The largest telescope in the world, the binocular 10 meter reflector of the Keck Observatory, is located at the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii. On the island there’s nowhere higher to climb, and there are few places on the mainland United States that are higher. Mauna Kea is an odd place, an ultra-prominent peak just shy of 14,000 feet high on an island the size of Connecticut 2,500 miles from the nearest continental shore. It’s very remote, and very high above the bottom of Earth’s atmosphere, both of which make it a fine place for an observatory. For the dryness, darkness, isolation, and atmospheric thinness, astronomers have flocked to the peak. Telescopes with names like Keck, Subaru, Gemini, CalTech, and Canada-France-Hawaii populate the summit. It’s an interesting place for anyone interested in geology or astronomy, and I elected to visit the summit on Friday.
Approaching the visitors’ center 9,200 feet up the mountain transports the visitor into another world from the island coast. Kilauea has been particularly active the past week, and the Kona coast has been shrouded in volcanic smog that stains the sky an industrial shade of pinkish-brown. Leaving the resorts of Kailua for the forested slopes of Hualalai, the vog gave way to authentic overcast, which in turn receded while ascending through the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. It doesn’t rain often in the saddle, and lava flows happen at a brisk pace for geology, leaving little but bushes and black rock. The final rise by road, halfway up the slope of Mauna Kea, rises quickly to the dry, rarified, and chill climate of high elevation, leaving the wet, muggy, and warm climate of the coast a distant memory.
The last touch of civilization comes in a warning. All across the information board at the visitors’ center are breathless reports about the hazards of the mountain. Always, the air is thin at the peak, only about 40% as dense as it is by the sea. The hazards of hypoxia – dizziness, exhaustion, dehydration, headache, poor judgment, and edema – are made clear, as is the fact that time and exertion at summit elevation make some of these symptoms likely and all of them possible. In the winter, the hazards of low temperatures and high winds are exacerbated. Snowstorms happen, as unbelievable as that seems looking into a sky as blue and blank as the Pacific water off the coast. There are many ways to get into trouble, the signs warn. The interloper is urged to be responsible.
Relative to the general population, I’m pretty young. I should be in better shape than I am, but my blood is rich with hemoglobin, my heart beats without drama, and my lungs do a good job of keeping the heart connected to the outside world. I’ve flown above 12,000 feet in an unpressurized glider before, and felt no ill effects from doing so. I know I’ll be working much harder hauling my body 2,000 feet higher than that, and I plan to linger for a time at the summit if possible, but it seems a journey well within my capability.
At 9:30 AM I departed the visitors’ center. The guide recommended budgeting no less than five hours for ascent and three hours for descent, and at that pace I’d return just in time for sunset. I didn’t like cutting it that close, but reckoned that the estimate was conservative and I could do better. On the way up, I limited my breaks for rest and picture taking, wanting to conserve as much time as possible for the summit. I had eight miles to go, and a 4,500 foot elevation gain, followed by the reverse, and I did not want to be on this trail after sundown. Responsibility favors briskness.
The trail is steep going right from the head, and it doesn’t let up. An average slope of 6° doesn’t seem so rough on paper, but the first miles are certainly steeper than average, and inclines always feel fiercer on foot than the math implies. After the initial burst of energy, progress was slow, and I breathed hard as I made my way up.
Mauna Kea proves that she’s a real mountain in these first miles. Like her sister volcanoes in the Hawaiian chain, Mauna Kea is a shield volcano, formed by lava weeping from a caldera and flowing with gravity until cool enough to stop. One by one, millennium after millennium, the lava flows add up until a peak emerges from the ocean waves. This makes for a gentle, monotonic rise, and a very different shape from the stratovolcanoes of the Pacific Northwest or the folded crust of the Rockies. From a distance Mount Rainier looks like a pyramidal monument, awesome in shape as well as scale, while Mauna Loa looks like a ski ramp that rises from the ocean and ends abruptly at 13,700 feet. Somewhere in my mind I’d tagged the big twins of Hawaii as not-really-mountains because of this peculiarity of formation.
I retract my prejudice. Mauna Kea is a real mountain, as real as any I’ve set foot on, and the exhausting nature of the climb is better proof of that fact than any numbers on elevation or prominence or average gradient magnitude. It’s rough, and it seems to go on forever. I keep climbing, glancing back every once and a while across the saddle to gauge my progress, and marveling that Mauna Loa never seems to change.
On any island other than here and New Guinea, Mauna Loa would be the end of the line for elevation. There’s nowhere higher on the continents of Antarctica and Australia. It’s almost as high as Mauna Kea, and the saddle between them never quite reaches a mile above sea level. That makes Mauna Loa another ultra, only 30 miles away from Hawaii’s true summit. There aren’t many places in the world where two ultra-prominent peaks stand this close together. Imagine Mount Rainier and Kilimanjaro standing at opposite ends of Long Island, and you get a sense of the weirdness of the island of Hawaii. Any changes in perspective for Mauna Loa are imperceptible, even while ascending her slightly taller twin.
