Postcard from the Summit – Snowy SMA

Winter has arrived on Mauna Kea. the last few weeks have brought regular snow, ice and fog to the summit. Quite a few nights have been completely or partially lost to weather. We always wonder what winter will bring. In the last few years I have seen winters with hardly a lost night, and no substantial snowfall. Other winters I have helped dig our way into the building. What the winter of 2011-2012 will bring? We will just deal with what Poli’ahu delivers.

Snowy SMA
The SMA antennas in snow and fog

Mauna Kea Panorama

I have so many photos sitting on the hard drive, projects and ideas that remain un-realized. But every now and then I get around to completing one of those ideas and putting together something worth the effort. A couple winters ago I had an opportunity to shoot an entire 360° panorama from the top of Keck 2. I had set the camera on top of a toolbox and took photos steadily as the dome was moved through one complete rotation. A couple other photos were also taken that I could stitch into the result. The whole project made possible with the panorama features of Photoshop CS5. Twenty images were used to make the pano, resulting in a 105Mb image 26,000 pixels wide. The image shown here is downsized slightly…


It was a great day, on top of the dome after a heavy snowfall, simply stunningly beautiful. Hard work as well, shoveling snow and chipping ice off the dome at nearly fourteen thousand feet. The fellows in the image are Bill Bates (top) and Mike Dahler (below), some of the great guys who keep Keck on-sky. Bill has since retired and is sorely missed on the summit.

Shoveling Snow

Monday I spent the day on the summit, I often choose Mondays, if I have a choice, as we often have a smaller crew and getting access to the various parts of the telescope is easier. There are fewer people trying to do fewer things at once. Monday turned out to be very good choice indeed, the first clear day at the summit since Christmas. We arrived at the summit to deep blue skies over a landscape of white. Poli’ahu has again blessed the summit of the White Mountain with deep snow.

Snow Day
Looking across at the Keck 1 dome from the top of Keck 2 with Mauna Loa in the background
A small crew does have a disadvantage as well, the chance of being drafted into whatever job needs being done. Not that I was unwilling, the job in this case was clearing snow and ice from the domes. This meant climbing to the top, one place in the facility I had not yet had a chance to go.

So after rigging myself in full safety harness I climbed the dome with the crew. The view from the top is stunning! A full 360 degree view of the summit on a perfectly clear sunny day. The entire summit is blanketed in a beautiful white coat of snow, one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever witnessed. The small Canon G9 camera fit in a breast pocket, small enough not to interfere. I began filling my memory card with many images of the view from the top, reveling in the spectacular vista.

Shoveling Snow
Mike Dahler clearing snow from the edge of the Keck 2 shutter
Not that it was all sightseeing, there was work to do, shoveling snow and chipping ice from the areas where it could interfere with operation of the telescope. Ice and snow coated the upper sections of the dome. Several inches of ice needed to be hammered free of the steelwork and drifts of snow, up to two meters (six feet) deep were packed into any corner and along the side of the shutter. Blocks of ice and shovelfuls of snow flew, crashing to the ground 30m (100ft) below. A crew worked each side of both domes for several hours to complete the task, made all that more difficult by the extreme altitude.

In the thin air there is only so much you can do before you are short of breath. Put down the shovel for a few moments and take a few more pictures. I have material from which to assemble a full panorama as well as dozens of individual images.

After much of the snow and ice had been cleared by hand there was one more step to accomplish. Clear the large drift of snow from the back of the shutter by using the shutter itself as a snowplow. This drift is many tons of snow, over 2m (6ft) thick at the top and about 12m (40ft) wide. When it came down it becomes an artificial avalanche, with huge blocks of snow falling to the ground far below.

Avalanche from Andrew Cooper on Vimeo.