I had thought of leaving the camera back on Oahu and just spending time around the house and with my family. But Milky Way season being in full swing, it was too much of a temptation for me to resist lugging the DSLR along for the ride.
One of my goals this year was to photograph the MW at the top of Mauna Kea summit. When I finally made it last year with my trusty old 2000 Toyota 4Runner, I felt I had conquered Mount Everest. I had been there 16 years earlier, but the last attempt was met with mean headaches and acute dizziness, thanks to the thin air. At its peak, Mauna Kea rises 13,800 feet above sea level (from its base on the ocean floor, that measurement jumps to 33,000 ft). Guests are advised to spend at least 30 minutes at the Visitor Center (located at 9,200 ft) before journeying the last 4,600 feet via 4-wheel drive. When I purchased my SUV on Oahu way back at the dawn of time, I opted for 4-wheel option even though it added another $3,000 to the sticker price. Most of my friends thought it was a waste of money since I never went off road. However, in the back of my mind, I thought if I ever moved to the Big Island, I would definitely need 4-wheel capability. And while I never specifically asked the Lord for a home there, He provided one to us in His infinite love and generosity. So, making it to the top in that Toyota was a major validation for me...LOL!
The photo at the top of this post was taken at the Visitor Center as I waited out the 30 minute stop in order to acclimate to the higher altitude. The center was closed by the time I got there (1:30 am), but thankfully Porta-Potties were available. Contained behind the gated fences is the endangered Mauna Kea Silversword plant. Once plentiful on the volcanic mountain slopes, steps are now being taken to protect and preserve this endangered species. I thought the silversword only grew on Haleakala in Maui, but I learned this is a relative of that particular plant.
After the wait period, I began the drive up the unpaved terrain to the top. I've heard the road is purposely kept inhospitable to discourage people from going up (thereby minimizing foot traffic and decreasing light pollution from car headlights). I must say it does an excellent job. Like a trooper, my 17 year old vehicle plodded through the gravel and dust, but I swear I felt bones rattling in me that I never knew existed.
About the halfway point, there is a nice, wide area to pull off and park. One is above the clouds and the MW view is already clear and spectacular. What gives this image an added bonus is the orange glow in the distance. Some have wrongly thought it was the sun rising, but it's actually the lava glow from Kilauea Volcano some 40 miles away. The only thing missing was ice along the road, but unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), it had stopped snowing several weeks back.
After a few miles of this treacherous path, the paved road returns leading you up to the first group of observatories. This is what I reached on my first attempt last winter. The MW was not visible at the time, so I was content shooting here. On this attempt, I made it to the next level where you could see observatories as well as some satellite dishes. I stopped here and decided to do a few panoramas.
I was up there for about an hour and the cold and thin air began to take its toll. MW shots require 30 second exposures, and in this type of environment, that can feel like a lifetime. I would set the shot, press the shutter release, and bend down low, gloved hands in pockets, in order to keep warm and save oxygen/energy.
To get to the top, I would have to travel another mile or so of unpaved gravel. At this point, I knew my body had enough and I needed to return to a lower, oxygen rich altitude.
I plan on heading back to the Big Island in July, so hopefully the 3rd time will be the charm in getting to the peak!