On Top of Mauna Kea
Posted on: June 27, 2018 4:42 pm
by: Doug Smith
The summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii is 4207 m (13 802 feet). A road goes all the way tot he top, but the road past the 9400 foot elevation is gravel and 4WD is recommended. The road is reasonable, but it is steep and rental vehicles may not have the clearance for the way up, nor the capacity for gearing down nor braking for the way back down In wet conditions, 4WD is a requirement. Snow falls in winter and makes the road difficult and possibly closed to visitors
The summit area is a series of colorful cinder cones . It in a thin atmosphere (40% less oxygen from sea level) so anyone with health concerns is cautioned to be careful. We had two in our group with some potential for problem so we went for short hikes right at the summit only.
There is a 10km trail from the 9200 foot level all the way to the top. The National Parks Service lists this as an 8 hour hike with risks from high elevation, high winds, cold weather, fog, and exposure. We did see hikers on the trail and we would have liked to have done it too, but it requires a very early start, good weather conditions, and no health risk factors. There is also a shorter trail to high elevation Lake Waiau. It is the highest lake in the Pacific Rim. The lake is an anomaly for this altitude and for the high desert conditions, but geologists have found that the lake may be is fed by permafrost, replenished in winter. It may also have an impermeable layer of clay surrounding the depression. More information (link).
The summit area has the largest largest astronomical facility in the world, run by the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. There are 13 of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes right at at the summit. Canada, France, and Hawaii have a 3.6 m optical/infrared telescope that has been in operation since 1977 (more information).
Mauna Kea itself is the tallest mountain on earth, measuring 10 000m (33 000 ft) from the ocean floor to the summit. It was formed about 1 million years ago as a shield volcano, but it is dormant now. The last eruptions were in the form of cinder cones, but no activity has occurred for 4000-6000 years. Because of its elevation, the mountain was covered in glaciers 4 times between 20 000 and 250 000 years ago. This is a barren, rocky environment far above the clouds on the day we went to the summit.
Our drive to the top in a 4×4 was an experience full of wonder. We did a short hike toward the actual summit ridge on a cinder cone, done with quiet respect for this unique environment. A few images are provided here. Click on any image for a full-sized view.