Mauna Kea, Visiting ‘The Mountain’

Story and Photos by Blaine Fergerstrom
Ka Wai Ola / April 27, 2008

Koa Rice leads the party of travelers to an ahu at the juncture where Saddle Road intersects with the road leading to the Mauna Kea summit. Ho’okupu carefully placed, she chants “E Ho Mai” and offers pule asking permission to visit the sacred summit. The only answer is steady makani and the sound of nearby heavy equipment.

Saddle Road is undergoing long-planned upgrade which will straighten and widen the once-treacherous, narrow, winding road. Finished sections are wide enough to accommodate four lanes, turning lanes, emergency shoulders and freeway signs advising of 55 mph speed limits, and other modern highway information. For those familiar with the old Saddle Road, the new look is disorienting. What used to be a very old, isolated, quiet place, now has many cars traveling at high speed, dodging construction equipment and traffic cones in the unfinished sections.

Rice finishes the ceremony by using a ti leaf to sprinkle ocean water dipped from a koa bowl over the visitors, and is similarly anointed by one of the party. The remainder of sea water is poured gently over the ahu. Protocol satisfied, the party continues up toward the summit.

Mauna Kea cinder cone with Mauna Loa beyond

Snow capped Mauna Kea cinder cone with Mauna Loa in the distance. Photo by Blaine Fergerstrom

Kahalelaukoa “Koa” Ka’ahanui Rice, a Gemini Outreach Assistant, has been working atop “the mountain” off and on for the past 10 years. Rice is well-known among all the telescopes’ staff. They greet her with hugs and jokes at every turn. She left 2 years ago to pursue love and life in Los Angeles, but returned after 18 months, missing her Hilo home and her first love, “the mountain.” She had come home for a vacation, but heard about the position with Gemini and decided to stay. She goes to the summit, “almost every day.”

Resembling a Swiss chalet, the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at the 9,000-foot elevation is home to the people who actually work at the summit. Featuring offices, a dining facility and cabins, scientists and technicians use the center to acclimate to high altitude before ascending to the top. Workers must stop here and spend approximately an hour at the center before proceeding to the summit. While waiting, they might have a meal in the dining room, check email, watch television, catch up with friends and co-workers. They also sleep in one of the cabins at the center when working for extended times at the top.

Jon Archambeau, a part-time tour guide and Gemini Virtual Tour Technician, points out that falling asleep at 14,000 feet would be disastrous. “At this altitude, there is very little oxygen to begin with, and your body takes in even less when you’re asleep.” If you fell asleep at the summit, your body wouldn’t get enough oxygen and you would could go into a coma. “You could die in your sleep,” says Archambeau, hence the Onizuka center cabins.

After a stop at the center for lunch and to adjust to the altitude, Archambeau gives a quick rundown on safety procedures for telescope visitors and goes over information on altitude sickness. Visitors must sign off on paperwork acknowledging the risks before continuing.

A check of weather conditions at the summit reveals 55 mph winds and 32° Farenheit temperatures with a high wind warning in effect. Conditions are considered fierce, even for seasoned veterans. Archambeau continues the tour to the Gemini telescope at the top while Rice waits at Onizuka.

Mauna Kea summit with snow reminds of an orca.

Snowy Mauna Kea cinder cones. Photo by Blaine Fergerstrom

The way to the top is a winding gravel road up through the clouds. Visibility is sometimes only 25 feet and Archambeau is forced to slow the 4-wheel drive vehicle to a crawl. In many places, there is no guardrail to prevent vehicles from going over the edge. In March 2007, two people died and another was injured when the brakes failed during their descent and the car plunged over the side at a hairpin turn.

Eventually, the clouds are surpassed and a lunar tableau is revealed. The landscape is so other-worldly, NASA once used the area as a surrogate moon for astronauts training to go to  the real one.  Numerous cinder cones dot cooled lava flows from ancient eruptions. Snow several feet deep covers the highest points and collects in pockets everywhere, even in April.

The guide points out that ancient Hawaiians valued the specialized lava created by intensely heated molten rock emerging from the earth to be exposed to the extreme cold of prehistoric glaciers which once covered the area. Steel is treated similarly to harden it for use in tools like knives and chisels. The basalt created in this fashion became extremely dense and hard, perfect for making stone tools.

Hawaiian artisans braved the extreme conditions armed with only kapa and ki clothing to spend extended periods working in ko’i quarries near the summit. Many Mauna Kea adze quarry sites have been identified and together are preserved as a national historic landmark.

At the actual 14,000-foot summit, there are no telescopes; only a U.S. Geological Survey marker, a stone ahu and human footprints in the cinders mar the spot. The telescopes sit on a ridge-line below the summit in a loop.

The Gemini Telescope is operated by a consortium of seven countries: United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Gemini actually refers to two telescopes: Gemini North sits on Mauna Kea, surveying the northern hemisphere, while its twin, Gemini South, sits atop a remote mountain in Chile, surveying the southern skies. The twin telescopes feature 8-meter (26.6-foot) mirrors and are linked by network and scientists at both locations collaborate regularly.

Gemini has been credited with discovering the heaviest stellar black hole and the most distant object in the solar system. The images and data gathered by Gemini have been deemed as good as, and sometimes surpassing, the Hubble Space Telescope.

