We booked a trip with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. To get to Mauna Kea you have to travel on Saddle road. I believe there is only one rental car company on the entire island that will allow you to travel on this road with your vehicle. It can be quite dangerous to drive on if you are not used to it. The trip almost got cancelled for today. As of 11am this morning the summit road was closed to all traffic due to bad weather conditions. It reopened just in time to continue the tour as planned.
We were picked up in the early afternoon from Kona and started our drive to the mountain. Shane was our driver and tour guide. He was extremely knowledgeable about the mountain and the island. He had a good sense of humor and made the trip entertaining. There were 12 people on the trip. It was a very sociable bunch, we all talked about where we were from and how long we would be staying on the island. It turned out that over half the bus was Canadian.
The Guys From Angry Planet Join Our Trip
There were two guys from Toronto who were there to do some filming for the OLN (Outdoor Life Network) channel. They are shooting footage for a show called Angry Planet. They were on Vancouver Island where we live not that long ago. They were doing some filming of these deep caves in an very isolated spot near Port McNeil. They must be really remote, we have lived there most of our lives and never even knew these caves existed. The episode will be on TV sometime in the spring. They will be back on Vancouver Island this winter to film storms at Wikaninish Inn in Tofino. They are on the big island of Hawaii for a week.
In addition to Mauna Kea they will be filming the Volcano and several other things on the Big Island. These guys live quite the life. They have traveled to every corner of the earth and to the most amazing spots. You can imagine what kind of stuff they are looking for as content for the Angry Planet. They may have to fly somewhere on a moments notice because a hurricane has been predicted for a certain area. Sometimes they can be away from home for as many as 300 days out of the year.
Working Our Way To The Summit
We were lucky to have a very clear view as we traveled along the saddle road. At this point we were already high in elevation and often the clouds or fog can roll in. We could see Mauna Kea off to our left and got an excellent view of the long mountain of Mauna Loa to our right. Mauna Loa is the world’s largest volcano. It rises about 4 km’s above sea level. It’s flanks descend a further 5km’s to the sea floor and it’s great mass further depresses another 8 km’s into the sea floor. It is also one of the world’s most active volcanoes, it last erupted in 1984. It’s 20 year cycle means that is is now overdue, lookout!
We made a quick stop at a rest area. Here we saw a wild pig. The island also has wild donkeys and turkeys. None of the animals are native to the island. Here we were all outfitted with arctic parkas and gloves in preparation for going up the mountain. On the way up the summit road we saw some interesting landscape full of volcanic cinder cones.
Mauna Kea is only slightly higher above sea level than Mauna Loa, but its base descends deeper into the sea. It is the largest island mountain in the world, measuring 13,796 feet above sea level and 19,000 below sea level. So technically when measured from it’s true base to the summit it is taller than Mount Everest. Snowfall can occur from November to March. The mountain is a sacred site to the native Hawaiians. It is home to the snow goddess Poliahu.
We arrived at the visitor center which sits at 9000 feet. Here we were fed a light dinner that was packed along with us by our tour company. At the same elevation as the visitor site is the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. This is where technicians and astronomers acclimatize before heading up to the summit for observing. It was named in honour of Ellison Onizuka who was Hawaii’s first astronaut. Unfortunately he was one of the fatalities in the 1986 Challenger disaster.
It is a half hour drive from the visitor center to the summit. Within minutes of leaving the visitors center a huge bank of clouds rolled in. It is amazing how fast this happens up here. We were all very disappointed since our view was now blocked in all directions.
We could only see the immediate area around us for about 150 feet. We made a quick stop at the first large flat area of snow. There were people snowboarding, making snow men and having snow ball fights. People also come up to the mountain to load up the back of their pick up truck with snow. It’s a common thing to see people back in town throwing snowballs around.
Giant Observatories And Spectacular Views
Our driver decided we would keep making our way up to the summit and hope for the best. We stopped at the Canada/France/Hawaii observatory for some photo opportunities. At this point the cold actually felt quite refreshing. The next area we went to was where the majority of the observatories were located. We could only see the large ones right near where we parked, everything else was covered in cloud. We got lucky, within a snap of a finger the cloud blew over and revealed the most incredible sunset and the other observatories. It was the most beautiful site, certainly something in the top of our experiences.
