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The Majesty and Magic of Mauna Kea

I suppose I should give a bit of a personal update for the rest of this story to make sense. Here it is in brief – recently I moved my family to Hawai’i. We sold our antique store and little community paper on the Oregon Coast and I came here, found a job, and rented an apartment on Oahu. I lived on Oahu for almost a decade and graduated from the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a degree in Anthropology. That and my familiarity with Hawaiian history and culture enabled me to get a job as an archaeologist with a private company here. The pay is just below what it takes to survive on Oahu – luckily we have a little bit saved from the sale of our business’ in Oregon which will hopefully tide us over until my wife finds a job or something else changes. So, I’m an archaeologist. It’s not the Indiana Jones sort of adventure archaeology for the most part – in fact, it’s fairly dull. I watch construction to make sure that culturally sensitive sites are not neglected…it used to be called contract archaeology, now it is called CRM or Cultural Resource Management. This week, however, I had the opportunity to come to the Big Island of Hawai’i, stay in the scientific dormitories at about 10,000 feet, and visit historic and cultural sites from this level up to the peak at 14,000 feet. And all of that to explain how this vagabond suddenly became an archaeologist on the highest mountain in Hawai’i.

This particular job is an annual event in which a team of archaeologists and botanists visit a series of sites to note any changes, vandalism, or other noteworthy events. The biggest challenge is the altitude – any time you go above 10,000 feet, you are putting your body into an altered state – there is not as much oxygen and your body can go through dangerous changes.

Although minor symptoms such as breathlessness may occur at altitudes of 1,500 metres (5,000 ft), AMS commonly occurs above 2,400 metres (8,000 ft).It presents as a collection of nonspecific symptoms, acquired at high altitude or in low air pressure, resembling a case of “flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover”.It is hard to determine who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness. However, most people can ascend to 2,400 metres (8,000 ft) without difficulty.

Acute mountain sickness can progress to high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), both of which are potentially fatal, and can only be cured by immediate descent to lower altitude or oxygen administration.


So, you can imagine what it’s like to be doing strenuous hikes in the neighborhood of 14,000 feet. My understanding is that most of my co-workers have suffered ill-effects. Yesterday, my first day hiking on the mountain, I experienced some light headedness and a bit of vertigo but for the most part was fine if out of breath more than I liked. My co-worker moves quickly and I was frequently quite a ways behind him. Luckily, there is no pressure to move faster than feels personally safe.

Mauna Kea is mankind’s window to the stars. The dry climate and 90% clear skies have made this the world’s premier location for large scale observatories. The world’s largest observatory is here along with a dozen other giant telescopes for optical and infrared astronomy as well as submillimeter wavelength and radio astronomy. The most familiar portion of the summit is what people here call the 007 array – this was featured in the James Bond movie Moonraker back in the 1970s. We are staying in the barracks that house scientists from 11 countries and support staff for the mountain.


Mauna Kea is not simply a technological treasure. The Hawaiians considered this the realm of the Gods, a sort of Mt. Olympus where the goddess Poliahu dwelled. The Hawaiian name is Mauna a Wakea which means sky father – Wakea is considered the father of the Hawaiian people. This mountain was forbidden ‘kapu’ (taboo) to commoners and the Hawaiian Ali’i were the only ones allowed to make the trek to the top without special dispensation – which was reserved for priests (kahuna) and skilled stone artisans. The rock on Mauna Kea was treasured for the making of stone adzes, knives, and other stone tools.

This is a wahi pana, a sacred and legendary place. This was where Hawaiians would study the stars, make tools, and practice elaboriate religious rituals. My colleagues have recorded 96 sites between 12,000 and 13,000 feet – 76 of which are recorded as shrines. The shrines can be elaborate or as simple as an upright stone jutting from a crack in the lava where it was placed. There are modern shrines, ahu, as well – placed by modern kahuna. There are a whole mountain of laws and regulations regarding these – we keep it simple. Disturb nothing. We pack out what we pack in. We do not photograph human remains but we note their placement.

Mauna Kea is also home to several endemic species and a host of invasive species. Silversword, ‘ahinahina, is an endangered plant species endemic to Hawaii. They can grow for up to 40 years before blooming. Not threatened are mamane and pukiave shrubs which tend to b found at the lower altitudes and provide food and shelter for endangered birds like the Hawaiian palila and the Hawaiian goose or Nene. This bird is an Erckel’s Francolin, a sort of African pheasant which was introduced long ago and is endangered in its native home of Ethiopia but doing just fine here.

This is a magical and majestic place. I am priveliged to be able to spend a week here.

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Vago Damitio

Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

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