Once inside the Gemini dome, away from the icy 55mph wind, the outside noise is muffled and replaced by the hum of machinery. Only a few people are actually working in the dome and the facility seems almost deserted. Compounded by the disorienting effects of the high altitude, in this rare air, the surroundings can make one feel as if they are aboard a spacecraft in a Stanley Kubrick movie, hurtling toward the outer reaches of the universe. One feels “spacy.”

Caution tape marks off areas where maintenance work is under way, and it is everywhere. Electrical cords and high-pressure hoses criss-cross the floor. Equipment on rolling carts is everywhere. Loose tools dot the work areas. Plastic sheeting covers sensitive equipment, helping to shield against migrating dust. Heavy steel beams anchored to thick concrete pads support the massive structure and its heart, the telescope mirror. Hard hats required. It is through this jumble that Archambeau guides his visitors, watching every step to insure safety.

Above all, at the center of the dome, is the white tubing frame that carries the mirror and its reflectors. The sides of the dome and the viewing shutter are closed now, during the daytime tour, but will be opened at night when the telescope is doing its work and to help keep the temperature of the mirror stable for better optical conditions.

Workers at the summit move slowly to conserve energy and oxygen. One is quickly overcome by only the slightest exertion. Workers carry snacks and learn “pressure breathing” techniques to help combat the altitude sickness. In the industrial setting of the observatory interior, it can be dangerous.

Effects of the condition include light-headedness, impaired judgement, headache, and clumsiness. The feeling is compared to having “a couple of martinis.” When one starts feeling impaired, it is advised that they rest, have a snack to raise blood sugar levels, and take deep breaths, exhaling through pursed lips, to drive oxygen down into the reaches of their lungs.

Archambeau checks visitors’ oxygen absorption level and heart rate with a clip-on fingertip monitor. 89% for oxygen and a 92 beats-per-minute heart rate are deemed “pretty good” for a summit malihini. That would mean the blood contains 89% of the oxygen it would carry at sea level. A resting heart rate at sea level would be between 60-80bpm.

The tour continues outside with Archambeau slowly driving the loop road, stopping to identify observatories and prominent features of the summit, and to allow photographs taken through an open car window. It is blowing too hard and takes too much effort to get out of the car to take pictures.

As the group rounds the last turn, preparing to head back down to the Onizuka center, a startling sight greets them: A tourist in a rent-a-car has driven to the summit, and is now standing in 55mph wind and 32° temperatures, trying to take pictures. The man is dressed in aloha shirt, shorts and slippers, apparently unprepared for a summit visit.

Anyone can drive to the summit, unimpeded, but unescorted, unprepared visitors can pose a danger to themselves, those working at the summit, other summit visitors, and to the summit area, itself.

Archambeau stops by Onizuka to pick up Rice, then stops at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, just below Onizuka. The visitor center is operated by the National Park Service and is primarily to advise visitors as to conditions and preparations for visiting the summit. On this late afternoon, three small buses full of Japanese tourists are parked at the center. They are part of organized tour groups that visit the summit several times a day, says Rice. “They come up to watch the sunset,” she says.

The visitor center also sells souvenirs like pins, snow globes containing tiny observatory models, books, and star charts. It also carries warm clothing, gloves, snow hats and some food and sundries for the scientists living next door.

The tour ends back in Hilo, one street above the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center where a small tech park houses remote viewing centers and offices for nearly all the observatories atop Mauna Kea. Gemini scientists do most of their research work from this low-elevation location, leaving chiefly a maintenance presence inside the structures at the 14,000-foot summit, helping to minimize the impact of their operations on “the mountain.”

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MAUNA KEA MEETINGS

Public meetings are planned next month on the Big Island to obtain input on a Comprehensive Management Plan for Mauna Kea.

The University of Hawai’i, through its consultant Ku’iwalu, will hold meetings in:

  • Waimea on Tuesday, May 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Waimea Community Center.
  • Kona on Wednesday, May 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Kealakehe Elementary School.
  • Hilo on Tuesday, May 13 from 5 to 7 p.m. at Hilo High School.

These meetings, the first of two rounds, will provide information on the purpose of the Comprehensive Management Plan, re-affirm key management issues raised over the past few years, and seek the community’s recommendation on appropriate cultural and environmental management guidelines pertaining to the Mauna Kea Science Reserve. Organizations that would like Ku’iwalu to give a presentation regarding the CMP are encouraged to call (808) 539-3580. http://www.kuiwalu.com

http://www.hawaii.edu/maunakea  http://www.maunakeacmp.org

Mauna Kea Observatories
http://ifa.hawaii.edu/mko

  • University of Hawai’i 0.6m Telescope
  • University of Hawai’i 2.2m Telescope
  • United Kingdom Infrared Telescope
  • Gemini North Telescope
  • Canada-France-Hawai’i Telescope
  • NASA Infrared Telescope
  • W.M. Keck Observatory
  • Subaru Telescope
  • Submillimeter Array Radio Telescope
  • James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
  • Caltech Submillimeter Observatory
  • Very Long Baseline Array Radio Telescope

Visiting Mauna Kea: http://ifa.hawaii.edu/mko/visiting.htm

Gemini Telescope: http://www.gemini.edu

Blaine Fergerstrom photos taken on this trip up Mauna Kea:

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