The Summer Solstice: A Masochist's Thoughts About How to Squeezing the Most Out of the Longest Days

by Jonathan Barrett

Sunshine Route, Mt. Hood. Photo: Greg Simons
Fifteen hours and forty-one minutes. That is the length of the day on the Summer Solstice. Not including the extended light of dawn and dusk. The question is how to spend it. Here are a few ideas to be considered as guiding principles. While not everyone has that Thursday off, these principles would work just as well for the weekend warrior on the previous or following Saturday/Sunday.

Pull-off a really, really long climb

Yes, Infinite Bliss in Washington is fraught with controversy, given that when it was bolted, it ended up being in an established wilderness area. But it is a really, really, long climb and as a result benefits from having a really, really, long day to complete it. One would benefit from having the longest day of the year as a matter of fact. At 23 pitches, it was possibly the longest “sport” climb in the United States or Canada when first bolted, but to call it a sport climb misrepresents what the route really is. Although the crux pitches are well bolted, there are run-outs of close to 100 feet. Additionally, if going up takes a long time, you also need to rap the route ... 23 rappels. A full day, and full use of the Summer Solstice. Substitute your favorite super-long climb as desired.

Pull off a really, really long approach

Most will climb Mt. Olympus over three days. Approach the 17+ miles on day one. Summit and return to camp on day two. Hike out on day three. But given a really, really, long day, a fit team could conceivably knock it out in “one day.” Consider the following: with some light jogging and fast hiking, you might be able to do the approach in around six hours. The climb to the summit and descent could happen in six or seven hours. Then one just needs to endure the slog out, another six hours. Given the length of predawn and post-sunset light (nautical twilight starts at 3:34 a.m. for that latitude and ends at 10:48 p.m.), a person has more than 19 hours of light, which is plenty of time. Assuming your feet hold up. The Olympics and Cascades are awash in long approaches, so it is easy to pick your poison when considering this use for the longest days of the year.

Fit More Into Your Day

Given that the average Mazama is a working stiff, probably with fairly normal daytime hours, we are generally resigned to hitting our local crags only on the weekends. Evening sessions at the gym have to suffice otherwise. What if the day was a little longer? What about an alpine start to your cragging session? At 3:52 a.m. on June 21, you could be calling “on belay” to your partner and starting up a route at Ozone. Depending on traffic or where you work, this might give you four to five hours of climbing time, more than enough to leave your forearms so pumped you can barely type for the rest of the day. Those that find the early hours horrifying—although it is certain to be much more quiet—can replicate the experience, but after work. With usable light until 10:30 p.m., one could conceivably get a five hour session in after your day working for The Man. The Army is famous for the saying that they do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. Now you can say that you are more productive than the Army.

Summit Hood And Be Home For Breakfast

This is one that I have pulled off myself. Sunrise is 5:21 a.m. in Portland on the solstice but from the summit it is a little earlier. You can catch those golden rays reflecting off the Columbia River and lighting up the Eastern Oregon desert and still be back in Portland in time for waffles and bacon with the family. High-five the sun and descend as quickly back to Timberline as possible. With a little jogging, glissading, or skiing, being back at your car by 7AM is totally doable (safety first, of course). Then, when you arrive at 8:30 stinking like sweat, summit, and summer’s first rays, it will be the perfect compliment to breakfast along with some wild blueberry syrup. You can have both: a climbing life and a family life. You just might need to crash in the hammock for an afternoon nap though.

Catch the Best Light, For Longer

Photographers know that sunrise and sunset are the best for capturing the soft dewy light that is so prized in the making of quality images. Consider the fact that civil twilight lasts for 38 minutes on the summer solstice and only 29 minutes on the spring equinox. There is something astonishing about the fact that during this time of year, it’s almost like the Earth is rotating more slowly. This gives the artist thirty percent more time to capture just the right light illuminating the Crooked River and Asterix Pass at Smith Rock or Haystack Rock on the coast. There are some differences between the two times though. In some ways dusk is better because the photographer knows how the shadows and silhouettes are going to fall. All she needs to do is sit and wait for the right moment with the camera in position. In contrast, in the predawn hours, it is much harder to know what shapes, shadows, and textures are going to look like. When the sun finally does appear, having these few extra minutes can be a godsend as the photographer rushes about making final adjustments.

A Long Hike To Avoid Overnight Permits

It is a fact of life in the Northwest that some areas are more difficult to access due to permitting issues. Getting a backcountry camping permit can be almost impossible during the busy periods of the year. The Enchantments is one such place where acquiring a campsite is impossible, but through-hiking is very doable. Over the course of a long day, it is possible to experience all that the area has to offer without having to be encumbered by both overnight gear and regulations. At a skoch more than eighteen miles, the trail through the Enchantments involves 7,100 feet of elevation gain if going from Snow Lakes to Colchuck trailheads and a knee-busting descent down from Aasgard Pass. With stashed bike at the end, it is possible to then zip (relatively) easily back to the car on (mostly) downhill roads. Although Colchuck would likely still be cold enough for a penguin, there is still enough time during the solstice to take a dip and ice your sore feet before grinding out the last four and a half miles.


