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Cold night, hot showers

Josh Christianson and a group of friends plan to climb Mount McLoughlin tonight, hoping for a smoke-free view of the Perseid meteor shower. / Bob Pennell — — —

A group of friends plans a night-time climb of Mount McLoughlin to catch the Perseid meteor display

When summer's biggest meteor shower peaks tonight, Josh Christianson may have the best vantage point in Southern Oregon.

He'll certainly have the chilliest perch.

Christianson and a few hardy friends plan to clamber to the summit of Mount McLoughlin to watch the Perseid meteors. Far above lingering smoke from wildfires, and far away from city lights, they may see hundreds of meteors per hour from their impromptu high-altitude observatory.

We're hoping that once we get to the top, the view straight up will be perfectly clear, Christianson said.

The 25-year-old Medford man will be making his sixth night climb on the 9,495-foot volcano. Previous ascents were timed to take advantage of the light of the full moon. This trip was scheduled to observe an annual meteor shower that amateur stargazers love because they can watch their shooting stars without bundling up against the cool and damp.

Perseid meteors are fast, bright and colorful, said astronomer Jim Todd of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. But that's not the reason why I love watching them. The real reason is the Perseids are comfortable.

Todd said many of the most spectacular meteor showers in the northern hemisphere happen in winter. The Leonids, for example, streak through in November, when nights are almost certain to be cold and wet.

August's Perseids are something completely different, Todd said. The cool night air is refreshing, but not bone chilling. I can shuffle outside at — a.m. in my pajamas and still enjoy the show.

The Perseid meteors are debris from a comet known to astronomers as Swift-Tuttle. Their name comes from the constellation Perseus, where they appear to originate. Many are no bigger than a dust speck or a grain of sand, but they travel so fast (about 37 miles per second, or 132,000 mph) that they burn up when they enter Earth's atmosphere.

Christianson, a waiter by trade, began night-climbing a few years ago when a friend suggested it would be interesting to see the sun rise from the summit of Mount McLoughlin. Friends and co-workers from Medford's Red Lobster restaurant often tag along. Sometimes as many as 20 people have scrambled up the mountain with him.

It's wonderful up there, he said. There's nothing going on, and there's no one on the trail. For a lot of people, it's almost something spiritual.

Moonlight will be scarce on this year's ascent. Christianson and his friends will use headlamps and flashlights to find their way to the top. They'll stay long enough to watch the sun rise and make their way down in daylight.

We'll take just the bare essentials, said Jessica Seyfer of Medford, who made a moonlight climb with Christianson several years ago and plans to watch the meteor show from the summit. Water and some trail mix or granola bars to keep us going, a camera and some warm clothes. It definitely gets cold up on the top of the mountain.

Temperatures at 9,500 feet typically range in the high 30s to low 40s in mid-August, but a string of warm days could push temperatures at the summit to near 50 degrees. Whether skies will be clear of smoke at that altitude is hard to guess, said Ryan Sandler, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Medford.

It's hard enough trying to (predict) the weather, let alone the smoke forecast, Sandler said.

Sandler said winds atop the mountain at this time of year probably won't exceed 15 mph. That could still make for some chilly star gazing, but Seyfer said the climbers plan to use an ancient technique to stay warm on the summit.

When we get to the top, she said, we huddle up in little groups to get the old body-heat going.

Josh Christianson and a group of friends plan to climb Mount McLoughlin tonight, hoping for a smoke-free view of the Perseid meteor shower. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune images