We had every reason not to go. The weather in Hilo, Hawaii, was unrelentingly bleak. A blanket of clouds and gray mist that sporadically turned to rain put a damper on this erstwhile tropical paradise and on our mood.
Besides, with visibility restricted to little more than an arm’s length there seemed little point in heading up the world’s tallest mountain. What new grayness would we see at the summit that we couldn’t see from the base?
But still the title intrigued us; “world’s tallest mountain.” And not by a whisker, either. Measured from its base, deep below the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea climbs to a height of 33,100 feet; roughly 4,000 feet above Mount Everest.
If we don’t commonly recognize Mauna Kea as the tallest it is probably because we can’t see most of it. The dry portion we actually get to play on rises just 13,796 feet above the waves. That’s still a respectable height and slightly taller than the Rockies’ Grand Teton. But you won’t need an oxygen mask to climb it. Oh, and there’s a road to the top.
Not a good road, mind you. At least not all the way up. The paved portion we intended to travel stops at an elevation of 9,200 feet. That’s plenty high enough to catch a good sunset and some of the best stargazing anywhere.
You can head higher but to do so requires a real 4-wheel drive vehicle (which we didn’t have) and some time spent acclimatizing to the thin air. More than a few overconfident visitors have set off for a summit sunset only to find themselves driving back down on twisting mountain roads while dizzy and in the dark. That’s not our idea of fun. And neither was paying a tour company to do the driving for us.
Instead we set our sights on the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy Visitor Center, conveniently located at the end of the asphalt.
After watching the sun go down from on top of the world we hoped to participate in the Center’s free nightly stargazing program. Located high in the atmosphere and far removed from the light pollution that plagues most modern nighttime skies, we were looking forward to seeing a spectacular stellar display. Assuming we could see anything at all.
From where we sat in Hilo, that didn’t look so good.
If not for the observatory’s web cam that showed remarkably clear skies at the summit, we almost certainly wouldn’t have made the trip. Still disbelieving, we set out into the mist.
And for miles upon miles we cursed that web cam. The only change we noticed was the scenery outside our window. As we climbed Mauna Kea the normally impenetrable leafy green jungle began to give way to areas of barren volcanic rock. The further we drove, the more the foliage receded. Eventually there was nothing left but an ashen moonscape. And, to our surprise, somewhat brighter skies.
We had left the jungle behind and were making our way through the clouds too. The rain had stopped and while the sun had not yet broken out we saw it for the first time shining through a shroud of mist.
A little further down the road blue sky poked through the gray. In small patches at first but then, like a fair-weather storm rolling down the mountain, it arrived in earnest and drove the dreariness away.
The clouds that had so threatened our excursion were now at our feet. We got out of the car to look down at them and had one immediate thought: damn, it’s cold.
Even on Hawaii the air is frigid and gusty at 9,000 feet above sea level. We had packed windbreakers and fleeces for our next stop in Alaska. We never thought we’d need them in Hawaii. But we did.
Bundled up as best we could we watched the sun descend into the clouds. With darkness approaching we made our way back to the visitor center where we rediscovered a decadence from our youth. Cups of steaming hot chocolate warmed us from the inside out as we perused the Center’s assemblage of impressive telescopes.
Through one we spied the distinctive shape of Saturn and its rings; through another a pulsing galaxy unthinkably far away.
But the best sights were those we saw with the naked eye. Billions of stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon with twinkling light that was interrupted only by a band of creamy phosphorescence known as the Milky Way.
Against that backdrop five stars shown brightest. Together they formed a cross-like configuration we had never seen before. That’s because the Southern Cross is not normally visible from the Northern Hemisphere. But deep in the Pacific Ocean, high atop the world’s tallest mountain, the wonders never cease.