Every single person we met who had visited the Big Island of Hawaii prior to our trip had the same suggestion: We should go to Mauna Kea. This volcano, which last erupted about 4,600 years ago, is now dormant. It is not expected to erupt again for many centuries. It is the highest mountain in the world at 33,476 feet, if you measure it from its base, which is well below sea level. Its peak is 13,803 feet above sea level. That’s really tall, no matter how you slice it. Because of that, the sunsets and stargazing and sunrises are unparalleled. So we added it to the itinerary.
The altitude is not for sissies. It’s highly recommended that if you plan to go up near the summit, you should stay for at least a half hour at the visitor center at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy to get acclimated. This facility is named for Ellison Onizuka, an astronaut who was born in Hawaii and died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. At 9,200 feet, it would be higher than I had ever been in my life without an airplane. Even Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel in Peru, is “only” at 7,970 feet, and many people who go there wind up requiring oxygen and immediate medical attention.
I didn’t relish the idea of altitude sickness, so I planned to follow all the rules. According to altitude.org, you have to breathe faster at high altitudes, in order to maintain the necessary amount of oxygen in your blood to preserve your vital organs. It’s important to drink a lot of water and not head up there on an empty stomach. Healthy people start entering the risk zone for altitude sickness at 8,200 feet.
And sure enough, during our 6 mile drive to the visitor center, I began to get really loopy. I got a headache. I started humming the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. (Ear worm! You’re welcome!) I have no idea why I landed on that particular song. I wasn’t making much sense, and the world around me felt exceedingly foreign. I got a little nauseous, and extremely sleepy. I’m glad Dear Husband was driving. I’ll never understand how people hike on trails up there. Madness.
Nerd that I am, I took our pulse oximeter on this trip. We purchased this handy tool in the early days of the COVID pandemic. It measures the amount of oxygen in your blood. Normally, I have a reading of about 97, give or take. But on this day, it dropped to 80. That’s a little scary.
It became increasingly clear that if this was how I felt before even arriving at the visitor’s center, I certainly was not going to make it to the summit. This would have been a crushing disappointment if it had been one of the 325 days per year that this area has clear skies. But no. We were socked in with fog and clouds, and in fact the authorities were about to decide to close the steep, unpaved road to the summit, because they were expecting a snowstorm up there. (If you’re planning to go the distance on this mountain, you need a 4 wheel drive, and for Pete’s sake, check the weather beforehand.)
No gorgeous sunset for us. No opportunity to view more stars than we had ever seen with the naked eye. No chance of gazing upon the mountain’s many astronomical observatories. (We’d have only been able to see them from the outside, anyway. The public isn’t allowed in, especially since the pandemic.)
As I sang about Gilligan’s fateful three hour tour, I was only able to form one coherent thought. I hoped I’d make it to a lower altitude before I threw up the delicious Kalua pork with cabbage that I had eaten just prior to the ascent. (I made it. Barely.)
Some other bits and bobs about Mauna Kea: Its summit is now home to the Mauna Kea Observatories, located at 13,796 feet above sea level. The thirteen existing telescopes are becoming increasingly controversial, because the “Astronomy Precinct” where they’re located is within land that’s protected by the Historical Preservation Act. This area is very culturally significant to native Hawaiians.
Mauna Kea is the most sacred summit in Hawaii. It is seen as the region of the gods. In ancient times, it was forbidden for all but the highest chiefs and priests to visit this place. The volcano represents the beginning of life on earth. 223 archeological sites have been identified here including 76 shrines, a few of which we had the privilege to see from a respectful distance. To this day, many rituals are still performed on Mauna Kea. Toward the very top, there is a bluish-green lake, and many Hawaiians have the tradition of taking the umbilical cord of a newborn child up the mountain to place it near Lake Waiau to symbolize the family’s connection to the Earth. Since the lake is considered to be the place where spirits enter and leave the world, many chiefs are buried near there.
Eight years ago, when it was revealed that there were plans for a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) to be built on the mountain, a lot of protests broke out. Their concerns were not only for the desecration of the land, which was bad enough, but also for the potential damage to the fragile ecosystem and the contamination of the water supply. Thirty-three Hawaiian elders were arrested during a protest in 2019. The Supreme Court of Hawaii decided in 2018 that construction could continue, but that three smaller telescopes would need to be removed, and that the TMT would be the last telescope to be built on Mauna Kea.
I have mixed emotions about this controversy. I am a firm believer in science and in progress, and this is a prime location for telescopes. The air is thinner and drier and there is no light pollution, so we are able to get an unprecedented view of the galaxy, and that will teach us much. We’ll be able to gaze at parts of the universe that we’ve never seen before. The current telescopes on the mountain helped locate the first Super Earth. A group of scientists working on this mountain were awarded a Nobel Prize because of their research related to supernovae, dark energy, and the expansion of the universe. Those are valuable contributions to our knowledge base, and they will become increasingly valuable because we seem to insist on destroying this planet. (Don’t get me started.)
On the other hand, the wholesale theft of land on these islands, and their subsequent environmental devastation as evidenced by the disappearance of Mauna Kea’s forest on its lower slopes due to sheep and cattle ranching as well as sugar cane plantations, is a remnant of colonialism of which we should be ashamed. Viewed through that lens, the TMT is a symbol of the rampant injustices that have been visited upon native Hawaiians since the late 1700’s. At what point to we start righting these wrongs?
I hope a compromise can be reached. Scientists, by nature, are very sensitive to the environment, and I’m sure they’d agree with the natives that they need to mitigate their impact wherever possible. At the same time, sacred sites and rituals must be preserved and protected. There should be certain guarantees that the people will directly benefit from the existence of this telescope. Through the compromises made on this mountain, we are reminded that it’s very important not to trample upon the environment and the past as you look toward the future.
Most of the photos from our visit are predominantly grey and uninspiring due to the inclement weather. Here are the few that seemed worth sharing. Believe me when I say that the one with me in it makes me look only about half as stoned as I felt. Purple haze, dude.
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