Star Dust

by Darrin Gunkel

The Summer Triangle

You’re standing on the side of a mountain, about 7,000 feet above sea level. It’s a few minutes after sundown and the color filling the western sky has you absorbed. Until you turn to the east and notice something odd. The sky has a pinkish glow but for a dark band of blue along the horizon. This is the Earth’s shadow cast onto the upper reaches of our atmosphere. It’s visible for a brief time after sundown, while the geometry of our sun and planet are just right. Once night fully falls, rather looking at the shadow, you’re standing under it.

The pink glow is called the Belt of Venus, and when it appears, it’s time to start looking for the first stars and planets of the evening. Twilight’s a great time to find your way around the sky – it more closely resembles those constellation finder charts that tend to show only the brighter stars. Things can get confusing later on in full darkness, when the storm of summer stars can throw off even experienced stargazers.

This month, the show begins with the two brightest planets: Venus blazing 15 degrees (or three fist widths) above the western horizon, and Jupiter, 30 degrees up from due south. Both should be easy to spot by 9:30. Just north of east, Vega, the fifth brightest star in the sky (not including the sun) rides a little higher above the horizon than Jupiter.

Vega burns as brightly as it does for three reasons. First, it’s big: two and half times the size of our sun. Second, it’s hot: its surface registers 9500 Kelvin (the temperature scale astronomers use, based on absolute zero. Our sun’s surface is 5770 Kelvin. The average temperature of the Earth’s surface is 287 Kelvin, or 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit.) Vega’s hotter, larger, and brighter than the vast majority of the 200 billion to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. Finally, Vega’s nearby, a galactic neighbor at 25 light years.

Vega is also the anchor for the bright summer asterism, or pattern of stars, known as the Summer Triangle. The second star in the group, Altair, is rising due east after sundown. By 10:00, it should have cleared the murk of dust and haze near the horizon. Altair has an entourage. Just above and below are the slightly dimmer Tarazed and Alshain, respectively. Altair’s not as bright as Vega because it’s neither as big nor hot. In fact, it’s much closer, clocking in at 16.7 light years.

Neither of them, however, holds a candle to the final member of the Summer Triangle. Deneb, found about 30 degrees above north-northeast as twilight deepens into full night. It’s among the largest and brightest stars in the galaxy, a super-giant 100 million miles in diameter. That’s not a typo. Deneb is wider than the distance between the Earth and Sun. Intrinsically, Deneb is something like 55,000 times brighter than our home star. Move it to Vega’s distance and it would be clearly visible during the day and cast shadows at night. But it’s 60 times further away, shining at us across 1500 light years, so it only ranks as the 19th brightest night time star.

Incidentally, big, bright stars are rare. Our Sun is a good example, often misidentified as average, though anything but. It’s larger and brighter than 90 percent of the stars in our galactic neighborhood. Of our 50 nearest stellar neighbors, only seven are bright enough that we can see them without the help of binoculars or a telescope, and only three of those are truly bright, first magnitude stars. Relatively close neighbors Vega and Altair don’t even make that list. A few of the rest can be spotted with binoculars, but most are tiny red dwarfs, often closer in size to the giant planet Jupiter than to our sun, and invisible with anything other than a seriously large telescope.

The Great Rift

As the night deepens, dimmer stars fill up the sky: the little parallelogram that hangs like a pendant below Vega, marking the constellation Lyra; the splay of stars to the south of Altair, the constellation Aquila; the Northern Cross capped by Deneb. And then there’s the Milky Way, the collective glow of billions of stars too distant and dim to make out with eyes alone. Together their light forms what the !Kung people of the Kalahari call the Backbone of the Night. The Milky Way runs right through the middle of the Summer Triangle, and through the middle of it runs the Great Rift.

The Great Rift splits the Milky Way into two streams. The stars aren’t sparser here, they’re obscured by great clouds of cosmic dust: the star stuff that Joni Mitchell and Carl Sagan liked to point out we are all made from. And not just us. Star dust is everything in the solar system that isn’t hydrogen or helium (everything that isn’t the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, basically), every planet, asteroid, comet, meteor. Everything on or in every planet, asteroid, comet, meteor. The oceans, the continents, the volcano you’re camping on. Moreover, that star stuff fuels those volcanoes.

The earth is hot inside: cranking at 44 trillion watts. Half of that heat comes from radioactive decay – the breakdown over time of uranium, mostly, but also thorium, potassium and a few others, into lighter elements. This decay unleashes subatomic particles that crash into the other stuff the earth’s made of, and transfer their kinetic energy into that stuff, heating it up. This melts the Earth’s interior, creating the convection driving the plate tectonics fueling mountain – and volcano – building. (The rest of the heat is leftover from the Earth’s formation – also kinetic energy, but from numberless bits of cosmic dust in the Sun’s birth cloud colliding and coalescing under the influence of gravity.)

So where’d all that dusty stuff come from? Back to the stars – the big ones like our Sun, which end their lives as planetary nebulae: glowing shells of future star dust and gas that disperse into the cosmic wind. But to make the really heavy radioactive elements, like uranium, you need really big stars like Deneb. Starlight is (part of) the exhaust of nuclear fusion: hydrogen fusing to helium, and so on to heavier elements. To get the really exotic, unstable radioactive elements like uranium, you need the conditions found only in a supernova, the death-throe explosion of one of those super-rare giants. Super-rare, but remember, there may be a third of a trillion stars in our galaxy, and it’s been around for something like 15 billion years. Plenty of time for plenty of ancient Denebs to cough up enough heavy elements to keep planets like ours cooking up entertaining mountains.