Posts Tagged With: summit

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I’ve rarely felt more like an astronomer than I did during my postdoc in Hawaii in the early 1980’s, freezing my butt off and oxygen-starving my brain atop Mauna Kea at 13,800 ft (4200 m) above the Big Island’s tropical beaches. Its resident telescopes — six at the time, something like 14 now, depending on how you count — have always evoked a strong emotional resonance in me. I’ve written about it before (click here) but MK is always worth a revisit.

Our motivation this time was a visit from Laura and Brian, our old friends from Honolulu, who despite their decades in the islands had somehow never made it to the summit. Fortunately our Lincoln Behemoth Navigator has four wheel drive, so up we went, not without a little wariness: conditions at the summit were reported as below freezing temperatures and nearly 50 mph (80 kph) winds. We did have the good sense to bring along long pants and assorted sweaters and jackets.

Our first stop was the visitor center at Hale Pohaku at 9200 ft (2800 m) altitude. That site was chosen carefully: it is just below the elevation at which altitude sickness sets in for those who are susceptible to it. We stayed long enough to put on warm clothes, use the facilities, and — in my case — purchase my new favorite teeshirt and cap:

Maunakea 2019-025

I worked at the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), whose name you can see on the cap and whose relative telescope mirror size you can at the upper right on the shirt. (Imparting this fact to the cashier got me a 10% discount on my purchase, which pleased me no end.) At the time I worked here, UKIRT’s 3.8 m mirror was the largest on the mountain; now it is not even close. Here is what it looks like from the outside.

Maunakea 2019-020

I spent some 200 nights inside that dome.

The view at the summit is spectacular and rather Martian-looking, an expanse of lifeless rusty volcanic rubble and cinder cones.

Maunakea 2019-013-Edit

Maunakea 2019-008-Edit

But we couldn’t linger; the weather wouldn’t allow it. Here is a worker chipping ice off one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-007

…and here are some icy stalactites hanging off another:

Maunakea 2019-018

And if you want to get up close and personal with the weather, here is what the guardrail of the summit road looked like as we parked in the lee of one of the domes:

Maunakea 2019-021

As I said, we could not linger.

There is a lot of controversy at the moment surrounding Mauna Kea’s astronomy enterprise. There are very advanced plans to build the largest telescope of them all, the Thirty Meter Telescope, known as the TMT. For my non-metric readers, that is a mirror nearly 100 feet across, a truly giant and enormously capable instrument that would break new astronomical ground but take up a very visible spot on the mountain. But the island hosts a vocal minority of activists who view all of the telescopes — and certainly this planned one — as a desecration of a sacred place: Mauna Kea reaches to the sky, close to the gods. Their view is certainly not universal: there are many Hawaiian traditionalists who feel that since their ancestors were voyagers, the telescopes on the mountain are another form of voyage, honoring the ancient tradition by sending our eyes and minds to the stars. Needless to say, I subscribe pretty strongly to this view. But as a result of the uproar there is a real question as to whether the TMT will be built here; the planners are seriously consider siting the telescope in the Canary Islands (where there are already several other observatories) to avoid the controversy.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Tallest Mountain on Earth

…is not Mount Everest. Though it is a bit of a cheat: Mount Everest, at 29,029 ft (8848 m) is indeed the highest mountain on Earth above sea level, but it sits on a plateau that is itself at an elevation of a ¬†good 15,000 ft (4500 m) or. So measured from its base to its summit, Mount Everest is a surprisingly second-rate 14,000′ (4300 m) tall. That statistic, of course, is rather cold comfort — emphasis on the “cold” — if you are actually standing atop Mount Everest trying to breathe.

No, the tallest mountain on the planet, as measured from its base to its summit, is Mauna Kea here on the Big Island. Again, you’ve got to be a little flexible with your definitions, because the base of Mauna Kea is the ocean floor itself, a good 15,000 ft (4600 m) below my feet as I type this. Mauna Kea’s summit is at an altitude of 13,796 ft (4205 m), which means that measured from base to summit it is roughly 29,000 ft (8800 m) tall.

Mauna Kea also has the more personal distinction of being the most important geographical feature in my life because of the many observatories at its summit and the many nights (~200) I spent using them early in my career. At that time, in the early 1980’s, there were four major observatories plus a couple of much smaller telescopes. Today, there are a dozen major observatories and a whole lot of controversy about whether building any more constitutes a desecration of the summit, which has Hawaiian religious significance. But the current controversy aside, the mountain holds a lot of history and emotional resonance for me, and so it was important that we make the pilgrimage to the top.

Getting to the summit is a lot easier than it was 30+ years ago because more (though not all) of the summit access road is paved. Even so, at that altitude you’re breathing only about 60% of the oxygen that you’ve got at sea level, so you’ve got to be very careful. Most of the car rental companies on the island forbid you from taking their vehicles to the top, a restriction that is frequently ignored by tourists, often without consequence, but sometimes to their extreme detriment when either their oxygen-starved engine conks out or their wheels lose traction on the unpaved lava gravel. (I should add that at that altitude your oxygen-starved brain and cardiopulmonary systems also lose traction; many people feel woozy and headachy and have difficulty concentrating; a few experience much more serious health consequences.)

You first ascend via paved road to Hale Pohaku, the mid-level facility that serves as a visitor center and dormitory for the observatory engineers and astronomers. Hale Pohaku sits at 9000 ft (2700 m) which, given the weather patterns of the island, is typically where the cloud layer lives that traps the island’s heat and moisture below. It’s cold and dry above that point, which is why the site is the best astronomy observing locale in the world. But that also means that you drive up through the clouds to get there.

Mauna Kea Summit-016

That makes for a nasty and dangerous drive, especially on the unpaved portion of the road, but also serves up a (literally) breathtaking panorama when you break through the clouds at the top and find yourself on a sunlit Martian dessert. As you approach the very summit the road is paved again; this is to prevent vehicles from kicking up dust that could get onto the telescope mirrors. (Which, needless to say, are exquisitely precise.)

Mauna Kea Summit-018That’s Mauna Loa sticking out of the clouds at the center of the frame. It’s the same height as Mauna Kea, about 25 miles ( 40 km) to the south. It does not host any telescopes for the very sensible reason that it is an active volcano. The dome at the right side of the frame is the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), where I worked for three years. It houses a 3.8 m diameter telescope.

I’ll close with a few more scenes from our visit to the summit.

Mauna Kea Summit-002 Mauna Kea Summit-020 Mauna Kea Summit-017 Mauna Kea Summit-001

The white dome at left in bottom picture is the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), one of the older observatories on the mountain. The silver dome is the more recent Gemini telescope, so named because it has an identical twin sibling on an Andean mountaintop in Chile.

Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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