A Snow Week

With a decent snowfall atop Mauna Kea my week was one of snow, and more snow. It was a week of problems and beauty.

The snow started falling on the 10th, a blanket of white covering the mauna. As the observatory crews pulled out and the road was closed we watched the storm on the webcams. While it snowed on the summit near record rains and flooding hit Hilo along with much of the windward side.

Dawn over Mauna Kea as seen from Saddle Road
Dawn over Mauna Kea as seen from Saddle Road

While a few guys from our summit crew made short visits to check on things, for the most part work on the summit was paused through the weekend, conditions inoperable.

It was not until Tuesday that the snowplows cleared the snowdrifts and access was partially restored. With delayed tasks to do I drove up that morning into a spectacular dawn over the mauna.

Tuesday was my first day on the summit since the snow had fallen, the first day a full crew had been able to make it up. As such the first part of the day was spent digging the observatory out.

Snowed in Loading Bay
Snow blocking the Keck loading bay

Shoveling snow at 13,600ft elevation is challenging. We needed to clear out any doors used as emergency exits, and to clear our loading bay so that badly needed cryogenic tanks could be delivered. I took a couple turns on a shovel clearing loading bay and one of the side doors.

While it was only 1-2 feet of snow, this had drifted against the building. The front was about two feet deep, while along the back side of the building the windows were buried.

We spent the day recovering from the storm in full understanding there would be no observing that night, too much snow and ice on the domes. That ice would take a few sunny days to melt before the shutters again opened to the stars.

Fresh Snow on the Summit of Mauna Kea
Fresh Snow on the summit of Mauna Kea

The summit was sublimely beautiful, the fresh snow blanketing everything in a white that was undisturbed except for where the snowplows had cut their way through.

My next day on the summit would be Thursday as I headed up to fix a broken dome. The operators had never opened during the night, but had checked things out. During checkout the K1 dome refused to power on its drives. A long phone call the evening before had left me with a good idea of the problem, no choice but to head up to fix it.

The day was stunningly beautiful, with clouds surrounding a summit that rose above into clear skies and bright sunlight. This was also the first day the summit was open to the public. Fresh snow draws everyone to the mauna and dozen of vehicles brought folks up to enjoy the spectacle.

A skier shows his delight at the end of a run down the slope on Mauna Kea
A skier shows his delight at the end of a run down the slope on Mauna Kea

Snowboarders carved through the clean smooth slopes making the first tracks down the slopes below UKIRT, IRTF, and Keck. Sledders used the lower slopes closer to the road. The little bowl between Keck and Subaru echoing with the sounds of kids having fun.

Another traditional activity was also taking place… Through the day dozens of pickup trucks were loaded with snow for the trip down the mauna. There it would be used to make snowmen and engage in snowball fights in tropical Hilo yards and beach parks.

Driving to the summit of Mauna Kea to load snow into a pickup
Driving to the summit of Mauna Kea to load snow into a pickup

I had the vector drive module replaced in a few hours and the 700 ton dome again moved. The rest of the day was spent on small tasks including making arrangements to have the failed drive module shipped off to be repaired.

On Saturday a long delayed task became possible and I headed to the summit on an unscheduled trip. Friday was the first night the telescopes were able to properly open and see the stars again. After exchanging segments over a week ago we finally were able to measure the optical performance of those freshly re-coated mirror segments. Thus I headed to the mauna one more time to make the needed adjustments.

The plan was to go up and warp the segments and head home after lunch. I should not have been surprised when that plan did not work. Warping went smoothly, done before lunch as planned. It was other problems that kept me on the summit helping the small weekend crew deal with the continued issues of snow, ice, and the results of that week of snow and ice on our equipment.

Snow and ice have jammed the Keck 2 dome exhaust fan louvers
Snow and ice have jammed the Keck 2 dome exhaust fan louvers

One of the write-ups from the night before? The Keck 2 dome exhaust fan would not power up. We found that snow, and re-frozen ice from melting snow had jammed the automatic louvers that open when the fan is in use. Francis and I were again shoveling snow and chipping ice to free the louvers and insure it would not happen again with the next day’s melting snow.

We left the summit a little late, finally having the telescope ready to go on-sky. Were they? Well? My phone rang twice on the way down, twice I pulled over along Saddle Road to talk to the telescope operators and deal with more issues. One question I could answer. With the other the best I could do is forward them to the correct folks with the answers. Some time was lost in the night, but we are finally back on-sky after a snow week.


Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

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