ATOP MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — If you count from sea level, we were 13,796 feet up. Plenty high enough.
But if you count from the ocean floor? My Big Island tour group was shivering in thin air atop Earth’s highest mountain – 33,500 feet from its waterlogged base to pumice-laden peak.
And that measure seemed the more meaningful, because this place seemed to have far more to do with outer space than with anything terrestrial.
As the sunset painted clouds tropical hues of mango and papaya – this was still Hawaii, after all – the nightly crowd of parka-clad, camera-snapping tourists looked like so many geckos swarming around a dozen enormous observatories dotting the top of Hawaii’s highest peak.
Amid tomato-red cinder cones, about the only thing that grows is the rare silver sword plant. The big crop atop Mauna Kea is telescopes, including the world’s two largest functional telescopes, with mirrors 33 feet across, at the W.M. Keck Observatory. (By way of comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope comes in at a measly 8 feet.)
Being here is much more than a chance to see a pretty sunset – though those can be amazing. It’s a bit like going to Cape Canaveral for a rocket launch. Every visitor to the summit of this dormant volcano is giddy, and not just from thin air.
“It’s a very high-powered, high-level group of astronomers here,” tour guide Greg Brown told our van full of visitors. “It’s big science!“
Hundreds of scientists and engineers support the Mauna Kea observatories, while data from the telescopes are transmitted worldwide to astronomers. One night’s use of a Keck telescope is valued at $50,000.
The Keck Observatory alone is credited with detecting more planets outside our solar system than any other observation post, and helped in discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, for which astronomers earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics. Just seeing this place makes you feel smarter.
Other observatories at the top represent partners such as NASA, the Smithsonian, governments from Japan to the United Kingdom and universities such as Cal Tech.
The high altitude – above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere – along with dark skies and dry, clean air attracted astronomers to Mauna Kea starting in 1964 when the state of Hawaii spent $42,000 to build the cliff-climbing road, the third highest in the U.S.
“Usually it’s so dry up here you can’t see your breath in the cold!” Brown told our group as our van headed up like a plane taking off.
Visiting Mauna Kea is a special thrill for science buffs, but don’t expect to peek through one of the big telescopes. And while most tour operators go up for sunset, the few observatories that welcome visitors close at 4 p.m., so unless you go on your own you won’t get in.
Even in a comfortable tour van specially built for the steep road, it’s no drive to the beach. As we climbed, Brown warned us of the hazards of altitude sickness.
“You might be short of breath, you might feel a little dizzy,” he warned.
If those symptoms, or headache, are severe, he said, “I have a little bottle of oxygen and I hook you up to Greg’s Oxygen Bar and get you down the hill.”
To acclimate to the elevation change, we’d stopped for a picnic in cypress woods near the 7,000-foot level.
Authorities urge summit visitors to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because of the steep, rough road and to respect the altitude at the summit, where temperatures often get down to freezing. Kids younger than 16 and anybody with health problems are strongly discouraged from going higher than the visitor center.
At the summit, we donned parkas provided by our guide. For my early-June visit, the temperature was in the upper 30s, with winds to 20 mph. Fingers quickly numbed. The wind was 83 mph a few days earlier.
The combination of excitement and low oxygen seemed to transform the tour group into giggly school kids, gawking at the summit’s moonlike landscape dotted with observatory domes.
I ran to get a photo of the mountain’s sunset shadow against clouds below, but quickly stopped when my heart pounded and breath ran short. But just stopping to gaze was rewarding.
“Oh, wow! Look at the clouds, and the clouds above the clouds!” said Shelley Burr, who was visiting from Seattle. “You don’t have words for this. It’s the top of the world!”