Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea, Hawaii Island. Photo:
Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Kirk Lee Aeder.

We’re standing just below the summit of a massive volcanic mountain on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The Hawaiians called it Mauna Kea, which means “White Mountain” for the snow that covered its barren slopes when they first saw it nearly 2,000 years ago. From sea level, where we began our trip, the mountain rises slowly to 13,796 feet. But if measured from its base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea reaches 32,000 feet and is the world’s tallest mountain.

We’re wearing heavy parkas with hoods and gloves. Still we shiver in the dry, near-freezing air.

The sun is shooting prisms of psychedelic light across the evening sky as it prepares to sink from view. We’re a small group standing in the shadow of one of Mauna Kea’s 13 working telescopes. Housed in white dome-shaped structures, the telescopes, operated by astronomers from throughout the world, make up the planet’s largest astronomical observatory. Below us a bank of white, fluffy clouds isolates the summit from the world below.

The silence is profound. Nothing but a few insects survive here. There’s no ambient noise. No leaves rustle through the trees. No tiny creatures scurry through the underbrush. Save for the hushed comments of human observers and the occasional growl of a four-wheel drive vehicle, there’s no sound at all.

It’s not possible to stand on the summit of Mauna Kea without contemplating life on another planet. It’s an otherworldly experience, like none other available in Hawaii.

The last stop before the summit is the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy. Located at the 9,000-foot level, this is a good place to stop for a while to acclimatize for the rest of the trip. From there the 30-minute trip to the summit is mostly unpaved, rough, steep, winding and dangerous. The trip down is even more hazardous with a speed limit of 25 mph. Only four-wheel-drives are permitted beyond the Onizuka Center.

A guided tour of the summit is the safest and most educational way to go. Several companies conduct tours, which can last seven or eight hours. Because of the very thin air at the summit, children under 16 years of age, people with respiratory, heart, and severe overweight conditions are not advised to go beyond the Visitor Center. There is a hiking trail from the visitor center to the summit.