Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The air we breathe

It's time for another observing run at the summit of Mauna Kea so off to the mountain I go - for a night to acclimatise at around the 9,000 foot level. The astronomers that visit the summit stay at a place called Hale Pohaku (HP, or, a little more sarcastically, "Vacation Resort Hale Pohaku") which translates to "House of Stone", although it's mostly made of wood. Actually, I think the official name is now "The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy" but it's easier to say "HP" with an oxygen-deprived and befuddled brain. Incidentally, Ellison Onizuka was an Hawaiian astronaut that was killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.

Most, if not all the observatories, have strict rules about visiting and working at the summit. With us, if you are going to spend more than eight hours at the summit then you must stay at HP for at least eight hours in order to let the body learn to cope with the reduced oxygen levels. Visiting astronomers tend to go up at least 24-hours before a run as they are less used to the altitude while the local workforce go up a little later. My own schedule varies: sometimes I go up 24-hours beforehand, sometimes it's just before dawn on the day I'm observing. It depends how I'm feeling and often on how recently I last spent significant time at the summit.

The first night at HP is never very pleasant. You find your heart pounding as it adjusts to less oxygen and sleep is difficult. Well, that's OK you think because you can stay awake and adjust to working at night, but get so tired by 2-am that you have to go to bed - and wake up half an hour later because your body just can't relax. I've yet to find the right solution to this although I can tell you that I get through an awful lot of books while on the mountain.

Tomorrow night will be worse; the first full night at the summit. Those early morning hours are the most difficult; you're fighting your circadian rhythm and even less oxygen at 14,000 feet. Your brain can't do simple sums so you think a nice wake up walk outside will do you good. Nope, bad idea! Too cold! You're back inside within 30 seconds. It'll have to be caffeine instead which means you won't be able to sleep at HP, so it goes on...

The views at sunset and sunrise will make up for it all though.

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