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They’re getting ready to toast and serve L.A. hikers again. And the drinks really are free

Summit Sippers Jack Petros, David Weber and Dylan Skolnik prep free drinks in the Palisades
Jack Petros, from left, David Weber and Dylan Skolnik prepare free beverages for hikers in Pacific Palisades, before trails were shut down. Now they’re about to re-open.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

They stood at the top of a trail in the Palisades, three stylish sentinels, distinguished by bow ties, suspenders, newsboy caps — and a stovepipe hat.

The trio were on a mission: to hand out free refreshments to anyone who passed by. Soon enough, random hikers started to appear, thirsty after a brisk climb. The first thing they spotted was a small folding table topped with a menu and fruity drinks — and three random guys who looked like chimney sweeps.

In the middle of nowhere.

At first there was surprise, followed by confusion. Then there was more confusion, leading to bemusement — and questions: What’s your angle? Are you promoting something? Is someone getting engaged?

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“There’s definitely a shock factor to it,” said David Weber, the 28-year-old ringleader of the Summit Sippers, the three hiking pals who came up with the idea for a mobile drink stand. “Whatever they were going to do that day, they didn’t expect this.”

But there’s no angle, the Sippers said, no ulterior motive, beyond providing a service they always wished for when they’d reach the top of some parched summit: a little refreshment and a quick toast.

Summit Sippers change into costumers, which cost about $20 per member.
The Summit Sippers change into garb after trudging up to their giveaways spot. The outfits cost about $20.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The Palisades event, the Summit Sippers’ first pop-up, took place in October, bringing a bit of whimsy to a busy and often snarly town. The giant smiles and warm responses exceeded their grandest expectations, and the Sippers soon eased into a twice-a-month schedule.

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Then it stopped. Like nearly everything in the midst of the pandemic, it stopped.

::

Weber, his cousin Dylan Skolnik, 25, and Weber’s friend Jack Petros, 28, weren’t sure what to expect when they planned their first event as a weekend diversion from their demanding jobs.

Weber is a website developer, and Petros runs an alternative school in Venice (they met when they were students at Agoura High School in Agoura Hills). Skolnik works in development for the scooter company Bird. They were already avid hikers and knew hiking to be increasingly popular in Southern California. But they weren’t event planners.

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Nonetheless, they made a modest investment in a fold-up table ($60) and attire ($20 per sipper) and began to think about how it would all work.

They made a point of keeping the setup simple and respectful of the experience — deciding against speakers and music, thinking that would spoil the serenity of a rustic hike during which vistas ran from Malibu to the South Bay. After all, it wasn’t a party; it was more of an appreciation.

Summit Sippers have been setting up free drink stands for three months.
At first there is disbelief, then acceptance. “It creates an environment where people interact,” says Petros.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

They were careful not to leave any cups or other trash behind or to block high-traffic photo spots others might want to use.

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Their first outing went so well they scheduled another for two weeks later — and every two weeks after that, visiting trails across the L.A. area. In mid-January, they took their show on the road and set up their table overlooking Yosemite Falls, mystifying and rehydrating hikers who were stunned to find them in such a remote location.

The Sippers always announced their next destination on Instagram (@summitsippers) a few hours before they set up shop. Then they’d make a menu, gather their ingredients and jam everything into backpacks and small coolers before heading out. As they zigzagged up a trail, they looked like three semi-shaven, post-college pals heading up for a Saturday picnic.

After an hour or so of hiking, they stopped to unfold the table, and the Summit Sippers transformation began. Out came the tuxedo shirts, bow ties and suspenders. Weber donned the top hat; Skolnik and Petros put on throwback newsboy caps.

Then they would start pouring craft drinks atop L.A.’s most unlikely beverage cart.

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The menu always includes their watermelon spritz (watermelon, cucumber, lime, club soda, mint) and a second featured drink, sometimes with a seasonal tie-in (in Yosemite, that meant peppermint-flavored hot cocoa). A little extra cheer could be added on request. No charge. No tips.

“Basically, it started because every time I’d get to the top of a hike, I’d think, ‘It’d sure be nice to have a spritz,’” Weber explained.

The ebb and flow of hikers was typical of local trails — a group of 10 would show up, then a series of couples, a single or two. Some patrons were responding to the Instagram invite; most would come across the pop-up drink stand randomly.

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Sometimes a crowd of 30 hikers would form, instant parties bound by a shared sense of discovering something unique to L.A. Each time, at least one person would speculate about the Summit Sippers’ motivation, assuming they were seeking some sort of product tie-in or a bid for YouTube fame. After all, showy stunts are hardly rare in Los Angeles.

Each time, the answer was the same: Believe it or not, it’s merely a friendly gesture.

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“It creates an environment where people interact,” said Petros. “It’s about creating communal experiences.”

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“Anything to get people to talk to each other in L.A.,” Dan Pinder, a hiker from Marina del Rey said one weekend.

The way this played out with authorities depended on the venue. Before the trail shut down in March, the Summit Sippers hadn’t been hassled, though the wing of the National Park Service that oversees the Santa Monica Mountains said it would be a misdemeanor to set up a beverage operation without a permit or certification. (The Sippers say they are considering the $175 application.)

Rangers at Griffith Park said they would have no problem with the giveaways, as long as alcohol (which is prohibited in the park) wasn’t served and no one was profiting from the enterprise. “It’d be no different than someone reaching into a cooler and handing you a water on a hot day,” said Chief Park Ranger Joe Losorelli.

The Summit Sippers had organized 10 gatherings by the time COVID-19 arrived in force in mid-March, shutting down one of the most popular activities — hiking — in many places in Southern California.

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“When they closed the beaches and the trails, that was rough,” said Petros. “But it made us appreciate the gift these trails and mountains are.”

The Summit Sippers
They are careful not to leave trash behind or block spots where hikers might like to take photos.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Today, after the long layoff, the foothills are starting to crisp, turning from their winter green to their usual Wheat Chex brown — a sign of normality maybe, a sign of things as they once were.

“We’re not thinking negatively about how much we miss it,” Weber said. “We’re thinking about what we’re going to do in the meantime to make it better.”

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That includes working on a list of trails to hit when things reopen. The situation is changing rapidly. Trails run by Los Angeles County will be back in business on Friday, with masks required.

The Summit Sippers have also been designing new drinks, with sprigs of lavender and sage, and they have devoted a considerable amount of time to thinking about how they’ll handle social distancing. They don’t want to rush it and will use restaurants as their cue for when it might be safe to resume.

“Regarding masks and gloves, we’ll follow what they do,” Weber said.

There’s no business plan, but Instagram is one measure of their success, and Weber, Petros and Skolnik encourage patrons to post there.

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Summit Sippers say they might try Yosemite soon.
Petros and Weber say they might soon take their mobile watering hole to Yosemite.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Petros says the Summit Sippers may be open to similar start-ups in other cities, perhaps with an annual gathering of Sippers atop some L.A. mountain to discuss triumphs and failures. In the meantime, they’re just trying to figure out how this oddball enterprise might dovetail with the changes we will see in everyday life.

“The original goal was to build community,” Petros said. “That’s what Summit Sippers was: building community and … to say ‘hey’ to a stranger.

“Hopefully, we’ll find a whole new group of hikers,” he said.

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Skolnik believes the collective experiences of the last two months might even change the reactions of those who spot them on the trails.

“Our crowd is pretty happy-go-lucky,” he said. “I think people won’t ask why we are doing this; they’ll just understand.”


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