Mauna Kea Snows

We did make it up.

Eric gives scale to a rather  large snowdrift in front of Keck Observatory
Eric gives scale to a rather large snowdrift in front of Keck Observatory
Late in the afternoon, after waiting at Hale Pohaku all day, we received word that the crews were beginning to clear the access road to Keck Observatory. While most of our crew had been released earlier in the day, a small group of us waited for our chance to make the summit facility. When we got word we piled into the vehicles for the attempt.

It was simply gorgeous at the summit, sunny and clear with no sign of the winds that had raged across the summit all week. The evidence of those winds was all to apparent, they had left a landscape of sculpted drifts. While the actual snowfall had not been that much, maybe a foot, the drifts were impressive.

The roads were deeply buried, the plows had cut through drifts taller than our vehicle. There was still a great deal to be done. While the snowblower had made one pass up the back road to Keck, no attempt had yet been made to the summit ridge, the entire road still buried in a four to six foot drift. The crews would be working well into the evening to clear the roads.

The MKSS snowplow crews remove snow from in front of Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea
The MKSS snowplow crews remove snow from in front of Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea
The largest surprise was the drift in the Keck front driveway. We had seen it in the webcams, but the size of it still surprised us. At least eleven feet high at the crest right in front of our loading dock door. As we climbed up it we feared we would be unable to access the building. Fortunately the same winds that had piled this drift had also swirled about and kept a gap between it and the building, it took only ten minutes of digging to clear the door enough to open.

Other doors are not so lucky… The visitor gallery door is nearly completely buried in a drift. The Keck 1 control room door the same, only the very top of the door can be seen. The Keck 2 door has a mere foot of snow in front of it, not bad at all.

Heavy ice covers the Keck weather mast
Heavy ice covers the Keck weather mast
I had a couple tasks I needed to get done, get the TRICK detector on a vacuum pump so we can get it ready for observing soon. Clear the exterior cameras and weather sensors of ice. It took only half an hour to get a vacuum pump up into AO, connected and running. I helped the other guys for a bit, then headed for the roof.

Climbing to the roof I realized just how spectacularly beautiful the day was… Yes, I had a camera along! The ice over my instruments was four to six inches thick in places. The chunks were large enough to be quite dangerous falling from the pole, and loose from an afternoon in the warm sunlight, not something I would touch with a ten foot pole. Fortunately I had brought along a twenty foot extension pole!

Basic maintenance complete and some inspections of the facility performed, we headed back down the mountain. With the Sun beginning to set it was still spectacularly beautiful. Working atop this mountain is a special experience, a day like today just reminds me of this fact.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

2 thoughts on “Mauna Kea Snows”

  1. Thanks for sharing your photos of the summit Andrew. Thanks to you I am able to see what mother nature tosses out for the crew. I always enjoy reading your posts! Hope to bump into you again some evening observing….

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