There we were, breathing in the air–what little of it there was–on top of the tallest mountain in the world! If you’re guessing I recently added my name to to the 4,000+ people who have summited Mount Everest, guess again. I was in Hawaii on the summit of Mauna Kea, which is really the tallest mountain on earth if you measure from stem to stern. At 13,796 feet (4,205 meters) above sea level, Mauna Kea is only 110 feet (35 meters) higher than its neighbor Mauna Loa, and is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. Measured from its base on the ocean floor, Mauna Kea rises over 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), significantly greater than the elevation of Mount Everest.
On tour with Mauna Kea Summit Adventures, we drove to the visitor center at 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) to have dinner and acclimate to the elevation before heading to the summit for a spectacular sunset. Aside from experiencing air that has 40% less oxygen than you’d inhale at sea level, we learned about the telescopes and observatories on the summit. My husband, Joel, is an astrophotographer in his off-hours. He spends a lot of time (and many very late nights) taking photos of distant stars, nebulae and galaxies.
I photograph all sorts of things on this planet, but I am in awe of what can be captured with astrophotography because it is so far out of the realm of my understanding and expertise.
After sunset, we left the summit and drove back down a few thousand feet, to a spot near the visitor center where our tour guides set up a couple telescopes so we could look at objects in deep space. Amazing! Despite weather that had been anything but clear and a moon that was more than half full (generating a lot of distracting light), we were able to view a double star, star cluster and a nebula. Joel even managed to score an extra bonus–just for the two of us to view–the Omega Centauri globular cluster, basically a ball of…oh, only 10 million stars! 15,800 light years away. Try to wrap your brain around that!
While we were there, I tried to get a few photographs of the night sky, something I’ve never done before. It was fun but my results let me know I’ve got a steep learning curve ahead of me.
Being on the top of the world on Mauna Kea was a breathtaking experience, in every sense of the word. As my husband will say, whenever we see something noteworthy, “I haven’t seen anything like that since the high slopes of Everest.” And it’s true. I haven’t been at an elevation this high or seen a sky filled with so many visible stars since 2009, when I had the great privilege to stand at Mount Everest base camp in Tibet.
Both times I was struck by the same thought–here I am on the tallest mountain in the world and I feel so small. Just a speck on this planet. Looking into the night sky on Mauna Kea I was again reminded how the Earth is one small speck in our solar system. But what a beautiful speck it is!
Base camp Mount Everest at 17,598 feet
Mauna Kea, Hawaii summit at 13,796 feet
It’s all about the journey,