Have you ever climbed Mt. Whitney or driven to the summit of Pike’s Peak?
Have you ever felt like walking on the Moon or Mars?
So you’ve never been 10,000 feet or more above the Earth, outside of a controlled environment like a commercial jetliner or spacecraft?
There is one place on Earth where you can experience all of the above.
At the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii you enter into a foreign world.
My journey started in West Hawaii, or Kona, but that’s where I lived for 12 years. You can also get to the mountain from the Hilo side, it’s just a matter of finding the Saddle Road that traverses the island from East to West.
The Saddle Road takes you through a pass between the imposing shield volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, both 14,000 feet in elevation and massive in structure. This road is your introduction into a strange new world of old lava flows and cinder cones, probably what the Earth was like millions of years ago.
There is a small sign near a road that heads up the steep slopes of Mauna Kea. This is the only way up to the world’s premier scientific stargazing platform. You will first be astounded at the remote desolation and the dramatic views as you rise higher. At the 9,000 foot elevation there is a visitor’s center, which is a good place to stop and let your body acclimate. You can get refreshments, there are bathrooms, and lots of interesting trinkets to purchase.
As you climb, the environment changes rapidly. It is nothing like the beaches along the coastlines, most have experienced similar landscapes in desert regions much closer to sea level, but beyond this point the environment changes dramatically. Sparse grasses become non-existent in the redness of the iron-rich soils, and the vistas extend for tens of miles. And in each direction you can see the line defining the edge of the island.
There is the constant reminder of Mauna Kea’s unrestrained volcanic past all around. Cinder cones that once spewed lava are only a reminder of the violence from which these calm islands rose out of the Pacific. All that exists of man-made ventures is a sinuous tape of asphalt that ascends to the high ground. And then, you reach the summit. Everything that surrounds you is now below your feet and the only buildings have unconventional shapes and materials. You have entered an other-worldly habitat, a place you are unfamiliar with, but the slim balance of life has as yet to reveal its presence.
Only when you step out of your vehicle are you reminded of the unique and perilous neighborhood you’ve arrived at. There will likely be a strong wind, gusting as much as 50-60 mph, and the air temperature without the wind hovers around 30 degrees year round. The wind-chill is tearing the warmth from your skin and you begin to think of shelter.
Remind me again – where are we? Weren’t we surrounded with palm trees and warm beaches not long ago?
I had the opportunity to visit the Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea earlier this year. I’d been to the visitor’s center with the family a couple of times but continuing to climb another 5,000 feet in elevation wasn’t recommended for children, and due to its remoteness, I just never had the opportunity to visit the summit prior to this trip.
In my younger years I did some rock climbing and mountaineering, so I had experienced the world above 10,000 feet on many occasions. I lived at 6,000 feet in Lake Tahoe and at 9,000 in the Rockies above Colorado Springs. I skied and biked in both locations and never noticed any unusual physical effects, except for the biting wind in the summer months in the Rockies. My experience on the summit of Mauna Kea was very different on this trip.
After the cold and penetrating wind stings your face you make a direct line for the door to the telescope and there is some relief from the conditions in the astronomy office. But my business was to inspect conditions inside and around the structure that houses the enormous telescope apparatus. We went through an air lock much like I envision on an alien planet, and I was reminded of the harsh conditions beyond the walls of the climate-controlled air of the office.
You see, the temperature inside, where the telescope is located, needs to be extremely stable in order to minimize expansion and contraction of the telescope parts. Focusing on stars and galaxies light years and trillions of miles distant requires precision equipment.
Cold works good for metal telescope parts because that’s the environment at 14,000 feet. The housing for the telescope remains a the same temperature as the outside air, the ever-present wind blows through the cracks in the skin of the structure and the temperature inside is 30 degrees (F), minus the wind chill.
Oh yes, I had to climb a ladder that was housed in a tube that took us 100 feet above the ground. We needed to inspect part of the roof structure, and although I had been breathing oxygen for about ten minutes, the experience inside the tube was frightening. Cold wind swirled around me and I had to stop twice just to stop my head from spinning. Even with oxygen the experience was humbling.
One thing that stood out was the hardiness of the scientists and engineers that lived and worked in this unique environment. Their precision with everything they did was habitual and they cared for us, knowing we were just temporary visitors from the land of palm trees and beaches 14,000 feet below.
We climbed the ladder and pushed through a hatch that led to a small platform on the outside of the structure. I would have loved to stay outside longer, but the height, the cold windy condition and the lack of oxygen told me to get business taken care of and get down on the ground.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, another notch on the bucket list. It was unusual and at times a little scary, but, now that I look back, no more scary than any carnival ride I’d been on before.