Nobody loves the referees, it has been suggested, except by their families and friends -- and that's assuming those officials stay away from working a game involving a favorite team of those loved ones. If so, Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner and operator Laurel Darren is a notable exception – and for one very good reason after one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours she guided recently.
Christmas gift for a Phoenix hiking tours guide
“Hi Laurel! Best day EVER! You were unbelievably kind, talented and truly amazing! I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” – John Duffin, text on Dec. 8, 2021
John Duffin, a first time guest of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, made a celebratory speech upon summiting Phoenix's iconic Camelback Mountain for
the first time Dec. 8, 2021, in his third grueling try. Wild Bunch owner Laurel Darren served as Duffin's guide and volunteer videographer. The video is
available by clicking here
My ambivalence over Camelback Mountain is well known.
The love-hate relationship I have with the Phoenix landmark/tourist trap was among the first Blogs written earlier this year to help christen a new website for my Phoenix adventure tours company (click here to read about my mixed emotions).
An alarming number of heat-related rescues on the local icon this summer also became so epidemic, the emergencies endangered Arizona first-responders and forced local officials to enact a series of safety precautions – as well as had my Wild Bunch Desert Guides suspending Camelback Mountain hiking tours (read all about it here).
A nationally publicized death on Camelback in August hardly changed my mind, as this head-shaking Blog detailed.
Even since launching a new season in October with milder fall temperatures – or even now while making the turn to the sunny-and-70s “winter” conditions greeting guests for the holidays – our menu of adventures remains unchanged.
Wild Bunch-guided Camelback Mountain hiking tours – and let me scream this from that well-worn mountain-top itself -- REMAIN SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
Please understand: I am not trying to be intentionally difficult or “bourgeois”-exclusive to extort any hard-earned vacation dollars from visitors to the Valley of the Sun.
Guests still can call or email if interested in our Phoenix hiking tours, but if you have your heart set on Camelback as the only destination, I will refer you to a friend’s trusted guiding company for now.
Neither my Wild Bunch guides – nor myself – will take you up Camelback.
Well, except there was one notable exception last week.
Laurel Darren (left), the Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner, celebrates reaching the summit of Phoenix's iconic Camelback Mountain with first-time guest John Duffin. The panoramic views of Phoenix serve as their beautiful backdrop.
Phoenix hiking tours: Christmas wish granted
While taking care of last-minute details -- so I could rush home to Iowa over the weekend and manage some tough, personal issues – I returned a missed a phone call from a guest.
On the other end was John Duffin, a charming 63-year-old visitor from Philadelphia inquiring about a Camelback Mountain hiking tour.
“I found you on Google,” the Podcaster and voice-over expert explained in his booming radio voice. “I searched ‘Best Tour Guides Camelback,’ and read some great reviews and other stuff about you and your company.”
I was my super-abrupt self and told him, “Sorry, I don't do Camelback anymore.”
“Oh,” he quickly responded, “I really need to do it.”
And that piqued my interest – so I asked John why – because almost everybody instead wonders why the Wild Bunch Desert Guides no longer offer Camelback and I am all-too-happy to share my scorn.
“I work with a high-performance coach named Dave Scatchard,” John started, pointing to the veteran of 658 NHL games for six teams.
Scatchard’s Scottsdale-based business – All-Star Coaching – hosted a June event, which brought Duffin to Arizona for the first time save for a layover.
“It was about 116 degrees and part of the event was climbing Camelback,” John told me.
“I knew really early on this was going to be way more of a challenge then I thought it was going to be. I am talking like after the walk up the first hill – and I get there and look up and go ‘Oh my!’ because I realize that’s just a walk up to begin climbing.”
By the time John reached Marker No. 12 – about a third of the way up – he reported getting “really wobbly.” The leader of his group of 6-7 hikers recommended stopping.
