Wright, the first licensed guide to take people up to the top of the Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest mountain when measured from the base, and an astonishing 13,796 feet when measured from the sea, fell in love with this often-snow capped peak the first time he saw it. “The ancient Hawaiians thought of the top of Mauna Kea as heaven, or at least where the Gods and Goddesses lived,” said Monte “Pat” Wright, owner and chief guide of Mauna Kea Summit Adventures. “I was a mountain guide all over the world,” he explained, “but once I saw this mountain, I could feel how special it is.”
Some 28 years ago, with a 13-year old Landcruiser and a box of old sweaters, Wright set out to share this sacred mountain with visitors, by taking them up the then-narrow, one-lane jeep trail up to the top. “Dinner was Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Wright recalled, shaking his head in laughter. The means were primitive, but his clients were enthralled. A few years later, Halley’s Comet came along and Wright, who had always been interested in astronomy, decided to add a portable telescope as part of his adventure to share the night skies, and especially the tail of the comet, with his clients. The results were overwhelming and the demands for his trips were meteoric.
Today, Mauna Kea Summit Adventures offers a much more luxurious trip, with high tech help, than those of the humble beginnings. The 7 1/2 -8 1/2 hour adventure actually begins mid-afternoon with pick up along the Kona- Kohala coast in one of their custom built 4x4, turbo-charged, micro-coach, vans. As the passengers make the drive up the mountain, the extensivelytrained guides discuss the geography, geology, natural history and Hawaiian culture along the way. The first stop is the Onizuka Visitor’s Center, at the 9,000 foot level. “We let people out to stretch, get acclimatized to the altitude and to eat dinner,” Wright said.
As guests gear up with Mauna Kea Summit’s heavy, arctic-style hooded parkas and gloves (30 degrees F is the average temperature on the mountain), the guide describes why the world’s largest telescopes are located on Mauna Kea and also tells stories about the lifestyle of astronomers who live for a clear, night sky. After a hearty, hot meal prepared by Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, everyone climbs back into the van for the half hour ride to the summit.
Arriving in time to catch the sun sinking into the Pacific nearly 14,000 feet below, the guide points out the various world renown telescopes as the observatories open and the high-tech, multimirrored telescopes rotate into position for the night viewing. After the best of the sunset colors have faded, the tour again descends down to midmountain, where the climate is more agreeable for stargazing.
Here’s where Mauna Kea Summit Adventures stands out above the competition. Each van has a large 11”computerized telescope, capable of 30-350x magnification that gathers up to 700x more light than the unaided eye. These high-tech telescopes guided by satellites can find objects generally more difficult to find manually (frequently they view exotic targets like the Owl Nebula or the Crab Nebula). Wright does caution people to book the adventure early in their vacation.
“Although we do cancel about 25 trips a year due to weather, we want to be able to accommodate everyone,” he said. Extensive series of live web cameras, live weather stats and a fulltime meteorologist constantly feed weather information on the mountain. If guests book at the beginning of their holiday and the trip is canceled due to weather, then Mauna Kea Summit Adventures will attempt to reschedule another day, however, almost all of the tours sell out.
Wright also points out that due to the summit’s low oxygen level (40 per cent less oxygen than sea level) and the diminished air pressure (also 40 percent less air pressure than sea level), the lack of oxygen can be a serious problem for people with heart or lung problems or for scuba divers who have been diving in the previous 24 hours.
Pregnant women, young children under 13 years old or severely obese people should not travel to the summit. Since the roads to the summit are bumpy, anyone with a back injury might want to reconsider the trip. For more information, contact: 888-322-2366 (toll free) or 808-322-2366 (in Hawaii) or www.maunakea.com.
Hot tip: If you book two weeks in advance on the web, you get a discount.
OPEN: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is open 24-hours a day, all year. The Kilauea Visitor Center is open daily 7:45am - 5 pm and the Jaggar Museum is open daily 8:30am - 5 pm.
WEATHER: The park is located at 4,000 feet, so be prepared for rain and temperature ranging from 30 degrees to 75 degrees. The weather down at the ocean can be hot, dry and windy. The Park Rangers recommend you bring: rain gear, light sweater or jacket, sturdy shoes, hats, water bottles, sun glasses, and high UV factor sunscreen. For island weather, call 961-5582.
ENTRY FEE: Pedestrians and bicyclists are $5; vehicles are $10 for seven days, or $25 for an annual tri-park pass that also includes access to Pu`uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park in Kona, and Haleakala National Park on Maui. Camping and Lodging: Two campgrounds are available year round, call 985-6011 for information. The Volcano House, located in the park, is open all year, call 967-7321 for information. Additional lodging, inns and bed and breakfast accommodations are available in Volcano Village.
CONTACT: For the latest information on the volcano flow, access to the flow and general park information, call 985-6000 or www.nps.gov/havo.