About Summit Adventure

At Summit Adventure, we use experiential education, adventure programming, service, and cross-cultural immersion as tools to move individuals and groups out of their comfort zones into more reliance on God and each other.

Since 1973, Summit Adventure has been leading the way as the premier outdoor ministry program. Participants throughout the years have told us that their experiences have been truly transformational, whether domestically in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley or internationally in Ecuador, Mexico, Patagonia, and Israel.

Summit Adventure works with a wide range of groups, including youth (age 12+), college students, parents, adults, and individuals with physical and mental disabilities. Although every course is different, typical course components include backpacking, rock climbing, mountaineering, rappelling, orienteering, trekking, cultural immersion, and service.

Summit Adventure offers courses that range from half-day onsite team-building experiences to a 7-day Adventure Leadership course to our 16-week College Semester Program. We take pride in customizing every course we offer. 

Patagonia, Argentina

Our Team

Tom Smith, PhD

Executive Director

Carey Smith

Summit Lodge Manager

Ariella Carter

Marketing Director & Guide

Valerie Casner

Administrative & Accounting

Bryan Feller

Volunteer Staff

Our Rich History

Tim Hansel

Through the 60’s, Tim Hansel was teaching Social Studies at a public high school in California, and was growing increasingly disturbed by the apathy and lack of motivation shown by his students. He wondered if a weekend camping trip would help.

Amazed at the transformation that occurred, Hansel began to take groups of high school students into the wilderness, at first just for the weekend, but the trips grew longer and longer. His initial forays convinced him of the effectiveness of outdoor, experiential-based education and led to the formation of Summit Expedition in 1973, one of the earliest wilderness-based ministries in the United States.

“Apathy is one of the big things to deal with for today’s kids. So we put them in stress situations. We get them up on a three-pitch rock climb. They concentrate entirely upon what they are doing, bringing their awareness up to a peak. There’s no room for apathy…” Hansel, quoted in Backpacker, Summer 1974.

Apathy is one of the big things to deal with for today’s kids. So we put them in stress situations. We get them up on a three-pitch rock climb. They concentrate entirely upon what they are doing, bringing their awareness up to a peak. There’s no room for apathy…

Throughout the 70’s, Summit continued to grow, taking hundreds of students into the wilderness. Although the ministry was impacting many people, finances were always a concern, forcing Hansel to work as many as four jobs at a time. In addition, he married and fathered two children, embarking on the adventure of marriage and fatherhood.

“David was halfway across the snowbridge when my crampons balled up. I slipped. Just as I was beginning to stop, my feet went over the edge. The momentum gave gravity just enough of a nudge to cause me to flip upside down.”

Several years after he founded Summit, Hansel and another instructor had completed a climb on North Palisade Peak in the Sierra Nevada. Descending from the glacier in the late afternoon, Hansel’s crampons balled up with snow and caused him to fall into the crevasse, landing heavily on his upper back and neck. Although he got up and hiked the 20 miles to the car, the damage was done. Cracked vertebrae. Crushed discs. Fragments of bone lodged in his neck. The result was chronic, debilitating pain that would be with him for the next 35 years.

“I feel almost dismembered this morning by outrageous pain. It is almost comical to have reached such a ludicrous level of disorder. Me, with my desire to be agile and free, barely able to get up and out of the chair this morning. Teach me to live in new ways, O Lord. Teach me and show me your ways in the midst of this.”

“I began to realize that it wasn’t my imposed limitations that held me back as much as my perception of those limitations. It wasn’t the pain that was thwarting me as much as it was my attitude towards the pain.”

Summit’s early courses were primarily run in the Stanislaus National Forest, east of Sacramento. In the late 70’s, Summit Expedition acquired a YWCA lodge on three acres of leased Forest Service land around Bass Lake and made it a seasonal base for courses. In 1987, the main office moved from San Diego to Bass Lake. Shortly after that, chronic health problems resulting from his climbing accident forced Tim to retire from Summit.

Summit Expedition to Summit Adventure

In 1988, under the leadership of Dave and Barb Kelley, Summit Expedition became Summit Adventure. The first year of Summit Adventure was operated out of the basement of a rented house and our first course (SA#1) was run in Joshua Tree in the fall of 1988. Through the generosity of supporters, basecamp and some gear was bought from Summit Expedition during the spring of 1989.

During the early 1990s, the mobile home that now provides offices for the administrative staff was acquired. The SeaLand trailer and gear lockers became the home of logistics in 1995. That same year, Mike Rollinson, board member and instructor since 1989, became the executive director of Summit. That same year, Dave Kelley broke new ground as director of resource development.

In 2003, Tom Smith, took over as executive director. Tom and his wife Carey’s first experience at Summit was as instructors from ’88 to ‘94. Tom returned with a renewed vision of Summit Adventure which incorporated international opportunities (Ecuador, Mexico & Israel), a college semester program, year-round programming, and an emphasis on service.

In 2014, Summit Adventure was awarded the distinction making the Great Nonprofits list and being rated one of the best outdoor programs by Outdoor Leaders.

Summit has continued pioneering work with a wide variety of populations including families, youth, adults, the disabled, youth at risk, schools, churches, para-church ministries, and professional development groups. Many people have participated in the four decades of ministry through Summit Adventure. Without the efforts, sacrifice, and vision of each of them we would not be where we are today.

Another group of supporters that deserves recognition are the faithful donors who generously support this mission financially as well as through prayer. The Whitney Classic continues to be the main fundraising “vehicle” for Summit Adventure.

There is likely no end to the stories, laughs, tears, and adventures that have taken place since Summit was founded in 1973. Although each of these stories is as unique and different as the many people who tell them, the one common thread that binds them is God’s faithfulness and care for the people who have come through Summit’s doors. Summit Adventure continues its mission to seek transformation through adventure-based experience