“So, I go down the hill by myself and everybody else that's in the group finishes,” John said. “So, that kicks the crap out of me, and you’re staying for the whole weekend, so I got a lot of condescending pats on the head. ‘Oh no! That’s OK! Good for you for trying.’ And it was just eating at me.
“So, I came back this past weekend for the same high-performance coach – it’s his first live event at a Convention Center. But, in my mind, there's no way I'm coming here and not doing Camelback again.”
After the weekend event, John tried to “Conquer the Camel” again with a transplanted buddy from Philly, James Helm, the founding attorney of TopDog Law.
“I made significantly better progress,” John said, “but we started late, and James made the call about 20 after four. He's like, ‘I don't think we're going to get there in time, and we still have to come back down, and we only have so much sunlight available.’
“We were at Marker No. 26 and I was ticked, but I understood there was no way in the world I was coming down in the dark – and it’s not allowed anyway because it’s too dangerous.
“But I was like, ‘I can't go home until I complete this.’ I didn't know how I was going to do it, though, with James back in work mode and unavailable to try and take me back up.”
I tried to remain firm. Camelback is too crowded, I noted, besides being too dangerous, and the parking sucks. Yada, yada, yada.
All of my usual bitches melted away, though, because John was so damn engaging, gracious, and kind.
But more than anything, I knew all too well as an athlete the pain, frustration, and as John called it “the embarrassment” of a dreaded DNF next your name – which stands for DID NOT FINISH -- whether in a mountain bike race, a marathon, or an Ironman triathlon.
So, that was an immediate and strong connection – and as we talked more, John just had the perfect vibe that I love and respect.
“I've completed, I'm grateful to say, a bunch of marathons in my life,” John said, “but I hadn't completed two attempts at the same marathon -- the only one I didn't finish is the Big Sur Marathon.
“And that frustrates the hell out of me, and I'm going back in 2022. I remembered getting pulled off the (Pacific Coast Highway) on each of the Big Sur attempts – which they do if you don’t reach Mile 21 in a certain time. But I most remember how ugly and gross it felt.
“Now, this has been beating the hell out of me since June when I didn't even know that Camelback existed. It’s become like this big mental and physical block in front of me. I'd have a bad day professionally and in addition to needing to kick myself in the butt for that, I would then have to throw in, ‘Oh yeah, and you're the only one that didn't finish Camelback in that group.’”
John struck a nerve there. It was just like repeating “Beetlejuice!” three times.
“Ah shit,” I thought. “He just did something to make me go up because I can relate.”
So, I went from my normal “there’s no way I’m taking you” to “I have to take this dude up the mountain.”
I told myself I cannot let those DNF’s stand.
“Call me a sucker for a good story,” I told my boyfriend Brett and a host of other disbelievers upon hearing I was climbing Camelback the next day.
That night, I got out my finisher’s belt buckle from the Leadville 100.
I rubbed that race award in my hands again to remind me how grateful I was to finish that epic challenge after a failed attempt.
That reminded me of all the people who helped get me there – and have helped me on my journey in life -- and so I knew I was doing the absolute right thing.
Here was another chance to pay forward my gratitude for that accomplishment by helping get somebody else the same feeling.
That is the reason I did Camelback again.
John was Captain Ahab and Camelback his Moby-Dick, but this Ishmael was going to make sure the fucking Whale did not win.
John Duffin is all smiles during his Camelback Mountain hiking tour with the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
Christmas miracle on Phoenix hiking tours
“Before meeting, I was honestly hesitant because I'm a big dude and I mean big out of shape. I don't help myself in terms of being a mountain climber,” John recalled.
“I was afraid because there are certain points where my friend James literally pulled me over a couple of rocks. And my sexist vantage point was like, ‘Oh, I'm afraid I'm going to pull her down.’ But I knew in about 5 seconds – ‘Oh, you’re going to be good.’ You just looked like a guide.
“I didn’t know I was going to finish – but I thought I had a damn good shot at this now. I said there were only two goals for me – finish and not get hurt. I just didn’t want to be that one guy who gets medevac-ed off the mountain by helicopter.”
