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Take a Hike

Carla Olson was a twentysomething Michigan native who visited Phoenix, fell in love with the desert, and decided, just like that, to move here. She'd barely been in town a year when she began working on a project to bring the desert's harsh splendor to her fellow outdoorspeople: the Phoenix Summit Challenge.

The idea? An event in which hikers would scale the highest points in seven mountain preserves over a single weekend. The roster included Camelback Mountain, Piestewa Peak, and South Mountain — and that's only the beginning. (For "ultra" climbers, the challenge was to scale all seven, a total of 36 miles, in just 24 hours. Yes, "ultra" climbers are, by definition, insane.)

Olson, who works at outdoor retailer REI, lined up that company as a sponsor. The city, as co-sponsor, agreed to provide shuttles for crowded parking lots and extra park rangers.

In its inaugural year, 2005, the challenge drew 350 people. In 2006, registration was capped at 800 people — and they filled every last spot in 90 minutes.

Sounds like a hit, right?

Not at Phoenix City Hall.

When Olson, now 31, got in touch with the parks department this spring to plan the 2007 challenge, the staff told her that the city wasn't interested. It had decided to put its resources into hosting a special "family-friendly" event at South Mountain instead.

Okay, Olson said, how can I do this without the city?

You can't, the staffers said.

Now, this is all very odd. In both years, the challenge had been a bona fide smash: no heart attacks, no brawling on the trails, no bad press.

But the story gets weirder.

Olson appealed to the city's parks board, asking it to intervene with the staff. After she finally got on the agenda and pleaded her case in June, the board instructed staffers to meet with Olson and work something out.

That conversation went nowhere. (Both parties agree on that, although pretty much nothing else.) And after that one meeting, Olson heard nothing from anyone at City Hall — until she got a letter from the city attorney.

The city was threatening "legal action" if Olson continued to advertise the event. It was also objecting to the application she'd filed to trademark the phrase "Phoenix Summit Challenge."

But here's the really weird thing.

The city has now decided that it's going to host the challenge, after all. It's just going to do it without Carla Olson.

So, the city tried to stop the event. And then, when Olson begged it to reconsider, it did — but kicked her out.

"They're stealing it," Olson says, simply. "If they changed the name and tried to put something like this on, I'd be okay with that. But what they're doing, in essence, is putting on my event."

An event, that just a few months before, they were intent on killing.

Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to me, too.


I was convinced there must be an explanation for all this, so I called Kathi Reichert, a deputy director in the parks department. With my conversation with Reichert and a stack of records, I was able to confirm much of Olson's tale. Yes, the city did initially oppose this year's challenge. Yes, it's now changed its mind; it's hosting the event.

And, yes, it really is threatening legal action. Nice!

Reichert, to her credit, wasn't defensive about any of this. She did her best to give me some context — I'm just not sure I buy it.

Basically, the city argues that the Phoenix Summit Challenge was never Carla Olson's event in the first place. It says that a park ranger had the idea first, and that he and Olson approached the city together to pitch it. (Olson says the joint pitch is true, but only because she'd approached the ranger to sell him on the idea.) The city believed it was sponsoring the challenge with REI, not with Olson as an individual. So, this spring, when Olson registered an LLC and that entity asked for the permit, it got concerned.

"It has been a city event," Reichert firmly says, repeating a line that has popped up on just about every city document referencing the challenge in the past month.

Olson tells me she decided to form an LLC only because she'd bought a house. She finally had an asset; she thought she should protect it from liability.

There's plenty of evidence that Olson is not delusional — she really was the point-woman on the project. She registered the Web site's URL more than two years ago. She held the mailing list. And, in e-mails to the city, REI made it clear that it considered Olson, outside of her role as an REI employee, to be the event's promoter.

By the city's own admission, it's already heard from "18 to 20" hikers who say they won't do the challenge if Carla Olson isn't involved. I've talked to a few of them, including the man who initially contacted me because he was so concerned about what was going on. Most of them didn't know Olson going into the event. But they were so impressed by her attitude and her skills in running it that they're now speaking up.

The city's take, frankly, is more than a bit disingenuous. After all, just two months ago, it was intent on canceling the Summit Challenge. The city said so at a public meeting, for Pete's sake. And now it can't work with the person who fought for the event's very existence?

Reichert says the city had grown concerned about putting so much stress on its trails. It was also concerned, initially, about finances. "We decided we weren't going to do the event because of its cost," Reichert says.

But, as Reichert admits, the event cost the city only about $8,000, all of it in overtime. The rest of the money came from REI and, as Olson says, from her personal credit card. The overtime cost, too, was surely mitigated by the $5,000 that event sponsors earmarked for the city's trail fund.

Even without the donation, it's not really that much money. After all, the city has found tens of millions of dollars to subsidize fat-cat developers. And this spring, it increased management fees for its bus operators by freakin' $8 million without even getting any bids ("Taken for a (Bus) Ride," August 9, 2007.)

The city couldn't find a lousy three grand for an event beloved by hikers?

Of course, now it's found that three grand. But the city is going to have to find some more. As it turns out, REI, which covered a significant portion of the costs and manpower in previous years, decided at some point in this year's tortured negotiations to opt out. (A company spokeswoman confirmed the decision but declined further comment.) The city will be going it alone.

Talk about cutting off your nose — and then trying to deal with your bloody face.

Reichert's boss, parks director Sara Hensley, told the board that her department didn't want to work with Olson because the company she registered is a for-profit venture. The city is now working on a policy to clarify who can use the parks and who can't, and a big piece of that may be to limit use to groups with charitable aims.

But the very fact that it's scrambling to come up with a policy shows what a charade this is. Plenty of for-profit groups currently hold events in city parks. Let's talk about the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon, which starts at the Wesley Bolin Memorial Park. For that matter, what about the Phoenix Summit Challenge before Carla Olson registered her LLC? Last I heard, REI wasn't giving away its kayaks or Patagonia T-shirts.

I'm not the only person confused by the city's recalcitrance on this subject. Four of the five parks board members at last week's meeting urged parks employees to work out their differences with Olson. One of them, Laura Hill, said the situation "baffles" her.

Delia Ortega-Nowakowski went further. "I get the feeling that the image being portrayed here is, if parks and recreation staff doesn't want an event, that's just the way it is."

Bingo.

It's clear that Carla Olson has been getting the shaft this summer. And even though, thanks to the parks board's intervention, the city has now agreed to meet with her and try to work things out, I'm not all that hopeful. Six months have passed since Olson started trying to get approval from the city, and the Summit Challenge is now just two months away.

People say that, in past years, it's been a near-magical event. But I hope they're not holding their breath, waiting for this year to be just as good. After enduring six months of stonewalling and squabbling by city, hiking seven summits in 24 hours is going to feel like a cakewalk.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske