Christmas Morning on the Summit

Calls from the summit facility are not exactly what I want to see on my phone display on Christmas Eve. Heather was very apologetic about calling, but she had no choice, the Keck 2 dome would not rotate.

Christmas Sunrise over the Shoulder
Christmas Sunrise over the shoulder of Mauna Kea
Less than a minute into this conversation I realize the inevitable… This was not going to get fixed over the phone, I would be spending Christmas on the summit. I call John who is already scheduled to go up for the day… Pick me up on your way out of the village. 7am? I will be out front.

It was just before sunrise that we drove up the mountain from Waikoloa, the sun rising over the shoulder of Mauna Kea, casting long crepuscular rays into the sky. It is a beautiful Christmas morning, a clear sky, the snow capped summits of two volcanoes looming overhead. Heading to work on this morning is a bit surreal, while at the same time seeming a bit more festive for the snow.

Loading Snow
Loading pickup trucks with snow for export from the mauna.
Approaching the Mauna Kea Access Road we are greeted by another sign of the day… Two pickup trucks loaded with snow pass us heading down the mountain. They are the first of many we would see this day, very many.

It has become a very popular tradition, one that sees dozens upon dozens of trucks loaded with white each day. Fathers, brothers, and uncles must have departed for the summit in the early dawn to shovel snow by headlights in order to bring a white Christmas down the mountain. Somewhere there are photos of snowmen, snow ball fights, and celebrating keiki on tropical green Hilo lawns.

And snow there is atop the mauna. The 11ft snowdrift in the Keck parking area has been cut down a bit by the MKSS crews, a mere six feet high now after being pushed back from the building. At least we now have room to park. It is cold, a bit of a shock after waking up to a warm island morning. It will be cold in the dome where we will be working.

No View
The Keck 1 breakroom windows features the view of the inside of a snowdrift
The building, and it is a fairly big building, is still partly buried. There is no view of Maui out the Keck 1 breakroom windows, instead there is the inside of a snowdrift. We have dug all of the doors clear and have cleared the dome shutters, the rest will wait for nature to take its course. There are some very deep drifts near the building, I have hope we may get some penitentes forming.

The dome we fixed before lunch, after some troubleshooting and a couple false leads we identify an intermittent connection. A fault readback circuit from one of the motor controllers is open, causing the PLC to see a fault that is not real, shutting off the drive power. Problem fixed I spend the rest of the day doing some other small tasks.

Mountain Traffic
Winding our way down the mountain with snow day traffic
Returning down the mountain is a repeat of getting up. There is a large crowd of folks who have made the journey to the mauna to see snow on Christmas day. We watch as keiki sled in the bowl below the telescope, we pass folks learning how hard 14,000ft altitude makes shoveling snow into pickups. We wind our way down the mountain in a line of vehicles, with even more pickup trucks full of snow.

A Christmas day spent on the summit of Mauna Kea is not how I envisioned spending my holiday, it is however quite a memorable way to spend the day.

Author: Andrew

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

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