The thought of living among five volcanoes on an island in the Pacific may not instill a sense of peace in many people. But for locals on the Big Island of Hawaii, one of those volcanoes holds a range of respected qualities, and that’s Mauna Kea – the world’s tallest mountain.
It holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for Native Hawaiians. And it’s home to 13 telescopes operated by 11 countries. And high above the beaches and valleys, it can transform into a winter wonderland. When heavy rains bring a thick blanket of snow to Mauna Kea, its summit becomes a gathering place above the clouds.
Snowboarding at sunset on Mauna Kea — Photo courtesy of Nani Maloof
"The Mountain" (as locals call it) looms as a stark backdrop to the laid-back east side town of Hilo. Mauna Kea reaches nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. Yet it stakes its claim of being twice as tall as Mount Everest thanks to the fact that it's a total of 32,000 feet tall when measured from the ocean’s floor.
Though Mauna Kea is considered dormant, geologists expect its neighboring shield volcano Mauna Loa to erupt again one day. Not far away, Kilauea has been erupting for three decades and inching closer to the historical town of Pahoa each day.
When locals wake to thick snow on The Mountain, 80-degree days liven with the promise of an adventure of stark contrast to the usual surf missions and camping trips.
Anticipation builds, as people wait for word that the road to the summit has been opened. Their four-wheel-drive trucks will ascend with body boards, snowboards and trashcan tops to serve as sleds, and they'll later descend with loads of snow for building snowmen at home.
The lucky pull out winter coats and gloves, while many throw together island-style snow gear where warmth increases with each layer. (Think lots of socks and long sleeved T-shirts.)
Above the clouds — Photo courtesy of Nani Maloof
Though the summit is reached by a rather smooth 4X4 drive, staying up there for long takes some endurance. Altitude sickness can hit, resulting in nausea and dizziness. It’s advised that children under the age of 16 don’t go to the top, but they can spend time at the Onizuka Visitor’s Center at 9,000 feet, where everyone should spend a half hour acclimating before climbing higher.
Here, telescopes are available for use, and nightly stargazing is offered from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., rain or shine.
But Mauna Kea isn’t just for winter shenanigans and sightseeing. It’s home to sacred places and archaeological sites. After years of planning, construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope began in late 2014. The telescope will have roughly 10 times the resolution of the Hubble.
One of the sacred sites at Mauna Kea is Lake Wai’au, at 13,000 feet amidst an arid, rocky, oxygen-poor landscape. The only glacially formed lake in the mid-Pacific was and still is used for healing and cultural practices. Traditionally, families would deposit the umbilical cord of newborns into the lake, as well as spread the ashes of the deceased there.
At 12,000 feet elevation on Mauna Kea’s southwest slope is a quarry that contributed to the evolution of Hawaiian culture. Pre-contact Hawaiians made the trek on foot to access the high-quality basalt adze quarry. Large boulders were broken down into portable adze “blanks,” which were then carried back down to shoreline homes for manufacturing.
But that was then, and this is now, when Mauna Kea will help science move forward, while also offering snowboard contests, the best sunrises and sunsets, Zen moments at the top of the world and a view that reaches Maui.