Star-struck on Mauna Kea: An icy sunset above the clouds and vog

It's icy up here, waiting for sunset. When I booked the trip, they asked me what size parka I needed. Peculiar question for a trip to Hawaii. But the summit of Mauna Kea, at 13,796 feet, can be brutal. Not just freezing but windy too.

Hawaii's Big Island is one of the few places in the world where you can snorkel all morning among yellow tangs and parrotfish, then head up the mountain in the afternoon, 20 miles away as the crow flies, to watch the sunset from a mountain peak sometimes dusted, sometimes adrift, in snow.

The experience is made rarer still by the presence of 13 observatories, built on this peak because the air is cleaner - less dust, less "light pollution" - than anywhere else on the habitable Earth. It's a spot strangely free of the vog, or volcanic fog, that churns from another point on this same island, not 60 miles away, where Kilauea Volcano's active lava flow belches great billows of smoke as it meets the sea. Just about anywhere else in the world, a beautiful sunset would be considered the curtain call of a day well spent. On Mauna Kea, it's only the prelude to a sky show unsurpassed, where the plot turns on the secrets of Polynesian navigation that guided those ancient sailors to these islands.

I booked the "Mauna Kea Summit & Stars Adventure" with Hawaii Forest & Trail (808-331-8505;, an award-winning tour operator that limits its group size to 10 - the number of passenger seats in its big-windowed vans. The tour costs $176, tax included, and lasts about eight hours round-trip from the company's office in Kailua-Kona.

Most of the trip is spent in the van, riding through terrain that changes from old lava flows to cinder cones set in alpine pastures as the guide - Greg, a former fisheries biologist, in my case - touches on geography, Hawaiian history and contemporary local politics. They pass out the parkas after an early dinner under sweet smelling pines, taken at an old rancher's outpost. The air is chilly at this stop but not yet unbearable, and mist-filled, as wispy clouds, like ethereal family pets, move in.

As the quest continues, we break above the clouds, driving on what Greg tells us is the third-highest paved road in the world - until the pavement parlays into gravel. We pass snow plows at ease in a parking lot; two terminal moraines, the calling card of glaciers; and pickup trucks headed back down the mountain, their beds packed with snow and festooned with shovels. Hawaiians, it seems, enjoy snowball fights on the beach.

We arrive at the summit 10 or 15 minutes before sunset. Considering the elevation - going from sea level to almost 14,000 feet can induce altitude sickness - and the cold, that's enough time to look around a bit and take a few photos.

Ancient Hawaiians revered this place, and some locals still maintain a sacred site here. The other marvels are all those observatories that, combined, are far more versatile and collect 60 times more light than the Hubble Space Telescope, according to Dr. Gareth Wynn-Williams, professor of astronomy at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. They were built here because for 300 days a year this air is the cleanest in the world, Greg says, partly because of an atmospheric condition called afternoon inversion. The clouds stay below, trapping moisture and dust. And sure enough, the air is so dry here that despite the cold you can't see your own breath vaporize.

Except for the telescopes, the landscape up here is empty, an earth of raw brown-black that doesn't give off dust underfoot. There are no birds, no trees, no blades of grass, just the clouds and the sky and the bright orange or drab green of the hand-out parkas.

More interesting than the setting sun itself are the sunset colors reflected for a fleeting few moments on the westward sides of the stark white observatories. At the same time, off the east side of the peak, Mauna Kea casts an eerie pyramid-shaped shadow in the clouds below.

The observatories don't let the public look through their telescopes, though, and visitors aren't allowed on the summit after dark. So once the sun sets, back down the mountain we go. It's a disturbing junket on the steep, winding gravel road with sheer drop-offs, made even more harrowing because vehicles may only use their flashing hazard lights. Visiting vehicles can't use their headlights until they're back down to the 9,000-foot level at the visitor's center, the next stop on our odyssey.

Under the milkiest possible Milky Way, Greg sets up our own telescope, serves hot chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, and launches into a discussion of Mauna Kea's unique place in the universe. He says we can see a good percentage of the Southern Hemisphere's stars from here, and during certain months both the North Star and the Southern Cross are visible. He points out constellations difficult or impossible to see on the mainland, speculates on the existence of extra terrestrial life and lets us one at a time peer through the scope at famous stars, each a brilliant diamond against a black velvet sky.

Polynesian navigators, he says, once believed that each island had its own star; they had only to sail toward it to arrive. And so it was that some 1,600 years ago, expeditions set forth from the Marquesas.

After about a month at sea, they landed in what we now know as the Hawaiian Islands. They were followed 500 to 600 year later by groups from Tahiti and, 700 to 800 years after that, by everybody else.

The down side to Mauna Kea: Even people who've traveled without incident to high-altitude destinations on the mainland might find themselves dizzy, gasping for breath or experiencing even worse symptoms on this excursion, perhaps because here the trip is directly from sea level.

The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, which manages Mauna Kea, cautions pregnant and obese travelers, those with respiratory, heart or circulatory problems and anyone under the age of 16 against going to the summit. Scuba divers are warned to wait at least 24 hours after diving before making the trip. Responsible tour operators pass those warnings along to their clients - and carry an emergency supply of oxygen, just in case.


Hawaii Forest & Trail is only one of several means of reaching Mauna Kea. Here are some others.

DRIVE IT YOURSELF: You can ascend Mauna Kea on your own if you rent a 4WD vehicle, the only kind permitted to reach the summit. Check weather conditions before heading out. They'll close the road if the weather up top is too bad.

The decision to DIY assumes certain risks. You'll be behind the wheel in unfamiliar circumstances - steep, hairpin turns on lava-gravel surfaces - and under the influence of an extreme change in altitude from sea level to almost 14,000 feet. (I've traveled to the higher altitudes of Rocky Mountain ski areas and even to Pike's Peak and never experienced the light-headedness and dizziness that I did on Mauna Kea. I attribute that to the fact that in the Rockies, I started out at a higher elevation, whereas on Hawaii I was starting from sea level.) On the ascent, plan to stop at the visitor center for an hour or so to allow your body a chance to acclimate . If you go up to watch the sunset, you'll be driving back down to about the 9,000-foot level to the visitor center in the dark with only your flashing hazard lights to show you the way. Only from there on down can you use your headlights.

BY HELICOPTER: Impossible. They can't land there.


Mauna Kea Summit Adventures: The Sunset and Stargazing Tour ($185, tax included) departs from several Kona-side locations in big-windowed mini-coaches and lasts eight hours or so. Their professional guides use 11-inch Celestron telescopes and laser pointers for the star party. They provide parkas and serve a hot picnic dinner with choice of entrees. (888-322-2366;

Hawaii Volcano Tours: The Mauna Kea Summit tour ($165, tax included) picks you up and drops you off at your hotel or ship in seven-passenger SUVs. Their guides provide parkas and serve dinner and snacks during the evening. (808-966-6620;

Arnott's Lodge and Hiking Adventures: Arnott's Famous Mauna Kea Hike - Sunset and Starshow ($70 for lodge guests; $110 otherwise) takes about nine hours and departs from Hilo, making a grocery stop on its way to the visitor center for a half-hour acclimatization break. They make time at the summit for a short hike to it highest peak before retuning to the visitor center for a star party where the guide hands out binoculars and directs attention with a laser wand. You bring your own warm clothing and buy your dinner at the grocery stop. (808-969-7097;

INFORMATION: Contact the Onizuka Center Visitor Information Station, 808-961-2180; For weather reports call 808-935-6268.

Toni Salama:

© 2007, Chicago Tribune.