asit-rathod-skiing-summit

Asit Rathod demonstrates how to shred Mount Hood from the summit, as the photographer below prepares to get buried by heavy snow.

When you are standing on a steep ridge at 11,000-plus feet with your tips over the edge and the green light to hit it first, you really only have one choice about what to do next.

Your legs are shot from climbing the mountain you are standing on top of for the first time. Your heart is pounding in your ears. You’re breathing like a marathon runner from the altitude — and from your nerves.

You can see your first turn and your second turn. But beyond that you can’t visualize anything, because the slope steepens sharply and then disappears from view entirely.

This is disconcerting to say the least. The more experienced members of your party have assured you there are no cliffs or crevasses below where you are dropping in, and you trust them. But it would be nice to see your line first, before dropping in. That would be comforting.

Exhale.

A question pops into your head, and while it is probably the last question in the world you want to consider at this moment, there it is, the elephant in your mind:

What exactly am I doing here?

'You have got to meet this guy.'

My journey to the summit of Mount Hood started with my decision to launch shredhood.org a few years ago. After 25 years in print journalism bouncing around from one publication to the next and from one beat to the next, I decided to choose my own beat and create a niche publication around it,  for people who love Mount Hood.

Not long after Shred Hood went live, I was out promoting it at a ski club event when Linda McGavin of the Northwest Ski Club Council told me about a Mount Hood character named Asit Rathod. “You have got to meet this guy. If anyone epitomizes the spirit of shredding Mount Hood, it is Asit.”

So I tracked down this guy Asit Rathod, and we set up a meeting at a Mexican restaurant. He  pulled up on a red Ducati, knocked back a double Jameson with his lunch, and dropped down a hundred-dollar bill to pay before I could grab my wallet. Total bad-ass — a big guy full of bravado and hilarious larger-than-life stories, friends with everyone he meets, and completely unabashed.

I wrote an article about him that  quickly became the first Shred Hood story to pick up more than 1,000 hits. And with time I got to know Asit better and see some of the depth behind the public persona of the first impression. The first generation West Indian kid with Hindi as his first language, who made a monumental leap to go live in Chamonix and rip the steeps with some of the greatest skiers on the planet, shredding lines in Las Lenas with Shane McConkey, launching off Mississippi Headwall in a BASE-jumping free-fall, leading Chris Davenport, Jess McMillan and Daron Rahlves up Hood for their Ring of Fire tour of the great Cascade Volcanoes, writing the book about skiing from the summit of Mount Hood.

'Weather is perfect and the day will be sickness'

Over time, Asit started writing lively articles about his summit adventures for Shred Hood, and every time I edited a new piece and processed his mind-boggling photos from high up on the mountain, my desire (and trepidation) to get up there to the summit grew stronger.

I mentioned my desire to summit (though not my trepidation) to my friends Jay Pollock and Geoff Mihalko on the ride back from a club ski race at Meadows, and they both lit up. “Dude, I’ve been wanting to get up there for years!” said Jay. His father and grandfather had both summited, and he wanted to keep the family tradition going. Geoff was in too. Those guys are top racers and really dynamic skiers, so I knew they would enjoy shredding it from the summit. Plus they’re young athletes, so they probably would have the strength to make the climb.

Me, I’m not so young. Somehow I have managed to become 48 years old — not sure how that happened, but it did. Still, plenty of people far older than me climb Mount Hood just fine, all the time. It’s just a matter of will and fitness. I’ve got the will, and as for fitness, well, I did finish the Portland Marathon last year for the first time. Nearly dropped dead at the finish line with a mediocre time at best — but I made it to the finish line — and celebrated my triumph by drinking, eating and avoiding running and/or weighing myself for months.

Also, I did a lot of ski mountaineering in the Cascades in the 90s, so I do have some largely irrelevant experience. I was one of those skinny-ski telemark hippies: skin up, eat lunch and find the fresh line through the trees for your one run down. No crampons, no ice axe, and therefore no real summits.

Asit told us to pick a date and be ready. “It'll come together Old Boy,” he texted. “Just stay flexible with the timing as weather dictates all.”

And then a few days later: “Looks like we are on for Saturday. Weather is perfect and the day will be sickness.”

That Whole Climbing Thing

We rented the necessary gear from the Mountain Shop in Portland and headed up to Mount Hood. The sky was overcast the whole way up to Govy at 4,000 feet, and then we broke through the low clouds on the road up to Timberline, and it was pure blue sky with very little wind, and heating up quickly. Asit’s climbing buddy Carlos Martinez, a very fit-looking snowboarder, met us in the parking lot, and it was all jokes and bumping music and waiting for the first chair to get that cheater’s head start from the top of Palmer at 8500 feet instead of drudging up from the parking lot at 6,000 feet.

Perfect. Everything was just perfect — except the whole climbing thing.

My skins kept slipping backwards at key moments as the slope steepened. My right foot went numb from the rental boots and stayed numb. My glasses fogged up from the steaming of my head. We hadn’t made 1,000 vertical feet yet and I was feeling woozy. Jay was struggling with his gear and Geoff looked kind of like how I felt. Even Asit was leaning over to gasp for air. No sign of Carlos. He was probably up on top already.

It was a busy weekend on Hood, the peak of the climbing season. The Mountain Shop had rented out all 200 pairs of crampons in stock for the weekend. Most of the people we passed were on their way down, having gotten up at 1 or 2 in the morning to summit early, before the snow softened up and rocks and ice started falling down into the chutes. They didn’t say anything, but you could tell they all felt we were a bit nutty to be starting up so late.

