Sunday, May 30, 2010

Climbing Mt. Impossible-to-Breathe

Well, today was a rather different day, even by the standards of my not-so-average life. After a terrible time falling asleep last night, I got up on five hours of sleep to leave Hilo as the sun was just assaying to climb into the eastern sky to ascend Mauna Kea with several other volunteers for the purpose of building rock curbs along one of the paths to the summit to mark it as the one visitors should use. While in the process of checking my email over breakfast during my usual morning wake-up routine, I discovered a message from the school informing me that I had financial aid updates. Not expecting anything of this nature, I followed this cryptic message and found out that I had just been awarded the Daniel K. Inouye Scholarship in Astronomy, of which there is one award per year made to an undergraduate Astronomy major in their senior year, amount equal to one-half tuition for one year.

Needless to say, I was floored.

I almost couldn't believe it at first, it was so out-of-the-blue. It's not a scholarship you apply for, so I had no prior anticipation of it coming. When I finally managed to quench my tears of joy, I remembered that I still had to be at MKSS ready to drive a bunch of volunteers up to Mauna Kea by 6:45 AM.

The ride up was fascinating. I've never driven the Saddle in the morning before, when it has not yet been clouded in. I saw Hualālai, the volcano on the west side of Hawai`i, in its entirety for the first time (I've seen its peak above the clouds [it's over 8,000 feet high], and its base under them [once], but never from base to peak before). And on the drive up Mauna Kea we saw a gaggle of some 10-20 nēnē! Nēnē, the state bird of Hawaii, are not exactly a common sight, so it was quite a thrill to see so many at once in a group.

I'd gotten a somewhat vague description of what we would be doing, “building rock walls at the summit”, which I jumped at because it looked like it afforded a chance to visit the actual peak for the first time. What it turned out to be is that the Mauna Kea rangers have been building little “curbs” out of rocks along the sides of a trail up to the summit, in hopes of keeping people on the trail. It being slow going with only a few people putting in time when they could, they decided they could use a little volunteer help. After a delicious breakfast at Hale Pōhaku, we headed up with two of the rangers and began moving rocks, by pick-up, wheelbarrow, bucket, and hand.

According to the thermometer, it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit on the summit at the time we started driving up, and with the wind chill it probably dropped another 15, at least. Man, that wind was cold. And desiccating. It's amazing how fast it leaches the water right out of you up there.

Moving rocks around at that altitude is really kind of strange. For one thing, all the rocks, even two that come from right next to each other, are different. You could pick up two similarly-sized rocks and have one so light it makes you wonder if you're holding a good Styrofoam replica, while the other is difficult to lift because of its weight. The range of densities is astonishing.  The range of colors is interesting as well, usually gray or dull red (from the iron content), but sometimes dark black, or even with shiny embedded minerals. Exercise, in the low oxygen conditions, is a bit more difficult, necessitating frequent breaks to catch your wind and rehydrate. And the cold! The wind blew incessantly, rapidly numbing all extremities and drying my eyes out so much it took almost a half-hour of sitting in the truck on the way back to HP at lunch time for them to rehydrate.

We really didn't work very long, about two hours, but we got a good long stretch of the path curbed on both sides. When we finished moving all the rocks we'd started with, we had some free time so we headed on up to the summit. It was at this point that I realized I'd brought my camera, but left my memory card at home in my computer, so unfortunately, no pictures today.

The walk to the summit is misleadingly difficult. From the start of the trail, by the road, it doesn't look too bad—until you're making your way up multiple switchbacks across a steep hillside composed of slippery cinder, fighting to draw each ragged breath containing only 60% of the oxygen content it would at sea level, your muscles vociferously complaining about the hypoxic conditions. But the view from the top is worth it, in my opinion. It was still early enough in the day that clouds hadn't covered the entire north-east coast of Hawaiʻi, so I was able to see the shoreline in that direction. I was also, for the first time, able to see over the limb of Mauna Loa all the way to the south-east shoreline. I can now say I have been at an altitude of 13,796 feet on my own, probably the highest I've ever been (besides airplane trips, of course).

The structure of Puʻu Wēkiu is that it is the rim of an old crater, with the summit being the highest point on the rim. The path we were working on comes at it from one side, so I took the path down around the other side on the way back, which provided a good brisk walk and some excellent views.

After a hearty lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches (yum!), it was back down to Hilo, finally getting back at 3 o’clock. Once again, I apologize for the lack of pictures; should I get the chance again (and it seems likely that they'll be having volunteers up to help again sometime soon), I will endeavor to make up with it with some shots from the tallest mountain on earth*.

*measured from the sea floor.

A hui hou!

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