Mauna Kea: Ascending to the Highest Point of the Hawaiian Islands

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The island of Hawaii is the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands. The archipelago is named after it. It’s often referred to as the Big Island, which perfectly describes its size. The large area is home to some of the world’s most famous active volcanoes that are all very different from each other. That’s why we chose Hawaii instead of any other island. During our stay on the island, we managed to visit two volcanoes, and those were our most memorable and exciting trips.

The main reason why we came to this remote part of the planet was to ascend Mauna Kea – the highest point of the Hawaiian Islands. This dormant shield volcano is 4,205 metres high. It’s famous among the astronomers from all over the world, and here’s why.

The Keck Observatory

At the peak of Mauna Kea, or, more specifically, at the height of 4,125 metres, is the world-famous astronomical Keck Observatory. It has the largest infra-red telescopes that study the sky at night using lasers. Their location is perfect for space observation: due to the height, the sky above them is crystal clear, so astronomers from different countries come here to examine stars and planets 300 days a year. The Keck Observatory has large twin telescopes, each reaching 8 stories in height and 300 tons in weight. They are equipped with mirrors 10 metres in diameter, each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that all work in unison. Each segment was custom-made from special glass-ceramic by the German company Schott. They can be configured and controlled individually, enabling incredibly precise observation. In 2001, an interferometer was installed between the telescopes that allowed to receive a combined image from them, which is equivalent to a telescope with an 85-meter mirror. Around 125 people are working at the observatory, not counting the astronomers that can wait for over a year to get access to the telescopes. Apart from the Keck twins, there are 9 other telescopes on the peak of Mauna Kea that institutes and universities use to observe space. One of them is the famous Japanese Subaru Telescope equipped with a thin mirror, 8.3 meters in diameter, that can take images of unparalleled quality among ground-based telescopes.  

Best Time for the Ascent

Visits to the peak of the volcano are only allowed during the day. Entry to the observatory’s territory is prohibited during the night, at least according to the official site. Only the station’s science staff is allowed into the telescopes. You can take a peak in one of the twins, but only on a dedicated platform. You won’t be allowed any further. If you want to watch the clear starry sky with your own telescope, go to the visitors’ centre at the height of 2,804 meters. We came here one night when there was no mist at all and saw an entirely clear starry sky. Not only could we clearly see constellations, satellites, and stars, but even the Milky Way, all without any special optics.

Weather at the Top of Mauna Kea

It’s best to take pictures of the famous telescopes at sunset or dawn. Put on some warm clothes if you do that, however, because at night the temperature at the peak of Mauna Kea can get as low as –10 °C. The peak is covered in snow almost all year round. During the day, the temperature rises no higher than +3 °C. Make sure to check out the weather forecast before going to the volcano. Even though the sky above the observatory is almost always clear, weather conditions can change, and you can find yourself in a thick fog with absolutely no visibility. This happens especially often in winter.

Who may not Ascent to the Peak

Due to the relative ease of access, anyone can ascend to the peak. However, the height of 4,205 meters can hurt the body. You see, we can still deal with the lack of oxygen at the height of 3,500 to 4,000 metres with more rapid breathing and a larger volume of inhaled air. At 4,205 meters, the air contains 40 % less oxygen, so the body can’t deal with the rarefied air on its own. In case of a prolonged stay at this height, medicines and oxygen tanks are required. Height tolerance is very individual, but there are several cautions to be aware of before ascending Mauna Kea.

– Ascent is prohibited for pregnant women.

– Children up to 16 years old shouldn’t mount the volcano because their growing organism can’t quickly adapt to the change of environment.

– People with cardiac or respiratory issues should also think twice before going to the peak.

– After diving, 24 hours are required for complete recovery before ascending Mauna Kea.

– If you have any health issues relating to breathing, blood vessels, or the heart, if you are prone to headaches and heightened blood pressure, it’s best not to make the ascent for the sake of safety.

If you do decide to make the trip, be sure to stop at the visitors’ centre at the height of 2,804 metres and just stand or sit for 30 minutes for some minimal adaptation. You can also learn about the weather and air temperature at the peak there.

The Peak of Mauna Kea: Our Ascent

To get to the top of this volcano, we rented an off-road AWD Jeep Wrangler. A car like this is required for the trip. Light vehicles are prohibited, although nobody actually checks what you’re driving. However, the visitors’ centre has many photos of cars that couldn’t handle the road on their way up or down and crashed. Evacuation in case of an accident will be very pricey. We had to make several more stops after the visitors’ centre because our car engine was overheating. The same happened to the breaks on our way down: constantly hitting the pedal on the steep road made them “burn”, and we had to make stops for them to cool down. The rarefied air couldn’t cool down the engine and the breaks quickly, so it took us a total of 2 hours to get to the top.

At the very peak, we could feel the full impact of the height: even the smallest movements made us breathe heavily, we felt a dull headache and couldn’t adequately fill our lungs with air. We stayed at the peak for about 40 minutes but felt the headache for a whole day after the descent. It only went away the next day.

To get to the top of Mauna Kea, the highest point of the Hawaiian Islands, and see the legendary telescopes that help humanity make essential discoveries in space was a dream come true for us. Don’t be afraid to dream. One day, your dreams will surely come true.

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