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Climbing to the Sky–Stargazing on Mauna Kea

April 14, 2012

April 10

Simple wonderment is so pleasurable it can become its own pursuit if one is not careful. And my lifestyle of late does not admit for care in this department.

Take yesterday for example.

Mauna Kea from the Sea

A busload of tourists, including myself, depart Honokohau Habor at 2pm for the top of Mauna Kea and an afternoon of scenery appreciation followed by an evening of star-gazing.

Mauna Kea is a mountain, an unusual, unlikely mountain.

A dormant shield volcano (its long, sloping sides look like an upturned shield) that last erupted 45,000 years ago, Mauna Kea’s summit of 14,000 feet is the tallest mountain in Hawaii. What’s more, local literature is quick to point out that if judged from her base in the seabed, a drop of 17,000 feet from the surf line, Mauna Kea is the highest peak in the world, cleanly topping Everest’s 29,000 feet. It’s a statement that rings false until one is further instructed that the base of Everest sits on a thick crust of rock 17,000 feet above sea level, requiring that one ascend a “mere” 12,000 feet to find the jet stream.

In winter months Mauna Kea, meaning “white mountain”, packs plenty of snow, though it is situated well within the tropic of Cancer. It is one of the few places in the world where a person can ski powder in the morning and snorkel a warm-water reef in the afternoon. For the ancient Hawaiians this intriguing conjunction served as the backdrop for a supreme test of physical stamina, a foot race from the beach to the summit where the participants would gather as much snow as each could carry and race back to the beach. He who returned with the most snow won. I am told this practice continues into modern times, but pick-up trucks have been substituted for bare feet, and the bed of slushy ice returned to the beach is used to chill beer.

During the last ice age, when Mauna Kea was active, lava that reached the surface under the mountain’s glacier cooled quickly, contracting into fields of rock with a hardness just short of mild steel. These fields became quarries for the making of Hawaiian adzes used to carve, among many other things, voyaging canoes. Adzes from Mauna Kea’s unique stone are found in archeological digs all over the Pacific.

Mauna Kea sports a lake made entirely of melted permafrost. Its steep sides are the last hiding place of the Hawaiian Silversword, one of only a few plants to survive at such altitude. The mountain is so barren, rock strewn, that it immediately reminds of Mars–in fact, we are told, the Martian rovers were tested here before launch.

Of late it has become an astronomer’s heaven because its crest is supremely dark, clear and dry. In 1963 University of Arizona Astronomer Gerard Kuipers was kicking around the islands in search of a suitable site for his new infrared telescope. He had settled on Maui’s Haleakala at 10,000 feet, but from there he spied an even higher peak well above the clouds on the Big Island, the top of Mauna Kea. An astronomical survey showed this spot to be ideal for seeing. The mountain’s mid-ocean location meant light pollution was nil; the tradewind flow over the top had traveled thousands of miles undisturbed, and so was consistently clear of turbulence; and the dryness of the air made possible sub millimeter and infrared observations (water vapor easily absorbs these light frequencies).

That it was in Hawaii didn’t suck. That there was no road to the top did.

But the Chamber of Commerce saw in this astronomical interest an opportunity for economic stimulus; state funds were made available for road building and summit infrastructure. Much to Kuipers’ chagrin, the University of Hawaii (not his University of Arizona) was granted the right to build the first observatory, which was dedicated in 1970.

Since then international interest has sprouted a mountaintop observatory farm some two dozen telescopes strong. The Subaru telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan; the Canada France Hawaii Telescope; Gemini North, sponsored by the United States, the UK, Canada, Chile, Australia, Argentina, Brazil; the United Kingdom infrared Telescope; the Sub-Millimeter Array sponsored by Taiwan and the United States, just to name a few. Then there are the privately funded Keck I and Keck II telescopes, whose 33 foot diameter mirrors make them two of the largest of their kind in the world. (Note: by way of comparison, a 33 foot mirror makes stellar objects 4 million times brighter than those observed with the unaided eye. These are the scopes that have allowed astronomers to increase the estimated number of galaxies in our universe from billions to trillions.)

Telescope farm at the summit of Mauna Kea

Telescopes Labeled

The bus rumbles up Saddle Road, always climbing, and we learn that the lush grass valley surrounding Mauna Kea, which contrasts so sharply with the naked lava flows further down, is due to the age of the rock. Barren lava fields adjacent north Kona poured forth from Mauna Loa (“long mountain”) to the south as recently as the 1800s, and even flows 500 years old are still glossy black with barely a tuft of grass. But 45,000 years of wind, sun, and their combined decaying forces have allowed the flows of Mauna Kea to revert to soil. “This grassland was once entirely covered with a native forest,” says Greg, our guide and driver, through a microphone head set. He’s tall, thin, graying, has been leading this tour for ten years. “But Cook’s pigs and Vancouver’s cows mowed down the saplings without which the forest couldn’t regenerate.” We are passing through Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle raising operations in the United States. Then the US Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area–the country’s largest live-fire, war games theatres. On the Big Island everything is big.

At 7,000 feet we are beginning to be in cloud. We turn in for dinner at an old sheep ranch, and here the cool, the grey sky and settling mist remind one of northern California, a connection encouraged by an old stand of Monterey Cyprus at the camp’s border and the Eucalyptus along the road. Those of us who started the day in shorts don long pants and we all put on sweaters. Dinner is barbequed chicken, corned bread and hot coffee. Greg hands out the complimentary parkas and wool mittens and we are soon on the move again.

