Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hawaii – View From the Top of the World

During our stay on the Big Island of Hawaii, we tried to spend our time avoiding the typical touristy things and get to the out-of-the-way places that only the locals (and the tourists with the time and proper vehicle) visit, but the guided trip up to the top of Mauna Kea was something we didn’t want to miss.

At a height of 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea is the tallest island mountain on the planet. That’s because the base begins at the bottom of the ocean…about 16,000 below sea level. Yeah…at ~30,000 feet from base to top, it makes Everest look a bit small (Everest may be the tallest, but the base starts at 17,000 feet). At the top of the mountain, several countries have set up some of the largest telescopes in the world. The atmosphere is particularly clear here, there is little turbulence, and a Hawaiian ordinance significantly reduces light pollution. All add up to a fantastic view of the stars.

Our journey began at our home base about a half hour south of the city of Hilo. Because most tourists stay on the Kona side of the Big Island, we had to meet up with the tour bus at the top of the Saddle Road (so called for being between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea). Now, everything I had read prior to our arrival suggested that the Saddle Road could be a bit dodgy. Built hastily in 1942 by the US military, grading wasn’t exactly a high priority. It was so bad at one point, that rental agencies made it a point to prohibit travel on the road. But, other than a 6 mile stretch where they are regrading and widening it (it was a bit tricky even in a Jeep) the updated road is actually quite pleasant.

At the crest of the Saddle Road, you’re at ~6500 feet and the view of Mauna Kea is quite stunning. The wind was so fierce here, that we watched birds struggle to do more than fly in place. And, the temperature went from a balmy mid-70s to the lower 60s. Bit of a change when you’re used to wearing shorts and t-shirts. At the crest is the Pu’u Huluhulu cinder cone…which translates to hairy hill. And, that’s pretty much what it looks like in amongst this otherwise barren landscape. It’s one of the only locations in that area that has soil, so it’s sort of a green lump of a hill on a rocky terrain. It is also the home of Hawaii’s worst toilet. Imagine, if you dare, a toilet you can smell from thirty feet away. Luckily, I only had to do #1, but I was sorely tempted to challenge the anger of the gods and do my business on their hairy hill. I thought better of it, given the fact that we still had a significant ascent ahead of us (if you’re going to piss off the gods, do it after you visit their house, not before).

After we chased down the tour bus that passed us by, we started our tour by having a rustic meal (stew and cornbread) at an old abandoned sheep farm on the side of the mountain. It gave us a chance to meet some of our fellow tour mates. While in Hawaii, you are sure to meet folks from all over the world. You can usually pick them out by the fact that they are (A) at a tourist attraction, (B) carrying a camera, or (C) pale. While on this particular tour, we met people from California, Germany, and Washington D.C.

After the meal, we began the long road up. Our driver, Greg, explained to us the possible effects of elevation sickness during our trip (lightheaded, dizzy, nausea, giddiness, etc). The visitor’s center is a deceiving six miles along the road. However, with all of the switchbacks required to go from 6500 to 9000 feet, it feels a bit longer. We made a brief stop at the center so that Greg could file some paperwork, then began our trip up. It’s another nine miles or so to the top, but only the last couple of miles are paved (to reduce the chance of dust affecting the telescopes). So we entered the roadwayand Greg put our bus into 4-wheel drive. The adventure began.

That four-mile stretch of bumpy road was pretty rough. Hairpin bends, sheer cliffs, loose gravel roads, and a driver who was a bit too comfortable for my liking. As it turned out, he’d been doing this for nine years. That’s more than long enough to become complacent about safety! But, he was fine and so were we. When I later asked my wife about his driving, she told me that she was purposely not paying attention. If only I could have done that! By the time we reached the paved road, there was a collective sigh of relief from the tour group. We were all thoroughly shaken…literally.

Near the top, we stopped briefly to get a close up of a couple of the lower level telescopes and a nice view of the telescopes that were still another couple hundred feet above us. There’s nothing stranger than seeing an altitude sign on the side of the road (very common in Hawaii no matter where you are) that says 10,000, 11,000, 12,000…pretty cool. By the time we reached the top, my wife was contemplating remaining in the bus. The altitude had begun to slowly affect her around the 9000 foot mark and had only gotten worse. Now that we were at the top, she was feeling very dizzy. But, it was hard to deny the draw of the setting sun.

An important thing to note is that we were now wearing the tour company’s parkas at this point. Though not as windy as it had been at 6500 feet (the top actually rises out of the trade winds) the combination of 10 to 20 mph winds, low temperature (~40 F), thin atmosphere, and slowed metabolism meant that it was feeling pretty darned cold. And, judging by the snow (yes…snow…in Hawaii!) still hanging around the summit, it wasn’t just a “feeling” of being cold. On a side note, it’s important to realize that the ancient Hawaiians used to go up the mountains and hang out all the time…in little more than leaves and feathers to protect them from the cold! Ho, brah, dat's da kine!

The actual summit (pictured with the snow on the side) is considered hallowed ground by the locals, so we were asked to not go up there. My wife and I were perfectly content to hang out by the bus and enjoy the view. However, by the looks of it, there were a half dozen or so people up there. I’m not convinced they were locals, but at least there were none from our tour. That kind of thing irks me, but at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me. The Hawaiian people have been stepped on for centuries and it seems that a sense of self has only returned in the last 30 or so years, shortly after Hawaii became the 50th state. If you don’t know any of the history, it’s really quite fascinating…and rather sad from both sides of the story. As much as Hawaii was taken from the Hawaiians, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests it was given away by the Hawaiians in control at the time. The Hawaiian culture is much more apparent (outside of the commercial mecca of Honolulu) than it may have been even fifteen years ago and the calls for independence aren’t necessarily loud, but they are there. It may seem strange to “mainlanders,” but it’s important to know that Hawaii was a kingdom unto itself before it became a state.

After sunset, we returned to the visitor’s center where we were served some awesome chocolate chip cookies and mediocre hot chocolate. My wife recovered immediately from the altitude sickness and we were entertained by Greg and his telescope. He gave a great oration on the astrological constellations. The only down side to this part of the trip was that the moon was so bright, it actually limited what we could see! However, he gave us great views of a binary star system, a star cluster, and Saturn with its rings clearly visible. Greg was really a friendly, personable, pleasant guide for the tour. In my mind, he has one of the best jobs on the planet…and every one ends with a phenomenal sunset!

I don’t want to be a commercial, but I hope you have a chance to do this someday. There are several companies that offer the summit tour, but we went with Hawaii Forest & Trail, which was recommended by our guidebook (the one written by Hawaiians, not the Fodor’s or Frommer’s). They’re all relatively the same price, but I can tell you that I thought our tour was worth every penny. And, there’s nothing to stop you from driving up to the summit yourself (4x4 and big brass ones highly recommended), but this is one I wouldn’t recommend doing on your own…at least not the first time.

It’s quite an experience. Pictures and words can only hint at the beauty and grandeur and sheer awesomeness. If you find yourself in Hawaii, make it a part of your top ten to do list. You won’t regret it.


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