Switching from skins to crampons made it easier as the trail up grew steeper, but the closer we got to the route up through the Pearly Gates to the summit, the more terrifying it looked. The climbers up there looked like ants on all fours, hardly moving at all, precariously suspended on a very steep slope. As for what would happen if one of them lost it and started slipping backwards, down that steep slope toward the fumarole belching sulfur into the sky… well, best not to think of that.

Exhale.

Still, how can you stay tense with these two guys around?

Hanging out on the Hogsback, Carlos and Asit were as loose and laid back as can be, joking and cranking out music. Veteran mountaineer Ralph Weary was there, and between his stories and Asit’s joking around, I could feel myself relaxing ever so slightly.  We chomped down some nuts and raisins, drank down some Gatorade, got out our ice axes, and got to work. Before long we were on all fours.

Just keep climbing. And don’t look back.

Breathe. And check out Asit, standing there on the slope like it’s nothing, shooting photos of us. If he can do that, you can keep climbing.

As with my experience with the Portland Marathon, it wasn’t pretty, but I made it. We all made it, and there is nothing quite like reaching the peak of a mountain for the first time with a pack of friends, on a perfect day.

Just after we reached the top Humaira Falkenburg joined us there. I have only met Humaira twice, but both times she made quite an impression. The first time was a powder day in the trees, when she let a huge whoop upon seeing Asit and then told us exactly where to head for the secret untracked snow. The second time was this day, when she was guiding a friend up for his first summit. Once they made it to the peak I got to hear that great whoop of hers again.

“Three brownies on the summit!” she joked, referring to herself, Asit and Carlos. “We need a photo!”

Jay had brought up the flag for our ski club, Schnee Vogeli, and Carlos shot a nice group photo of us first-timers — for us to share with our club comrades and encourage them to join us on future adventures:

I had brought up three types of gourmet cheese, some very tasty chocolate and a touch of honey liqueur. Sometimes old guys learn a thing or two along the way. I took everyone’s order, passed out the goodies, ate a few bites, took a sip, and looked around me with a huge release on tension. Made it!

What a beautiful place to be.

Exhale.

Unfortunately, the nerve-wracking portion of our journey was not over. Rather than ski down into crappy snow tracked up with crampons, we headed west along the West Crater Rim.

“You’ll be fine,” Asit assured us. “Just don’t fall.”

Sounds like a plan. Very small steps.

Made it again.

Exhale.

In the Moment

So now here we are on the rim, wrestling with our Dynafit bindings, looking down at the two or three turns we can see, and the line we can’t see. And I’ve got the 300mm lens in my pack, so Asit is giving me the green light to go first to shoot photos. And my tips are over the edge, and I can see the beginning of my line down West Crater - just not the middle or the end.

As I said earlier, you really only have one choice when you are in a situation like this. So I belt out some sort of scared-shitless yodel-whoop and go for it.

Third turn in I can see the pitch drop off, so I launch into a big jump turn and land fully angulated, 220 pounds of raw nerves on edge. And the whole slope just lets go.

Fortunately it isn’t an avalanche, just some heavy sun-baked sluff sliding down the steeps like some big old river. And I'm in the middle of the river, but it is fine. I'm surfing it. I bank out of the river and realize I'm moving faster than the river, so it is completely safe. I make a few turns on the side, bank back into the river, arc over to the far side, and emerge unscathed to set up in the steeps, dig a platform to hold me and my pack while I take out my camera.

Asit drops in first, and for the first time I get to see him shred it from the summit.

While I’m shooting these photos, I can hear the heavy snow roaring down from the power of his turns — right at me. I have no choice to lean into the hill and take it. I brace myself and grit my teeth, and my sunglasses and gloves get buried under two feet of wet snow. But my skis hold. I’m fine.

Dig out the gloves, but I can’t find the sunglasses. Good enough. Ready.

Exhale.

Geoff is next.

He comes out ripping fast, then suddenly too fast, and then he loses it and he’s down, sliding straight at me like a cannonball.

I move back a few feet to dodge him and watched him slide down to a stop in the heavy snow downhill. He's fine.

Exhale. All good. I guess.

Then Jay drops in.

And then Carlos:

Screaming Legs

The snow was excellent all the way down to Illumination Saddle and below. It got heavy as we crossed back to Palmer and down to the Mile, but Asit and Carlos just let ‘em ride and ripped down through the slop.

We first-timers had some screaming legs to deal with, so we slowed down and took a few breaks. I was sufficiently exhausted to lie flat on my back for a breather, right in the middle of the trail. Why not? We were so late coming down that the chairs were no longer loading, and we had the slope to ourselves. A groomer drove up and I could see him checking on whether I was okay, so I pulled myself up and gave him a big wave, then headed down on my wobbly way, laughing at myself.

The bottom half of the Mile was like glue. But we made it.

Back to the parking lot. Off with the boots. Off with the jacket and the sweaty sweater. In with the water, in with the salt.

Around went the bottle of Jameson. Cheers and toasts and laughter. Calls home to reassure family and friends.

All Good.

Exhale. Breathe in deeply. Repeat.

Asit and Carlos on the Hogsback

Shred Hood Editor and Publisher Ben Jacklet started skiing at the age of 5 in New Hampshire and writing at the age of 15 in Guilderland, New York. He has served as staff writer for The Stranger in Seattle, the Portland Tribune, and as managing editor for Oregon Business Magazine. He launched Shred Hood in 2013 with co-founder Bjorn van der Voo.

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