Staying on the Summit After Dark

Beaches? Tropical gardens? The volcano? Yeah, BTDT, not what I came to Hawaiʻi for. Visiting Mauna Kea is at the top of the list for some folks who visit our island, a priority I can fully understand. Even better? Bring a camera to this spectacular mountain. After six years of working on Mauna Kea I still carry a camera and find new shots. Some of the most fascinating photographic opportunities occur after the Sun has set. For those who pursue shots in the dark, long exposure photography, the summit provides a setting that is worth the effort to shoot.

Keck 1 Laser
The Keck 1 Laser undergoing engineering tests, Subaru telescope in background
The summit is open after dark, but not unconditionally, I need to stress some explanations concerning that. Officially the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Management Plan limits public recreational use to ½hour before dawn and ½hour after dark. This has not been strictly enforced any time in my experience on the mountain. There is no gate in use, you will see people drive up the summit road in the middle of the night.

So what are the real rules for summit access after dark?

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Climbing the Stairs

The five flights of stairs needed to climb the Keck 2 Nasmyth Deck

Wait! What is broken?!?

The elevator.

It has been broken for two days. The contractor is here to fix it, but this is the day Olivier and I need to get a job done in AO. It would have to be the Keck 2 elevator, not the Keck 1 elevator. Which telescope are we working in today? Keck 2 of course.

This will mean climbing the stairs to the Nasmyth deck, all five flights of stairs. Five flights does not sound too bad, until you remember that the bottom of these particular stairs start at 13,600ft above sea level. Climbing these stairs is guaranteed to get your heart pumping and remind you of the consequences of every one of those 13,600ft.

The job? Re-installing one of the mirrors in the rotator that was re-aluminized earlier in the week. A delicate, fiddly job that would take much of the day. There will, of course, be missing parts, needed tools, or other small things that we will have to get during the course of the job. Things that are at the bottom of those stairs.

Every trip up and down would be planned, this is not the time to remember that you also needed an #8-32 nut, after the climb. No forgotten items, everything thought through twice. We got the job done, a critical bit of optics safely secured back in the mount and correctly aligned.

In the end I only had to climb the stairs five times through the day.

That was quite enough, thank you.


Visiting the Summit of Mauna Kea

Visiting the summit of Mauna Kea is high on many visitor’s to-do list when coming to the island. The summit region is spectacularly beautiful, even after six years of visiting several times a week I still find it so. My habit is to drive, or to ride shotgun in order to enjoy the view. I keep a camera at hand, ready for the inevitable situations where beautiful is transformed to spectacular with a well placed cloud or shaft of sunlight.

Summit Visitors await Sunset
The usual crowd of summit visitors await sunset along the ridge between the Gemini and CFHT telescopes
Any visit to the summit starts by stopping in at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Center. Located at 9,200ft the center is found at the end of the paved road. The folks here are responsible for providing visitor information and helping you out if you get into trouble, a service provided by the observatories through Mauna Kea Support Services. This includes the Mauna Kea Rangers who patrol the mountain, providing information, advice and assistance to visitors. Also found at “The VIS” are bathrooms, a gift shop, and the evening star gazing program.
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