More obvious are the cinder cones speckled about the highlands on both volcanoes. Mauna Kea isn’t just one mountain. It’s a cluster of peaks, mountains on mountains like goosebumps on flesh. Each cinder cone is a monument to an epic event of fire and liquid rock that once issued forth there, and there are dozens of them, each hundreds of feet high. The trail weaves between cones, and it’s possible to imagine that each might be the real summit. After several miniature peaks are passed, the feeling subsides, though it’s still unnerving to pass so much imposing rocky height and keep climbing.
Above 12,000 feet the edges of hypoxia start to nip at the mind. Hypoxia is a drug that takes time to kick in, and its effects aren’t immediately obvious. I woke up early, have been hiking all morning and into the early afternoon, and had only a light lunch that could fit in my laptop bag. This drowsiness that I feel, is it perfectly understandable exertion-induced fatigue, or is it my brain running rough, synapses being bypassed as the atmosphere leans my blood? I notice myself breathing harder, my feet seeming heavier, and I realize after a while that I don’t seem to be thinking as sharply. This concerns me, but not overwhelmingly so. I know what drug-induced euphoria feels like, and that this is usually the first subjective symptom I have of altered consciousness, and feel none of that right now. My nail beds are pink, and I can easily convince myself that the tingling in my toes is all in my imagination. This was partly true. I found out later that I was developing an impressive blister on my left big toe. Presently I came over another ridge, and saw the first telescope.
It was the Subaru telescope, and its housing was silvery and boxy. Soon the other telescopes resolved into view. There are 13 telescopes perched on terraces etched into the summit of Mauna Kea, mounted in domes and cylinders and cubes. The sky’s color had shifted to a deep blue, more like the blue of the ocean than the blue of a cat’s eyes, indicating how little of Earth’s atmosphere lay above the summit and how much lay below. The telescope complex is an impressive place, dwarfing the human scale, and dwarfed in turn by the scale of the mountains. Seeing the work of humans overshadowed by the work of nature provided another check on the awesome nature of this place.
Looking south, I was surprised by how far the clouds had progressed. When I started the hike, there was a fait veneer of cloud and vog clinging to the edges of the Hawaiian ultras like suds on a half-submerged dish. During the morning clouds trickled into the saddle, and by now there were a few puffs of cumulus passing by the observatory at eye level.
My mandatory descent time was 2:30 PM, budgeted to guarantee a daylight return, but I elected to turn back at 2 due to the clouds. I was unsure what weather they might be bringing, but didn’t want to take the unnecessary risk of running into a rainstorm, or worse, snow, on my way downhill. So downhill I plunged, past the telescope domes and past the cinder cones, down toward that cloud deck below me. Like the hike uphill, it seemed to take forever. Eventually I grew tired of ignoring the complaints of my back, and stopped to rest, watching the motion of the cloudscape in the saddle.
How should I describe the sight of clouds from the south slope of Mauna Kea? There are many metaphors I could choose from. The clouds were a blanket, swaddling the saddle away from the dry cool emptiness of summit land. They were slow-motion surf, rising and falling in waves like those pounding the land at Ka Lae. It was a net below me, the opacities woven like thick fishing line, the translucent spaces the gap between them. There’s some truth to these metaphors, but none of them fully capture the sight of this demimonde between the fast world of the ocean and the slow world of the land.
Endless forms came together and came apart. There were von Karman streets and fractal branches, peaks and valleys, swirls and puffs. Land takes thousands of years to move and ripple, even here in young Hawaii, and ocean waves take seconds. In the cloudscape, the motion of shape and reshaping is set to a rhythm of minutes, just right for the human mind to fully comprehend it. It was nice to just sit for a while, to breathe the thin air deeply and watch the shapes roll by.
Few people make the journey from the visitors’ center to the summit on foot, and fewer still do so in the winter. I encountered no other hikers during my journey, and as I rested I became aware of how silent the mountain is. Wind rustles and insects buzz occasionally, but other than that, there’s no source of sound other than your own breathing and heartbeat. Mauna Kea is a preternaturally quiet place. To the eye every detail is brilliantly illuminated by the Sun, but to the ear it’s a place as silent as space. The loss of the ear is the gain of the eye, and the character of the rocks and the cloudscape and the mountain to the south are rendered larger-than-life by the noiselessness. Seeing this motion, slow in the mountain and fast in the clouds, is a transporting experience, and after a few minutes of observing the scene in quiet it becomes difficult to believe that you’re still on the same planet where human civilization exists.
As the afternoon progressed I descended the mountain. The clouds flowed on to the west, moving back toward sea level with the Sun. After a time I’d followed enough switchbacks that the visitors’ center came back into view, unbelievably far below me still, but fortunately above the cloud deck. I made it back, dust billowing at my feet with each step, just in time for sunset. It was strange hearing so much speech and seeing so many people after my silent day alone, but good to be back where there air was thick and warm (relatively speaking) and where I didn’t need to worry about being stuck alone in the dark. I rested for a few minutes, taking stock of the day’s journey, and headed back to the Kona coast.