Like every Wild Bunch Desert Guides guest on our Phoenix hiking tours, I had a backpack with water for John, and had him stash his personal items in there, too.
“I didn't bring my ID – because I never thought they’d need to identify the body,” John joked. “But I did bring my health insurance card just in case. I figured I’d probably be in a coma if I landed in the hospital.”
John noted he was still sore from the aborted attempt earlier in the week. “I can’t carry that,” he added, pointing to the backpack. “I know from Monday I need every ounce of strength to get up that mountain.”
So, I added John’s backpack to my own carrying extra water, snacks, and medical supplies among other things.
“And then, you literally carried me up the mountain, too,” John marveled. “You pulled me at least a minimum half dozen times over major rocks and extended your hand probably 20 other times to steady me.”
Safety always is the No. 1 priority for my little mom-and-pop specialty shop. My guides are medically trained to manage every situation.
John is an older gentleman in his 60s, so he was extremely cautious, and I get it on Camelback Mountain hiking tours where there is no shame in being extra careful.
I would not let John look back until we got to a certain point because I wanted him to focus on climbing.
Camelback is steep and dangerous, so I wanted him to not worry so he could just keep moving forward.
When I finally had John turn around and he looked back, he was like, “OH MY GOD!”
And then he turned back and looked at me, and I said, “We're going to FUCKING get this done!”
And he agreed, “We’re going to get this done.”
I shot back, “NOOOOO. We’re going to FUCKING get this done.”
And he shouted out the perfect repeat that time.
“That gave me a shot of adrenaline and a lot of confidence,” John said later.
John actually reminded me of an old buddy in the way he talked. So, it was like we were long-time friends just playing catchup even though we had only a cellphone chat the day prior.
We had a lot of great conversations – ranging from the fun to the serious, with us sharing a lot of the same challenges.
Besides the DNFs, we both have battled depression in the past, with him noting he is a 21-year recovered alcoholic, which is awesome.
Also, we are both small boutique business founders who battled to survive during the pandemic. An award-winning broadcaster, John moved out of the dog-eat-dog world of corporate radio and TV a few years ago to launch his self-titled specialized service company Duffin Media.
“The things that really resonated were your resilience and transparency,” John said.
“You explained something to me during the hike which made me feel great. You said, ‘I never told you why I don't do this anymore.’ And we're like 80 to 90 percent up the mountain, and I’m like, ‘Uh-oh, I’m not sure I even want to hear about this now.’ Tell me later if people died. Don't give me the bad news now, right?
“But it was very sweet. You said, ‘Most people who come up here don't have the determination that you do. Most people just don't have the resilience.’”
When we hit Marker No. 26, his stopping point from Monday, John got a little choked up. So, we made sure to stop and flip it off for good energy.
“It was like, ‘We’re here and we’re going to keep going!’” John said. “But it got crazy. Like I'm losing physical strength and I'm getting woozier, but I'm like ‘Oh, we definitely have a chance of finishing this!’
“You are truly amazing at what you do. You were so good at being accurate in regard to time and distance. You’d be like, ‘We’re about 15 minutes away,’ like you’re my caddy. I just didn't know if that was 15 minutes for a normal person or I would need 5 hours.
“I said at one point, ‘You're like a seeing eye dog.’ I found it amazing to be that focused to channel another person’s needs. You could see every turn. I followed your every move.”
John could not have picked a more perfect afternoon in reference to pristine weather conditions and a small number of people on the usually high-traffic mountain. There were multiple times in multiple dangerous spots where we were the only two in that moment.
“I remember going up that last staircase,” John said. “The last boulder formation and I'm terrified – I don't climb or hike at all because I'm afraid of breaking a bone or several. I don't run trail runs back in Philadelphia -- and none of them are mountainous -- I just don't feel like coming home in a cast. So, it was just ridiculous here I am on Camelback Mountain.
