What started out as the result of a frigid, sleepless night in the Catalinas’ Bear Canyon is now a staple of Tucson’s outdoors community.
This February, one of the region’s most beloved outfitters for adventures through nature is celebrating 50 years of equipping both casual hikers and dedicated mountaineers alike. Two young teens founded Summit Hut in 1969. And now, co-owners Jeremy and Dana Davis are celebrating their own milestone—this month marks eight years since assuming ownership from founder Dave Baker.
When Baker was just entering high school, he and close friend Jeff Conn frequently hiked into Southern Arizona’s mountains. Encouraged by their parents to explore, they shared many outdoors experiences, but one in particular was the catalyst for a beloved business.
“We were on a backpacking trip in Bear Canyon up above Seven Falls in camp, and we were freezing—we couldn’t sleep,” Baker said. “As the night wore on, Jeff expressed this idea that it’d be great if we did this store, and said ‘I think we ought to call it the Summit Hut.’”
Conn said they should start an outdoors business in order to get some of the better gear (that would have kept them warmer) that was available at the time, but not in Tucson.
“So, we did that; we called it Summit Hut,” Baker said. “Our parents had to drive us everywhere. We got a post office box, made up some letter head, had it printed and started writing letters to the early manufacturing companies in the United States that were doing backpacking things.”
Baker said that eight or nine of those companies started making Summit Hut a dealer for their products.
“I’m not sure if they knew we were 15 or 16,” he said. “We created a type-written, hand-drawn catalogue of the stuff we could get with prices in it, and that along with business cards we invited people to order stuff from it. Over time we actually accumulated inventory that we stored under beds in our bedrooms.”
According to Baker, a year or two into the project Conn’s interests shifted to film, at which point Conn offered to sell Baker his half of the business to purchase a then-new Super 8mm camera. Baker obliged and continued the venture through high school, opening a physical shop his senior year, on East Pima Street across from his own Catalina High School.
Baker said he never had any formal training in business, and made several mistakes in the first ten years. Despite this, he said he learned from them and overcame with the help of a few key people who noticed his potential.
“There was a local banker who was incredibly helpful in teaching me how to understand and run a real business,” Baker said. “People in the outdoor industry were coming into Tucson to visit me, sending their sales reps.”
Today, Summit Hut has grown to include two stores and a well-developed website.
Jeremy, now president of Summit Hut, began at the mail-order department while Dana, now general manager, joined the team in 1998 starting in sales and advanced through a gamut of leadership positions from assistant manager to president. All the while, the duo developed a relationship of mutual trust and respect with Baker, eventually coming alongside and sharing his vision for the business.
Dana and Jeremy said Summit Hut owes its success in large part to Tucson’s unique blend of an outdoors-loving community and a natural landscape set in a year-round temperate climate that’s hard not to love.
“Summit Hut has become a staple for our enthusiasm in that shared passion,” Dana said. “We feel strongly about protecting our environment and outdoor spaces and encouraging people of any level or any activity to get outside. Whether a stroll through Sabino Canyon or doing a huge backpack, it doesn’t matter to us.”
According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Greater Tucson Metro Area’s population grew from 345,000 in 1969 to 1,022,769 in 2017. Both Jeremy and Baker explained that the company grew alongside Tucson.
“Summit Hut owes a lot to Tucson; we’ve grown up together,” Jeremy said. “Fifty years ago, Tucson was a pretty small town, and at some level now we’re just a big small-town still, so we get that support from our community.”
Alex Cigrand, the store manager of Summit Hut’s Speedway location, said the community’s relationship with Summit Hut is rooted in the recreational opportunities Southern Arizona’s landscape provides.
Baker knows a little something about this, having pioneered many of the first routes in Cochise Stronghold.
“Tucson is geographically blessed if you enjoy the outdoors,” Baker said. “We have a resource here available that’s quite spectacular and really special—the Sonoran Desert, the Basin and Range, sky island mountain ranges—and I think the people have always really appreciated and cared for that aspect of this place.”
Dana said many of the staff members have embraced the store, integrating parts of themselves to the company identity, contributing to a stronger bond that holds Summit Hut together.
“I’d say much of the culture has come from Dave, but Dana has taken that and made it stronger specifically within our little community of Summit Hut employees,” Jeremy said in regards to Summit Hut’s values. “Dana is the culture woman who’s helped make the Summit Hut who we are, moving forward our culture of passion and mutual respect.”
Summit Hut’s staff, and even store décor, all point to an intimacy with Tucson, such as the massive photos of Sabino Canyon covering interior walls taken by staff members.
But what’s next for Summit Hut? Cigrand said that it’s all about continuing to do what they do, growing sales and bringing in folks who haven’t been to the store before and making sure they have a great experience.
“We know people have choices,” Dana added. “It’s not 1969 where there’s no where else to shop online or other stores in town—but we do hope we can connect with our consumer and that they care about the Summit Hut too, and want to be part of us.”
Dana, Jeremy, Cigrand and Baker all told of times they met customers out on the trail, or were invited to participate in backpacking treks, indicative of the relationships they build with the community—and while Summit Hut is for those who you’ll frequently find on the trail, it’s also for those who’ve never been but have the potential to be inspired.
“It’s funny, living in Tucson, you meet people here who have never been to Sabino Canyon or never been up Mt. Lemmon…and to me, that’s just crazy,” Cigrand said. “We’re here to help them figure out how to do that, just gotta’ come through the door.”
Ian Green is a University of Arizona journalism student and Tucson Local Media intern.