ATOP MAUNA KEA, Hawaii -- If you count from sea level, we were 13,796 feet up, almost as high as Mount Rainier. Plenty high enough.
But if you count from the ocean floor? My Big Island tour group was shivering in thin air atop the Earth’s highest mountain — 33,500 feet from its waterlogged base to pumice-laden peak.
And that measure seemed the more meaningful, because this place seemed to have far more to do with outer space than with anything terrestrial.
As the sunset painted clouds tropical hues of mango and papaya — this was still Hawaii, after all — the nightly crowd of parka-clad, camera-snapping tourists looked like so many geckos swarming around a dozen enormous observatories dotting the top of Hawaii’s highest peak.
Amid tomato-red cinder cones, about the only thing that grows is the rare silver sword plant. The big crop atop Mauna Kea is telescopes, including the world’s two largest functional telescopes, with mirrors 33 feet across, at the W.M. Keck Observatory. (By way of comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope comes in at a measly eight feet.)
Being here is much more than a chance to see a pretty sunset, though those can be amazing. It’s a bit like going to Cape Canaveral for a rocket launch. Every visitor to the summit of this dormant volcano is giddy, and not just from thin air.
“It’s a very high-powered, high-level group of astronomers here,” tour guide Greg Brown told our van full of visitors. “It’s big science!”
Hundreds of scientists and engineers support the Mauna Kea observatories, while data from the telescopes are transmitted worldwide to astronomers. One night’s use of a Keck telescope is valued at $50,000.
The Keck Observatory alone is credited with detecting more planets outside our solar system than any other observation post, and helped in the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe, for which astronomers earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics. Just seeing this place makes you feel smarter.
Other observatories at the top represent partners such as NASA, the Smithsonian, governments from Japan to the United Kingdom, and universities such as Cal Tech.
The high altitude — above 40 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere — along with dark skies and dry, clean air attracted astronomers to Mauna Kea starting in 1964 when the state of Hawaii spent $42,000 to build the cliff-climbing road, the third highest in the United States.
“Usually it’s so dry up here you can’t see your breath in the cold,” Brown told our group as our van headed up like a plane taking off.
A strong island-wide ordinance restricting outdoor lighting helps keep astronomers happy. In case you’ve wondered why the Big Island has strange yellow-hued streetlights, it’s because their light spectrum interferes less with the telescopes.
One interpretation of Mauna Kea’s name is “white mountain,” since it’s the only place in Hawaii to regularly get winter snow. But snow clouds, or any clouds, don’t often cover the summit. The proportion of clear nights is among the highest in the world, and astronomers continue to pledge their allegiance to Mauna Kea: The next big thing coming here is the Thirty Meter Telescope, three times larger than any on Earth, so powerful that it will bring into view galaxies forming at the edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time. (Chew on that along with your macadamia-nut fudge.)