On a recent holiday on the Big Island of Hawaii, I had an opportunity to make a trip up to the summit of extinct Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for "White Mountain", for good reason - lots of snow up there!). At 13,796 feet, this is the perfect venue for some of the world's largest telescopes. (Actually, the mountain is the tallest on the planet if you measure its total height from the ocean floor - 32,000 feet). The trip up is a bone-rattling experience, and the "road" is murder on your car's suspension; only 4-wheel drives are permitted to make it to the summit, so I chose to visit the mountain with a group, guided by an astronomer. A 2 1/2 hour drive, slowly winding our way up the mountain, past ancient volcanic cinder-cones in hues from black to red, old lava flows, black rivers of rock, and rolling hills cattle country in between. Half-way up there is even a U.S. Army base.
At the 9,000 ft. level we had to make a half-hour stop at the Visitors' Centre to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude, where our guide took the opportunity to fill us in on the various observatories we would see on the summit.
A dirt-road winds its way up the remainder of the way, and soon you encounter snow on the ground, making a stark contrast in color - blinding white on pitch-black lava. And then they slowly come into view - all those world-famous telescopes lined up along the summit ridge, white against a deep blue sky - awesome! 40% of the earth's atmosphere is below you, making stargazing a treat. This of course also affects the amount of oxygen available - breathing becomes laboured and the simplest tasks, like closing a zipper on your parka, take on a difficulty you'd never dreamed of...At this altitude, the winds are extremely strong and the temperature...let's put it this way, with about 4 layers of clothing plus a thick parka and gloves, I was still shivering!
But what an experience, to be standing next to these beautiful instruments...names I'd known for years and dreamed of seeing - Keck, Subaru, Gemini, Canada-France-Hawaii - their white domes stark against the dark blue sky and the black lava on the ground. We stayed on the summit for the sunset, at which point you can actually see the shadow of the massive mountain itself thrown against the clouds you're looking down upon. As the sun was setting, both Kecks started to open their shutters and rotating their domes, ready for a night's work.
After sunset, we drove down to the 9,000 foot level for 2 hours of the best stargazing I've ever experienced. The winter Milky Way a gossamer band across the sky, millions of stars and galaxies - plus a few shooting stars and satellites thrown in for good measure. No "twinkling" of stars here - steady viewing, and a lovely zodiacal light to boot. All in all a memorable experience and a renewed respect for the scientists working in this hostile environment.