Skiing the Longest Day of the Year
Meanwhile on Mount Hood: The Illumination Saddle Solstice Party
The early-afternoon corn scrunches underneath our skins, the quiet clicks of the touring bindings adding to the rhythm as we gain altitude. From a distance we can already hear the sound of revelry at our destination: the Illumination Saddle solstice function, Mount Hood’s unofficial summer kick-off.
Perched at 9,500 feet on the southwest side of Mount Hood, Illumination Rock is a satellite peak, an abrupt outcropping of basalt that twists skyward several hundred feet. In the afternoon, its spires catch the last rays of sunlight, giving the rock its luminous name. The rock and accompanying saddle are common destinations for Mount Hood backcountry travelers, offering breathtaking views as well as a sweet little ski pitch off the south side.
Tonight Illumination Saddle is lined with a little row of tents and a crowd of solstice celebrants sharing libations and basking in the glow of the year’s longest afternoon. It’s a diverse group of folks up here, many familiar faces and many new, all brought together by one man who is conspicuously absent: Asit Rathod, a party-hard, shred-harder skier from Portland who is the mastermind of the solstice party.
Asit’s high-mountain exploits and debauchery are the stuff of legend on Mount Hood. When I met him in 2010, he was ripping turns off the summit stark naked in a tribute to Shane McConkey. A prolific ski mountaineer, he is reportedly working on a book of Mount Hood ski descents. A Facebook photo from an earlier solstice party shows Asit with a whiskey bottle in his left hand, a shotgun in his right, and a cigar jammed into his wide-mouthed grin.
Due to a recent hand surgery, however, Asit is missing his own party tonight. The end result is less cigars, nudity, and firearms, and a much mellower overall vibe, although the stoke level is kept high by the Home Grown crew of Tommy Ellingson, Josh and Mike Larkin, and Rhonda Shaheen, who are all on a serious jump-building mission.
Maximizing the light of this solstice evening, the Home Grown crew builds and sessions three different jumps in quick succession—a steep cliff drop, a small rock on the sunset side, and a step-up on the saddle straight through the party. Tommy sends backflips. Larkin stomps both-way 360s. On the saddle jump, I come within inches of landing on a tent, and it turns out that there’s a guy inside the tent, a climber who’s trying to summit at 2 a.m. and who quite obviously picked the wrong place to get any sleep, and eventually just rolls out of the tent and joins the party.
As the sun finally nears the horizon well after 9 p.m., the gathering reaches a fever pitch. Hood River photographer Richard Hallman is high on adrenaline after his 56th summit trip, and screams mad encouragement at the riders as the sunset in the backdrop of his shot gets more photogenic. Finally, the year’s longest day has come to an end. We take one more round on the improvised shotski—my touring ski with shot glasses Velcroed to the top sheet—and call it a night, ripping turns in the twilight on crisp, firming snow back to Timberline Lodge. Another summer season has begun at Mount Hood.
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