Ascent to the Heavens: The Summit of Mauna Kea

The ascent to the top of Mauna Kea shouldn’t be taken lightly. At an elevation of 13,796ft (4,205m), it is inadvisable to do it without first stopping at Onizuka Visitor Information Station to acclimate, about 30-45 minutes. The problem, of course, is that there is a paved road to the summit, providing too carefree and quick a means to reach the top. Only 4WD vehicles are permitted to go all the way up, all others recommended to remain at Onizuka. That hasn’t stopped the intrepid (and stupid) from trying.

We wanted to experience sunset at the summit and see the night sky of millions of stars. Not wanting to drive all the way back to Hilo in the dark, I decided it would be better to take the 4WD van tour that conveniently started from Arnott’s Lodge where we were staying, the only one originating from Hilo. And what a brilliant tour it was, our guide Dino Morrow possibly the best we’ve ever had. Even though he came to the islands 13 years ago from San Diego, for all intents and purposes he is Hawaiian, in his speech, dialect and soul, a bruddah.

The final stretch above Onizuka was highlighted by spectacular views of giant cinder cones, side-lit by the low-hanging sun, and the impressively broad outline of the still active Mauna Loa. It’s easy to see why Mauna Loa, an enormous shield volcano that stretches the length of Hawai’i, is the emblem of the Big Island, for it can be seen from anywhere.

Mauna Loa
Mauna Loa
The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)
The moon projected onto a blank surface from a telescope (Onizuka Center)

The rarefied air and freedom from cloud cover are the reasons that more astronomical telescopes and observatories (four of them, none open to the public) have been set up here than anywhere in the world. Lots of cars and tour vehicles were already at the summit when we arrived. As we made our way to an overlook, my breathing became labored, though my wife experienced no such thing! Toward the east, we witnessed a phenomenon the likes of which we may never see again. Mauna Kea cast its great triangular shadow on the cloud cover, thousands of feet below, as the Great Pyramid would on the Saharan desert.

Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit
Shadow of Mauna Kea on cloud cover from the summit (click to enlarge)
Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea
Sunset, summit of Mauna Kea (click to enlarge)

On the way down, we stopped one more time at the visitor center for a laser light astronomy lesson by Dino. An almost full moon, one night before the super moon, prevented our seeing a true night sky, but the major constellations, Polaris, Mars and Saturn were visible. We arrived back at the lodge past 10pm, agreeing that this evening had been truly memorable.

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