Staying safe on Scottsdale hikes

by Laurel Darren, Wild Bunch Desert Guides • September 19, 2021

“We had an amazing time with Wild Bunch Desert Guides on our hike up Camelback Mountain! At the beginning of the hike, I told Laurel I was 16 weeks pregnant, and my husband had some knee issues, so she made sure to find the best routes for us and to make sure we were going at a safe pace. I am so glad we hired a guide to tackle this hike and would highly recommend anyone else to do so also!! It doesn't hurt that Laurel was super fun to be around, too, especially when the hike got a tad bit tough!!” – AMS, Zionsville, Ind., on TripAdvisor, Feb. 2017

A father is at the front of his family as they stream downhill during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A father is at the front of his family as they stream downhill during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours offered by the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

With ample hiking time and less work details cluttering my mind during vacation, I have had the chance to do a lot of thinking this summer.

One topic that keeps swirling around my brain returned again this week with the report of a second tourist in six weeks dying while hiking in my adopted home of Phoenix, Ariz.

Before sharing my many broodings on the subject, please understand this is not a case of perfect 20/20 vision gleaned from conveniently peering backwards with complete clarity in the rearview mirror.

Instead, this has been Standard Operating Procedure since Day 1 at my highly rated Phoenix adventure tours company.

My Wild Bunch Desert Guides specializes in completely customizable and totally private Scottsdale hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

All of these “rules of the road” were learned or developed during hard-earned experience guiding for other outfits over the years since moving to the Valley of the Sun nearly a decade ago now.

So, I pride myself on knowing what I am talking about while reacting to the following news items.

I also am sharing these thoughts in hopes of reaching as many visitors as possible to my usual corner of the planet in an effort to stop another entirely preventable accidental death from needlessly occurring.

A woman hiker pauses in the bright sunshine to take a picture of the beautiful scenery during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
A woman hiker pauses in the bright sunshine to take a picture of the beautiful scenery during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours from the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. 

Scottsdale hiking tours: Lesson 1
NEWS ITEM:  “A tourist from Massachusetts died on July 30 after becoming separated from her hiking partner. Angela Tramonte, 31, had begun hiking the Echo Canyon Trail around 10 a.m. with Dario Dizdar, a Phoenix police officer whom she had met online. The route to the summit is 1¼ miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet.

“About 30 minutes into the walk, Tramonte reportedly became overheated. Dizdar said they decided she would return to (their car in) the parking lot and he would continue to the summit so he could take photos for her.

“Around 1 p.m., Dizdar called 911 and said Tramonte was missing. At 4:40 p.m., she was found dead near a home about 150 yards from the trail. (Editor’s note: Rescue crews believe Tramonte had exited the trail to desperately seek water or help before collapsing).

“Temperatures that day reached 105 (degrees) — not unusual for Phoenix in July — and Dizdar said the pair had not brought water on the hike.

“The medical examiner ruled her death accidental, with the primary cause “environmental heat exposure.” -- Wire Services, Sept. 14, 2021

REACTIONS: This is so sad because this tragedy was so completely avoidable.

And do not even get me started about the police officer, who as an Arizona first responder should have known better about so many of the circumstances wrong in this deadly scenario.

My job here is not to assign blame or guilt. While criminal wrongdoing has been ruled out, a civil court surely will decide his fault or negligence.

Instead, let us focus here on the correctable mistakes so the next out-of-town hiker avoids putting themselves in peril.
  1. I have said it before – in my Blogs as well as countless phone calls, emails, texts, and personal conversations with anybody who will listen -- but particularly guests of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
And I will shout it again here in this Blog – NEVER hike Camelback Mountain in the summer in the middle of the day. Period. End of story.

The sun is blazing. The rocks are red hot. There is little to no shade to sit down and take a break. An already physically-demanding challenge becomes exponentially tougher – if not completely impossible for some in the withering steam-room summer heat of Arizona.

My small mom-and-pop specialty shop insists on the industry standard of early-morning start times for summer tours.

But even with 6 a.m. starts, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides stopped offering guided Camelback Mountain hiking tours in June after a steady stream of dangerous rescues took a toll on local rescue crews.

Camelback simply is too hot to handle in the worst of the heat.
  1. You never ever leave ANYONE behind.
Never tell anyone in your group that you are going to leave them sitting there so you can reach the summit.

The Marines never leave anyone behind for good reason. There is strength in numbers.

