first time I saw a baby being breast fed. Only after a couple of hours were we allowed go back outside.


My old friend Phyllis Yoyetewa-Kachinhongva (Eagle clan) from Shongopovi on Second Mesa chuckled softly when I told her this story some years ago at Grand Canyon. Phyllis is the epitome of the calm grace and friendly gentle spirit of the traditional Hopi. With a permanent twinkle in her eyes she told me stories of Hopi life on the Mesas and how Old Oraibi has maintained the older traditional ways of the Hopi.

Unlike other surrounding Hopi and Navajo Reservation communities, this way of life continues in Old Oraibi in spite of the strong attraction of Flagstaff and Winslow to the younger Hopis. Modern “progressive” Hopis have mostly moved off to places like Keems Canyon and Polacca.

Widely recognized as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States, Old Oraibi was built around 1100 AD and “discovered” by one of Coronado’s lieutenants on his quest for the Seven Cities of Gold.

As I returned after all these years my memory of the village was surprisingly accurate. I parked my truck by the highway and walked down the ancient dirt road into the stone and adobe village. The only thing reminding me that this wasn’t the twelfth century was the bright orange school bus stop sign on the outskirts and a pickup truck or two. Visitors are welcome the village, although the residents keep mainly to themselves.

As I lingered in the village, I felt uncomfortable and a bit awkward – like I was intruding on a way of life that was not mine, and was not only different, but in many ways better. It was not the few gracious residents I encountered that brought on these feelings, they were my own.

Photographs are not allowed in Old Oraibi, and I would recommend you leave your vehicle off the paved highway and walk into the village – respect Old Oraibi and its residents as they respect you as a visitor.

You can reach Old Oraibi and the Hopi Mesas by traveling south on Highway 264 south from Tuba City and the Navajo Reservation or by going north on Highway 87 from Winslow on Interstate 40. Services are limited on the Hopi Reservation, but the quality of the silversmith and carved Kachina businesses is excellent.

Old Oraibi is not an attraction or tourist spot. It is not even a village made up of homes and families. It is much more; it is perhaps the only place left where centuries old traditions, beliefs and a very special way of life continue today.


Finger Rock Canyon and Mt Kimball

by Dave Baker Monday, September 6th 2010

The top of Mt Kimball, a wooded summit that sits at the head of Finger Rock Canyon, is curiously non-descript considering its magnificent location. The headwaters of several rugged canyons in the Santa Catalina Mountains originate on the high slopes of Mt Kimball, including Montrose, Pima, and Finger Rock Canyons.

Finger Rock Canyon is one of the more spectacular “Front Range” canyons in the Catalina Mountains; narrow, steep, and decorated with huge cliffs and the unmistakable classic spire of Finger Rock. And, the mouth of Finger Rock Canyon is imminently accessible from the Tucson area.

Finger Rock & Mt Kimball

Finger Rock with Mt Kimball’s wooded summit behind and right

The trip up Finger Rock Trail is one of the great hikes in southern Arizona, and also one of the more demanding and strenuous ones. The first mile of trail is relatively flat as it snakes through thick stands of Sonoran vegetation near the canyon bottom. But then the trail begins a steep and relentless ascent on the slopes above the rocky gorge. This hike requires heavy breathing!

Finger Rock Canyon

Steep walls in Finger Rock Canyon

The vistas and rugged scenery are stupendous from bottom to top of Finger Rock Canyon, and the ecological transition from the saguaro forest below to the juniper and oak woodland in the higher country is fascinating.

A little shy of three miles up the trail watch for Linda Vista, a prominent saddle just off the path which shows a fine view of the Tucson valley. Linda Vista is a popular turn around point for hikers wanting a shorter outing on the Finger Rock Trail; not a bad idea since by this time you have seen the most spectacular reaches of the canyon and have gotten a nice work-out to boot.

After investing the considerable effort required reaching Mt Kimball’s summit, one can’t help notice that potential views are completely blocked by resident trees and vegetation. Take heart! An excellent lookout is available on a rock outcrop just 30 or 40 yards to the east.

View from Mt Kimball

Cathedral and Window Peaks from the view point east of Kimball’s summit

To reach the trailhead, drive to the very northern end of Alvernon Way. You can’t follow Alvernon all the way from Tucson as there is a big gap north of River Road. Pick up the final northern spur of Alvernon Way by turning north off Skyline Drive; the trailhead parking lot at the end of Alvernon is obvious and well marked.

Just a few hundred feet past the trail head continue straight north past a junction with the Pontatoc Trail, which heads east towards Pontatoc Canyon. A mile in, Finger Rock Trail leaves the canyon bottom and begins a steep and steady climb up the east side of the gorge towards Mt Kimball. About 2.8 miles up the trail, watch for a spur path heading south towards the saddle known as Linda Vista, with its sprawling view of the Tucson valley. At 4.2 miles a signed trail junction is reached – turn left (north) onto the Pima Canyon Trail which initially works uphill in the general direction of Mt Kimball. The Pima Canyon Trail avoids Kimball’s summit, and you have to be alert for an unsigned junction (32.37582 N, 110.88026 W, WGS84) where a spur trail heads right (northeast) towards the top. Kimball’s summit doesn’t offer much in the way of views because of a thicket of trees and brush -- walk just a little further east to reach a good viewpoint.

Finger Rock Trail

Upper reaches of Finger Rock Trail

Season: Fall, winter and spring. With its south facing aspect and narrow, heat-absorbing canyon walls, summer heat in Finger Rock Canyon can be ferocious – avoid this hike on hot days.

Water: Generally scarce: bring plenty of your own.

Note: Dogs are not permitted on this trail.

Difficulty: The trip to Kimball’s summit is difficult – about 4.8 miles one way with a nearly 4,200 foot elevation gain. After the first mile, the trail is continuously steep. Hikers looking for an easier outing will enjoy the scenic lower sections of trail. The first mile has little elevation gain, while a trip to the Linda Vista saddle is about 3 miles one way with a 2,500 elevation gain (still pretty challenging!)

Maps: Rainbow Expeditions Santa Catalina Mountains, Green Trails Maps Santa Catalina Mountains, or National Geographic Arizona digital map software.





Click Map for larger image


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!