Dinner at the Sheep Ranch

We pause but do not stop at the visitor’s center at 9,000 feet. Here starts a dirt road (“Graded three times a week,” says Greg) that is so rough I think my teeth may jar out onto the floor. Conversation ceases; we all grab our seats. No one laughs when Greg rounds a particularly sharp corner with the question, “Anyone afraid of heights?”

At 11,000 feet we pass the Hawaiian adze quarry, at 12,000 the permafrost lake. Just beyond this we disembark, at my request, to see a lone Silversword, fenced as protection against the infinitely hungry mountain sheep. “There are now fewer than a thousand plants on Mauna Kea,” says Greg. The group is baffled by such a stop on a stargazing tour and only one other man takes a photo. “What’s that?” I ask Greg, pointing to a stunted plant nearby with the overall look of Manzanita. “Don’t know.” says Greg. “I’m a star guy. You a botanist?”


The road is nothing but switchbacks and a mountainscape pimpled with cinder cones and the equally cone-like terminal moraines left over from a long melted glacier. Suddenly a patch of snow on a north-facing slope; then another. Then we make our last turn to the summit and the great domes of the telescopes come into view.

First impressions are almost too confusing to relay. My one, small step from the bus into this alien world feels like that of Armstrong’s. I am feeling giddy from the height and a desire to boulder hop must be consciously suppressed. Then there’s the cold. Even on this windless evening it bites through my running shoes, squeezes the blood from my hands, notwithstanding the setting sun at the horizon, big and orange as a bonfire. Clouds are so far beneath us I first mistake them for the ocean they cover. The rounded, redish-blackish ground, pre-historic pumice belched from the earth’s core, is now the foundation on which sit sleek, silvery, space-age machines that peer into the deepest parts of an ageless sky. I am on the verge of recognizing this as a beautiful, cosmic irony when I notice I am drooling and faint. “Slow down and breath,” says Greg in my ear. I don’t appear to be moving; I do appear to be breathing. Yet, I feel as if I might float away.

Giddy at the Summit next to Gemini North

The Subaru Telescope watches the Sunset

The sun reddens and drops behind the horizon of cloud without the green flash some have anticipated, and as if on cue, the dome of Gemini North begins to rotate. Then soundlessly the vast flaps of her shutters roll back, and other doors, skirts around her waist, lift. Inside, the telescope revealed hangs upon light blue scaffolding that gently moves to a specific position and stops as if waiting. Other doors on other observatories open. We are in a field of giant, mechanical flowers, each moving slowly to face its own invisible sun where it sits, waiting. The workday will soon begin here, but it is not yet quite dark enough for seeing.

Then in accelerating dusk the headlight of Venus and dim Jupiter soon after. Sirius in the south and twinkling Canopus further down. I find Arcturus in the west, which turns out to be Mars; my identification of Spica is actually Saturn. And then, without further fuss, it is full night. The sky comes on as if switched, and stars are countless. Immediately Greg is calling for us to leave. His telescope will be set up back at 9000 feet where he does not need to take breaks from his lecture to feed us oxygen and where the coffee will stay hot long enough to reach the cup. I do not want to leave. But my head is buzzing and I can no longer feel my feet. I turn, thinking with some shame that I will be the first back on the bus, but it is already full, the engine running.

Greg’s eleven inch telescope seems puny compared to the mountain-top behemoths, but it is enough to see that Venus, now partly between the earth and sun, is not a headlight at all but a crescent moon. Saturn’s rings push out like great ears, and to the right, two bright spots of light, the moons Europa and Titan, hang poised as if on the end of a string. This group, seven times further from us than the sun, is the current target for NASA’s most ambitious landing mission.

Greg’s “lecture”, we learn, is really theatre. With animation nearing dance he tells the story of all the constellations in view, starting with the zodiac and moving onto the Big Dipper, Orion, Corvus and that great ship in the south. Excitedly he points out stars with a green laser, becoming something between a frenzied child and a frothing preacher.

“Orion went HUNTING one day, and do you now what he was HUNTING?” he asks us.

A long pause. We’re not used to being questioned about the sky.

“A bull,” someone hesitantly answers.


“The Sisters,” I say.

“NO! Good guess, but WRONG WRONG,” says Greg. “He was HUNTING WABBIT! THIS ONE!” And he points to Lepus at Orion’s feet and traces out the stars. Cute eh? This hunt pisses Zeus right off because the wabbit was the favorite pet of the Pleides, so he set Taurus after Orion with a Scorpion chaser!”

“No way!” protests a voice from the dark.

“OK. Ok. You’re right.” Then Greg tells the more accepted story.

The coffee is poured, and we stomp our feet against the cold as Greg focuses in on his finale, low on the horizon and twinkling madly.

“This is Canopus!” he proclaims. “Did you women ever get a diamond like this?”

Someone giggles.

“No kidding. Big rock, big rock. If it were moved to our solar system, it would fill all the space from the center to Mercury–it’s 65 times larger than the sun, 13,000 times brighter.15 million carats of bling bling, ladies! If it were our sun, we’d have to orbit 9 billion miles away for it to appear the same size. But who cares for that–ain’t she pretty from up here!”

And indeed she is, flashing like a christmas bulb above the tallest mountain in the world.

Star Trails above Mauna Kea

  1. October 3, 2012 5:11 pm

    I can’t wait to go, I’m going in August 2014. Check it out and tell me what you think: If you tell me I’m crazy, you’re right:). But alas. Loved reading about your experiences there!


  1. EPICNESS….Pt. 2… « Road To Mauna Kea

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