Especially if somebody is showing the signs of dehydration, sitting in the sun will not improve their condition.

In fact, you should be dedicated to finding some shade and water as relief – and you better do it fast.

Dehydration can quickly descend into the even more serious complications of heat-related illnesses.

This is why Phoenix sees so many harrowing helicopter rescues on a regular basis on Camelback Mountain.

That also is why the Wild Bunch Desert Guides carry all sorts of safety items on every one of our Scottsdale hiking tours -- extra water, electrolyte tablets and salty snack foods to help recalibrate the body.

The locals – especially those on the Camelback X-T-R-E-M-E Team – also pack extras in case they run into somebody having a heat issue on the mountain.

You should NEVER be on that mountain without food and water.
  1. Another “Hell No?” NEVER let anyone go down Camelback Mountain by themselves because the descent is the most dangerous part.
What’s the first rule of “Top Gun?” Never ever leave your wingman! And this means you, too, “Maverick!

If somebody is disoriented or compromised because of the heat? They are going to need help navigating the treacherous way down the steep inclines, which include single lines on handrails with loose gravel beneath your feet.

You really should NEVER let anyone go down that mountain alone – but especially someone who has never been on the iconic landmark before.

This is the argument I have the most with guests regarding Camelback Mountain hiking tours.

Every so often I get this call: “Hey, there’s three of us wanting to do Camelback together. But one of my friends is not really a good hiker.”

Or the more blunt and honest will admit: “One of my friends is overweight and out of shape.”

And then the question they all ask: “What are you going to do if he or she wants to turn around?”

My answer is never embraced. “All three of you will have to turn around and go back down,” I say, “because one guide cannot be in two places at once.”

Like any good Phoenix adventure tours company worthy of five-star reviews and a sterling reputation, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides will not let ANYONE descend by themselves.

The safety of all our guests is too important.

A couple embrace while taking in another beautiful view together during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours with Wild Bunch Desert Guides.

A couple embrace while taking in another beautiful view together during one of the Scottsdale hiking tours with Wild Bunch Desert Guides. 

Scottsdale hiking tours: Lesson 2
NEWS ITEM: “A woman died on a Scottsdale hiking trail over the weekend after separating from her partner in more than 100-degree heat, according to authorities.

“Donna Miller, 57, was hiking with her husband on the Brown’s Ranch hiking trail system on Sunday. According to the Scottsdale Police Department, the two started the hike around 12:30 p.m. and planned to go in different directions partway through.

“When Miller didn't show up at the meeting spot, her husband called 911 and her body was found around 9 p.m. after an extensive search by multiple agencies.

“The city reached a high of 108 degrees on Sunday. Police said Miller, who is from Rhode Island, died from heat-related illness and exposure to the weather.” –
WPNX-TV 12 Phoenix, Sept. 13, 2021

REACTIONS: Every death should be mourned. Every emergency is lamentable. But some “accidents” do not have to happen.

I so wish this couple had contacted the Wild Bunch Desert Guides before venturing out.

I would have warned them against the perils of starting so late in the day because of the triple-digit heat.

But most out-of-state vacationers come to Arizona and make that mistake if not booking with a Phoenix adventure tours company. After all, who doesn’t want to sleep in when off work?

During our summer hours from June 1 to Oct. 1, the Wild Bunch offers only 6 a.m. starts for the longer, “half-day” 3½-hour adventure tours and beginnings no later than 7 a.m. for the shorter, 90-minute guided Scottsdale hiking tours and Phoenix mountain bike tours.

The Wild Bunch has allowed some 5:30 p.m. Phoenix sunset adventure tours to happen in September. But the benchmark remains the same for me – if the temperature rises above 100 on any part of the tour, the stop sign goes up, because those are simply too-dangerous conditions.

If the Rhode Islanders had asked, I also could have advised them from splitting up on the trail.

Scottsdale hiking tours are always better – and much safer – with another person. That is especially true for out-of-towners unaccustomed to the sweltering Sonoran Desert heat.

Reports also indicate the victim neglected bringing her cellphone, which is simply a safety no-no.

The Wild Bunch advises all guests on our guided Scottsdale adventure tours to make sure to have their cellphone fully charged before arriving at the trail.

A woman is all smiles while sitting down to take a break after finding some shade in a natural tunnel in a rock formation during a Scottsdale hiking tour.
A woman is all smiles while sitting down to take a break after finding some shade in a natural tunnel in a rock formation during one of the guided Scottsdale hiking tours from the Wild Bunch.