Fierce winds were what had moved the clouds. You could feel your face freezing, some people’s camera equipment was freezing up. If you had your hands out to work your camera they were now completely numb. The elevation is not something to be taken lightly. By this time most of the group was complaining of feeling dizzy and experiencing heavy breathing. The summits elevation is not that far off from the height at Everest Base camp.
This picture is of the two guys from The Angry Planet. If you get a chance to see the Hawaii episode on T.V. you will see this scene. We were hoping we would see ourselves in it. The closest we got was a slightly silhouetted image of Jack as the sun was going down.
Our driver Shane is very proud of the giant icicle he found. He announced that he had received a message over his radio. They were predicting a lot of black ice on the road down from the summit. Just at the moment we could see a nasty bank of cloud rolling in. The weather is not something to be messed around with up here. Shane called out to everyone to come back to the van, we need to leave now. The summit hosts the worlds largest astronomical observatory and has many types of telescopes that are the largest of their kind in the world. There are currently 13 telescopes operated by astronomers from 11 different countries. The telescopes are amazing. Some have mirrors in them a meter thick, the mirror alone costs over a million dollars!
The Big Island Of Hawaii Is One Of The World’s Best Places For These Observatories
The summit is above 40% of the earths atmosphere and above 90% of the atmospheric vapor. This makes it an ideal place for observing astronomy.
Many other factors make it the most ideal location for astronomical viewing. The number of clear nights, it’s proximity from city lights, the low population of the big island and the island wide lighting ordinance to name a few. We wondered why they had weird looking yellow street lamps here. Any white ambient light on the island is kept to a minimum ensuring the darkest skies. It allows observing of the faintest far away galaxies.
The summits 20.N latitude allows you to see most of the northern and southern skies. The fact that it is a shield volcano makes for relatively easy road access to reach the summit. The mountain basically has every positive aspect that makes it the world’s best observatory site. If you want to know anymore about the 13 different telescopes on the summit, check out this website. www.ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/
Star Gazing Through A Very Huge Telescope
After descending from the summit we headed for a spot the tour company uses for star gazing. It was fairly cold since we were still quite high in elevation, but definitely nothing like we experienced on the summit. They set up two telescopes. For all you techno geeks we got to do the viewing through a Celestron Nextar 9 1/4″ telescope capable of 30-350X magnification. All I know is it was one big telescope.
The telescopes have a GPS unit in them. All you have to do is tell them what time it is and they take care of the rest. They know where they are and what is where in the sky at that given time. Shane would just punch in preset numbers that corresponded with what he wanted the telescope to view and it would move itself into position. We took turns viewing several different things.
The first was two huge groups of stars called a double cluster. It looked like a sheet of black velvet covered in tiny little sparkling diamonds. The next object was famous crab nebula. Next we viewed the Orion Nebula. It hosts a star nursery. We could see four distinct bright stars which have a bunch of dust and gas in the center of them. They provide the fuel to produce new stars or possibly even planets sometime down the road, like a couple of million years, give or take a few! We saved the best for last, the moon. It was about half full. You could see all kinds of detail around the darker and lighter spots on it. The craters were very visible and spectacular to look at.
A Creepy Drive Back To Town
The drive back into town is long and goes along dark eery roads. Shane decided to enhance the creepy feeling by telling us about some of the Hawaiian legends. There are supposed to be what are known as “nightwalkers” They are past generations of deceased spirits that walk the ancient trails of the Big Island. He said you can call them by whistling. He warned us not to do it! You should avoid eye contact at all costs, it is recommended that in their presence you should lie down on the ground face down on your stomach. The story made it an entertaining and tense ride back.
Overall it turned out to be a fantastic tour and well worth the money. We would definitely recommend doing this tour, it is certainly something unexpected to experience in Hawaii.