Friday, 31 October 2008

The last few miles

Yesterday I set multiple alarms for five o'clock this morning and yet still managed to wake up five minutes before they went off. I've heard that many people have this ability or whatever it might be called, but almost no matter what time I set the alarm, I always wake up just before it goes off. I'd love to understand this one day.

Anyway, I was up early as we had some more work to do at the summit, it was the last chance to take some measurements we need before work starts in earnest on Monday. The idea was to start early and get off early, as it's already been a very long week. This had the advantage of arriving at Vacation Resort Hale Pohaku in time for a fantastically unhealthy breakfast but a gorgeous one nevertheless - they are known for their wonderful breakfasts! Eggs over easy, bacon, sausage links and hash browns today. Mmm!

After filling up with cholesterol we leave HP at around 8am in our 4-WD vehicle and have to stop almost immediately. It's time to change from 2-WD to 4-WD low gear ratio. The next few miles are on a steep dirt road that has thrown many people to their deaths, so we have to be careful. I'm co-pilot for the trip which allows me to take a few blurry pictures on the way to 14,000 feet rather than fight the steering wheel.

After a mile a two we're treated to a wonderful view of the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa and as usual the clouds are drifting in from the east. It was raining when I left home and it was still raining when we left Hilo, and for most of the drive up the Saddle Road it was drizzling and misty. At this altitude though, about 10,000 feet, we're above the clouds and it's hard to imagine the conditions we've left behind. Unfortunately I'm not allowed to open the car's passenger window, it would allow too much dust into the car, and coupled with an early morning sun and the bumpy road, it makes it impossible to take a nice picture, this is the best I could do.

About three to four miles above HP we drive past this sign. It's in the wrong place, only an idiot would decide to go off-roading here. There are places further up that look inviting for an off-road trip and there are no signs there. Even the road itself is becoming increasingly bumpy and I'm surprised this picture came out. On either side of us the terrain is becoming increasingly steeper and the drop to the left is something one doesn't contemplate.

Now the drive is just nasty. Both the driver and I are being thrown around and I'm hanging onto the passenger's handle to stop my head banging into the vehicle's interior - and we're only driving at 10-mph. I take a picture holding the camera in my other hand because the summit is now in view, it's there in the centre of the picture. A few more miles to go yet but a smoother ride is almost upon us. The good news is that even if we went off the road at this point we no longer face rolling the car hundreds of feet down the side of the mountain - and someone might even find us if we did!

Time to stop and go back into 2-WD. The summit stays in sight for quite a while now but the observatories can't be seen - the last time we saw them was on the Saddle Road over an hour ago. They're hidden behind the cinder cones. This is also the point where I can't stop thinking about all those images from Mars and how similar they are to Mauna Kea's terrain.

Generally, pictures from Mars don't have tyre tracks on them although there are images from Spirit and Opportunity that show their own tracks. Most people that visit Mauna Kea's summit area can't help commenting on how similar the place looks to Mars, and I agree. It's only when you pass all the observatory and tourist traffic that you remember you're still on planet Earth. It's either that or the effect of the altitude.

We're at 13,000 feet now and after negotiating one of the steepest slopes and sharpest bend on the way up the observatories suddenly come into view. Although I've never taken one of the tourist tours to the summit I imagine this is the point that everyone in those vans suddenly gasps. After seeing nothing but red lava rock for several miles and some amazing views of the island, the out-of-this-world summit area appears. You know you're back in civilisation, but just what kind? These aren't normal buildings and many visitors really do say it feels as though they've suddenly been transported to another planet.

As for us, the work day is about to begin.


Keera Ann Fox said...

Thanks for the road trip!

Lou Minatti said...

Tom, have I ever expressed how envious I am of you? You literally have the coolest job on the planet.

You live on Hawaii. The real island.
You get to drive on fantastic journeys like this.
You experience tropical and winter weather... on the same day.
You discover things in the cosmos that have never been seen before.

(Yes, I realize how hard you worked to get where you are today!)

Tom said...

Thank you, Lou, for those extremely kind words. This place is the most beautiful on the planet, at least in my opinion, and I'm very fortunate to live and work here. The main reason behind me starting this blog was to share some of the wonderful sights and experiences here and although I certainly don't want to make anyone envious, it's difficult to avoid that I think. I'm a very lucky person.