Until today, whenever I had cause to think of Hawaii, my mind would immediately drift to beautiful aquamarine water, palm trees, high rise resorts and lurid shirts. A 14,000-foot, snow-dusted volcanic peak with limited oxygen certainly wasn’t on my radar. As I said, that was until today.
The Mauna Kea volcano, at 13,796 feet (pronounced mah’ nah kee’ (y)ah) on the Big Island of Hawaii tops its nearest neighbour Mauna Loa (pronounced mah’ nah loh (w)ah) by a mere 90 feet to claim the title of Hawaii’s tallest peak. In fact, if you decide to include the part of Mauna Kea that’s below the ocean, then it actually becomes the tallest mountain in the world.
Many astronomers consider Mauna Kea to have the best viewing conditions on Earth. This is due to the fact that it’s usually above the cloud cover and also because it sits on an island in the middle of a bloody big ocean which buffers it from normal air and light pollution.
As a result, Mauna Kea’s summit has ended up with an array of the world’s best observatories. Mauna Loa misses out because it’s still active. Obviously not a great idea to build a piece of equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars on something that has been designed to explode.
Our plan for the day was to head to the top of Mauna Kea and film with astronomer Heidi Hammel at the world famous W.M. Keck observatory. The ‘Keck’ is widely considered to be the world’s most advanced observatory – a massive, exciting toy that Heidi gets to play with a couple of times each year in order to better understand the distant planets Neptune and Uranus. We were also hoping to shoot a legendary Mauna Kea sunset.
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We hit the Hawaiian bitumen at 6am out of Kona and headed inland on a narrow road that twisted along the saddle between the two volcanoes. Our cameraman extraordinaire Andy had an incredible range of music on his iPod for a man of his age and we cruised to ‘The Best of the Eagles’ as the scenery changed from Australian looking Eucalypt forests to vast, black volcanic plains and ultimately to the base of Mauna Kea itself.
At 9,000 feet we arrived at the visitors centre and astronomers’ lodge for an hour of compulsory acclimatization before ascending to the summit. As we pushed on, it became pretty clear that someone had done the right thing by ordering 4WD’s. The road is unsealed and steep – VERY steep. At 10,000 feet we burst through the clouds and I immediately thought of that moment on a jet just before they switch off the seatbelt sign and hand out bad biscuits. The view was simply stunning. At 12,000 feet, the mountain changed to an almost extraterrestrial world with no vegetation, bright red volcanic soil, and incredible lunar-like cinder cones.
At about 13,000 feet, we turned a corner and all at once the massive white domes were revealed. I knew there were loads of them but was still blown away the scale of the place and the sheer size of the observatories. Imagine a bright red, mountainous mini golf course for the gods and you’re kind of on the right track.
The summit was cold but the view breathtaking. Speaking of breath taking, something you immediately notice at this altitude is the lack of oxygen. There is apparently only 40% as much at this height as there is at sea level and you really notice this when you try and do anything physical like carry a tripod or camera.
The first thing the gang at the Keck observatory did was give us a briefing about altitude sickness. They take this very seriously and so they should; high altitudes like this can cause the life-threatening conditions pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid on the brain) and in general just make you feel really light-headed, weird, and nasty.
By the end of our day on the mountain, all of us at some point would experience the light-headed, the weird, and the nasty.
The interior of the Keck Telescope is cavernous and just generally impressive all round. It’s so big that we had to catch an elevator (not unlike the ones in office buildings) just to make it halfway up the dome. As it was daytime and the observatory obviously wasn’t operating, the team agreed to put on a ‘show’ for us and danced the mirror around as we filmed. It’s really hard to get your bearings inside this place when it’s going off and doing its thing because literally everything around you, in front if you, and above you is moving – and all in different directions. The tiny gantry beneath your feet is just about the only part of the building not trying to spin. It’s a long way from the ocean for motion sickness but I have to admit I came very close.
Our interviews with Heidi Hammel both inside the observatory and on the summit were great even despite my oxygen-lacking brain’s struggle to ask intelligent questions. Heidi has an incredible energy and passion for what she does as well as that elusive ability of being able to communicate complicated science clearly. The photographs she had on hand from her previous night’s observation of Neptune were so clear and detailed that you would think they were of the moon – not an object that is actually a few billion miles away.
It truly is a miracle that the people who work in this place can concentrate on all of the difficult and technical tasks required of them and achieve what they do under these circumstances. I really do take my hat off to them.
After a few well earned minutes on an oxygen tank each, the crew and Heidi headed back down the mountain and our cameraman Andy and I decided to sit it out for that elusive sunset.
Now, Andy has been in the game of capturing beautiful sunsets for many years and whilst I knew this one was special, I wasn’t quite sure how it rated in the true scheme of things. The answer came on the way back down the now dark mountain in the silence between ‘The Best of the Eagles’ tracks 5 and 6.
“You know what? That was the best sunset I’ve ever seen.”
Then I guess it will make the cut!