“So, you’re like, ‘You’re going to go to the left and we’re at the top.’ And so, we do it and I just couldn't even speak. I knew of the Camelback Christmas tree, but then I saw it – and it just was such a powerful, emotional moment, and always will be.
“Between the journey of trying to prove yourself when you're no kid and spending a lot of time beating yourself up for not being this and that – or being too old and so on. I know that the majority of people that have attempted this in my sphere have all gotten there -- so I know it's not like climbing Mount Everest. But it felt like it to me.”
John is a media guy – he does voiceover work on ads -- so it was like listening to the voice of God when we got to the top. He has a voice that carries, so everybody on the mountain looked at us when we were talking.
John was so gracious to everybody -- super polite, super kind, super thankful to everyone on that mountain. He called his buddy James, who made the Monday attempt with him. John also made a video for his high-performance coach and June hiking group to confirm the summit. He was just so giddy, like a kid in the proverbial candy store, looking out over Phoenix.
To me, those are moments that bring joy to me – and are the reason why I am a guide and Phoenix adventure tours owner.
Not because I am part of it, but because I get to witness how huge the accomplishment feels -- when my guests do something so awesome, they want to just shout it from the actual mountaintop and tell everyone.
Being in that moment and getting a chance to witness John’s joy was an early Christmas present for me.
“The over-riding sense I have?” John said. “A feeling of disbelief, like I can’t believe I did it!
“It meant so much -- and I'm getting emotional again -- because it was great. But then it hits you -- you have to come back down -- and that’s SOOOOO freaking hard.”
John Duffin poses in front of the Camelback Christmas tree on the summit of the iconic Phoenix landmark.
Christmas gift unwrapping on Camelback
The hardest part of Camelback Mountain hiking tours is the descent because you are already tired and you see those super steep drops in front of you with gravel slipping beneath your feet, and single-file lines normally for the handrails that are your only help in the most treacherous spots.
“It scares the hell out of you,” John admitted.
He was apologetic for taking longer coming down than going up, but I can hardly blame him for a really slow, safely deliberate pace. I made sure to hold his hand to get him through some of the toughest sections. That is just the kind of care we show guests at Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
But everybody on the mountain was cheering him on. That is one awesome thing about Camelback is you always know that everybody on that mountain is in the same boat. We are all navigating rough terrain the safest way possible trying to not get hurt. Everybody knows what everybody else is going through.
So, you see strangers exchanging giving high fives. That is so cool. There are young people with chiseled physiques who probably run that mountain every day, and they are doing that, too, because they still genuinely appreciate the effort it takes to tackle that mountain. That is just the Camelback culture.
“I’m from Philly, so I always have a little skepticism,” John said with a laugh. “As an ‘East Coast Guy’ I assume there’s some subliminal message in that – those gratuitous pats on the head -- and in my mind I think they’re flipping you off. But they’re not. In reality, it’s such a sincerely nice community and they’re just being great.
“And turns out, I really needed that – because like a clown, I went down like about 20 times coming down. I'm falling, banging, cutting myself. I have chunks out of me from my lower back to my heels. In every part of my body there are cuts and welts. I was so beat up, you literally tied my shoe for me at one point.”
Finally, we reached the bottom literally as the sun set.
“We used every moment of the afternoon with no time to spare,” John said. “I remember you seeing the Park Ranger and asking, ‘How much time before we get a ticket?’ He’s like, ‘6 minutes.’ So, half in jest, we ran the last bit.”
I also broke out the “Rocky” music to celebrate, and John said, “Oh my God, you're throwing me some Philadelphia!”
In the parking lot, I offered to give John a ride back to his hotel rather than have him wait for a shuttle.
“I offered to pay extra money for that. I said, ‘I extended you anyway and what you did has meant the world to me,’ but you refused to take it,” John said.
“So, you hand me the (backpack) as we’re in the car, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! You’re giving me the bag?’ I was touched! But then you said, ‘No, I just want you to get your stuff out of it.’
