Elevation: 13,796 feet
Towering over all other Hawaiian summits, in every respect, is Mauna Kea, the lid of the Big Island. Just the idea that a peak on par with the Rockies could exist in the tropics, that a summit nearly 14,000 feet above sea level might actually be in the sea, is almost unfathomable. Even more so, if you consider that Mauna Kea, measured from its base at the floor of the Pacific, is 33,476 feet: the tallest mountain in the world.
Its name has been said to mean “white mountain,” a literal translation, but Hawaiian scholars also know it as Mauna a Wakea—the mountain of Wakea, the Sky Father—and in creation lore, the Big Island is Wakea’s firstborn child. The top of Mauna Kea, as such, is not just another piko, but the navel of that progeny and so both genealogical and sacred. For ages, Hawaiians have scaled Mauna Kea to deposit the umbilical cords of their newborns at Lake Waiau near the summit and to draw upon that cosmic energy. “Mauna Kea is not a trivial place,” says Paul Coleman, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy who is the only Native Hawaiian with a doctorate in the field. “When we get up there, you’re going to realize it. You won’t feel good. You’ll understand this is not a place for man to be.”
As exalted as Mauna Kea is for its mystical forces, it is equally revered as a high-tech perch for the study of space. With its exceptionally dry weather and infinitely dark skies, the mountaintop is the best place on earth from which to aim a telescope at the heavens. Thirteen of the most sophisticated observatories in the world are stationed on the summit, a multibillion-dollar celestial city that stirs to life every night. When the first telescope was installed more than thirty years ago, no voice was raised in protest. As the compound has expanded, though, so too has the renaissance in Hawaiian identity, and there are some now who assail the gleaming, metallic spheres as a desecration.
“I understand all that sacred stuff, but astronomy is so much a part of being Hawaiian that it’s kind of silly to deny it,” says Coleman as we drive up Saddle Road from Hilo, the long, sloping grade of the mountain deceptively gradual. “The first Hawaiians came here on canoes, 2,000 miles through open ocean. How do you think they did that? If you’re Hawaiian, you owe your existence to an astronomer.”
We climb from Saddle Road, through parched grasslands and gnarled koa, the soil eventually giving way to an iron moonscape. Just bucking along in Coleman’s four-by-four, I am starting to feel breathless, which I attribute more to anxiety than the gain in elevation. A visitor’s center sits at the 9,200-foot mark, and we stop there in hope of warding off a bout of the ol’ hypobaropathy. Although it is recommended that everyone spend at least half an hour getting acclimated, I am surprised to find that access to Mauna Kea is essentially unregulated: no checkpoints, no fees, no permits. A mountain of such gravitas, a mountain that can kill you if you treat it cavalierly—and you can pretty much hop in a car and zip to the top.
The summit of Mauna Kea is otherworldly, the only place that has ever made me feel like I was standing on a different planet. Or maybe it is the only place I have ever stood that has made Earth feel so much like a planet, cold, barren, silent, curvaceous, a rock hurtling through space and time. My head throbs, my feet seem to be floating. We have an invitation, at sunset, to tour the Gemini Observatory, to witness its eye swing open and the massive, silver-coated, 26-foot sheet of glass at the heart of its telescope peer out at the unknown. But first Coleman leads me to the side of the road, where we climb over a guardrail and slog across the cinders, half a step at a time, to Puu Wekiu, the true geological summit.
“I really need to come here for sanity,” says Coleman, who figures he has scaled Mauna Kea at least a hundred times. There is a shrine at the top, a three-legged wooden frame over a cairn of volcanic stones, adorned with leis and coconut husks. Coleman recites an ancient prayer as the sci-fi village shimmers behind him. “This mountain,” he says, “brought me back home.”