Scottsdale hiking tours: Lesson 3
NEWS ITEM: “The extreme heat is back and that means hikers who want to hit the trails at Phoenix's two major mountains during the day will have to wait. Because the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for Sunday and Monday, the trails at Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak will be closed from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“So, when it's 105 degrees or higher, the city will block off access to some popular trails during the hottest parts of the day.

“The temporary closures are part of a new policy from the City of Phoenix to close the popular trails when it gets too hot. The pilot program was approved in July. The move came when two firefighters were hospitalized in June after multiple mountain rescues in the extreme heat.

“Rangers have said they'll try to educate people, but they can give out citations. It would be a class one misdemeanor, with a fine of up to $2,500 and six months in jail. As for the other hiking spots in Phoenix, the city said it's not looking to close those, at least for this year.” –, Sept. 11, 2021

REACTION: It hardly matters if the temperature is 100 or 105 or 110. Hot is hot, and in the summertime, the temperatures simply are too treacherous for Scottsdale hiking tours.

So, I don’t disagree with the idea of closing down the mountains when excessive heat warnings are issued.

But as a local, I have to cringe.

In the same article mentioning the most recent death, Scottsdale Deputy Fire Chief Adam Hoster said the department has received 15 search/rescue calls for hikers since July, compared to six in the same period last year.

Hoster added fire officials are considering instituting a trail closure program like that in neighboring Phoenix to make some popular parks and trails off limits during periods of excessive heat.

For those believing that to be excessive, how else to save people from themselves?

The problem remains despite all of the public relations campaigns and Bloggers like me warning of the dangers of hiking in triple-digit temperatures -- and all the Phoenix adventure tours companies steering our guests away from the pitfalls.

My personal solution? Operating hours for the Wild Bunch Desert Guides were again 7 a.m. or earlier this summer and we shut completely down our Camelback Mountain hiking tours. No tour could start or continue when the thermometer hit 100 or warmer.

But if the City of Phoenix completely follows the Wild Bunch lead by shutting down Camelback from June 1 to Oct. 1, there are locals who hike the mountain every single day who will bitch.

“I hike in the morning when it’s cool outside,” they say. “I’m not putting myself at risk.”

OK, then, maybe you have wristbands to show a park ranger you are local and allowed to hike in the summer.

But as a local, you should be supporting your hometown and preventing any more of these completely avoidable emergencies and untimely deaths.

We should be protecting our fire fighters and first responders and keeping them out of harm’s way by preventing these needless calamities, rescues, and searches.

I know I will NOT risk anybody’s health by doing something risky.

When guests expect my guides to go out at 10 a.m. or later in triple-digit heat?

Sure, I say, they can handle it. They are seasoned.

But my follow up question is, “Can you handle it?”

Are you properly hydrated? Are you in shape? Did you go out the night before and consume a large amount of dehydrating alcohol? Are you even climatized or did you just step off the plane?

And even if you check all of those boxes: Why would you want to tempt fate?

My guides are all amazing. They are medically trained. They are all seasoned and live in Arizona. They all know the signs of overheating and the treatments. They are all prepared for anything.

But at the end of the day, they should not be put into a bad situation and have to deal with a completely avoidable scenario. And so, I refuse to do that for the sake of making a quick buck.

If you can avoid the car accident, why wouldn’t you prevent it?

About the Author

Laurel Darren is the founding owner of the Wild Bunch Desert Guides, a 5-star rated adventure tour company that offers guided hiking tours and guided mountain biking tours in Arizona’s picturesque Sonoran Desert in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. Arriving in the legendary “Valley of the Sun” in 2012 -- from the home of John Deere in the Quad Cities of Eastern Iowa/Western Illinois -- this corn-fed Midwest girl brought 30 years of athletic chops under her chaps. A 3-sport high school standout and former college softball player – who won her conference’s Athlete of the Year award as a prep senior – Darren has graduated to competing in many races as an adult, from road running and cycling, to cyclo-cross and Mountain Bikes, and even Duathlon and Triathlon “Ironman” competitions. Darren was a popular, top-rated senior mountain bike guide at Arizona’s Outback Adventures before branching out to start her own small adventure business in 2016. To book a guided mountain bike tour or guided hiking trip – or a combination of the two adventures – please visit the home page or call 602-663-0842.


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