“I couldn’t have laughed harder. I not only used every second of daylight, every ounce of your strength, and literally pulled you into something you hate to do, but now I'm going to take a backpack off you at the end after I get a free ride home. So, if you ask me if I got my money’s worth, the answer is HELL YES!”
John told me his post-hike plans featured dinner with his friend Debbie.
“So, I was running behind and had to shower. I was bleeding everywhere,” he said.
“I go to my friend’s house, and I have blood marks all over my legs and this is the night I'm choosing to wear shorts. I’m thinking you have to wear them in Arizona, right?
“So, I’ve got divots on my rear end, legs, ankles. It looks like I’ve been in a fight, but the wounds are only on my legs, so people are wondering, ‘Were you fighting a midget?’ I joked to Debbie at dinner – stealing that line from ‘Rocky’ – ‘There ain’t gonna be no rematch.’”
The toughest explanations came at check-out, though, when John headed home.
“I was looking at one of the towels in my room and I thought, ‘This place looks like a crime scene,’” John laughed. “It looked insane. It looked like I hid a dead body in there.”
Laurel Darren (left) and John Duffin pause to pose together atop Camelback Mountain during one of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides epic Phoenix hiking tours on the iconic Arizona landmark.
‘Camelback Santa’ and the hike before Christmas
The one regret from the whole experience was our Camelback Mountain hiking tour occurred on a weekday.
That meant John missed a greeting at the top from “Camelback Santa” and “The Grinch.”
They are on the summit every weekend through Christmas Day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Christmas tree is up there every day during the holiday season, though.
Phoenix hiking tours guests can help feed Arizona’s hungry children and adults by donating to the St. Mary’s Food Bank on behalf of “Camelback Santa” by following this link.
I know more than a few guests of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides are thankful for their experiences this year and are paying it forward.
“I'm still feeling fantastic,” John told me. “I was hoping that it wasn't a case of temporary euphoria. I feel really, really grateful and I know it meant something special, and it's going to continue to mean something significant forever.”
I have those same warm-and-fuzzy feelings, too.
The timing of the hike was a gift and a blessing for me at the same time.
John called when I happened to be worried about personal issues, and the experience proved to be the chicken soup I needed to feed my weary soul. I had feelings of accomplishment, happiness, and self-confidence – and those were all great vibes to carry me into a tough weekend to tell me I could handle whatever came.
“Now, when I'm having a bad day or afraid to make a decision, I can remember this,” John said. “It's like OK. You did that. The feeling that I can't give up, the feeling of battling past the fear.
“For anybody who's afraid? Trust me, I get it. It ain't nothing. Whether it’s mental health-related or experience-related or situationally related or whatever -- I am now able to leverage this the next time it's like, ‘Oh my God, I can't. I can’t. I can’t.’ To ‘YES I CAN, because I did that.’”
No matter who you are or how many times you summit the iconic mountain, it offers a calming sense of accomplishment because it never is easy.
On the plane ride home the next day, I proudly pointed to my seatmate, “I was on that mountain just yesterday.”
And for that, I am grateful John talked me out of “Camelback retirement.”
I also am overjoyed about making a new friend, somebody I hope stays in contact for a long time.
“You gave me the gift I can never hope to repay,” John said, “and that is your friendship.”
The pleasure was all mine.
When I tried putting on my usual “Camelback Bitchface,” John disarmed me with the kindness and decency we associated with the holiday season.
“I love your style. I love that you’re direct and I love your honesty. I love the fact that you say it like it is,” John told me. “All of those things are intriguing to me, so I wanted you to be my guide.
“Now, I want you on my Podcast because there were certain things that really resonated. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, she's so powerful with what she's got going and what she's doing – and here she is navigating me, some goof.’ I mean, it's not like I was some Olympian up on that mountain.
“It was a joyous experience, but it was brutal. This was by far the toughest experience physically I've ever gone through. Nothing is even close.”