The Climb

The climb to the Mauna Kea summit at night, with a full moon was, physically, the most challenging thing I ever did. Michael and I left our home in Hilo around 8:30pm on July 31st, 2015 – a full moon/blue moon night. As we were pulling off the driveway it started to rain – a steady, persistent rain. About a mile into our drive the low-pressure tire sensor lit on the dashboard, not a big deal I told myself, as it almost always happens during rapid changes in temperature or air pressure, but still….

I was driving in the rain, on the Saddle Road, then turned into the Mauna Kea Access Road and immediately went into the clouds. The road is windy and with the cloud cover the visibility was low, especially at night. In my mind I was going through all the reasons why we should not do this – two people hiking for over seven hours at night, to reach a 4000m+ summit – crazy! We drove on. We reached the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station at around 9:30pm, cars were going in and out. The visitor center, normally open until 10pm, was closed indefinitely because of ongoing protests related to the construction of a new telescope on Mauna Kea. Our plan was to acclimatize for the high altitude at the visitor center for about an hour before staring out hike. As we were taking our time and getting ready, a truck drives by, stops near our car, and the driver says: ‘be careful, the police may come around after 10pm’. Great! I was thinking it would be something to get arrested even before we start out climb. I read a few days ago about police arrests at the visitor center of protesters who were camping in undesignated areas. I was hoping we are safe since we were not camping; in the end we did not get arrested :).

Mauna Kea is, allegedly, the highest mountain in the Pacific Rim area, and with an elevation of 4205m (13,796ft) is the highest peak in the state of Hawai’i. When measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) tall—significantly taller than Everest. It is a shield volcano, with gentle slopes made of countless basaltic lava flows, its shape resembling the shield of a warrior resting on the ground. Geologically, the volcano that produced the mountain is over 500,000 years old.

We prepared for our climb for several days in advance – rain and wind gear, layers of clothing, sturdy hiking boots, lots of water, serious gloves and hats appropriate for sub-freezing temperature, rain and heavy winds. I did this climb during the day about three years ago, so I know what to expect.

Starting the ascent to the summit.

We started our ascent around 10:30pm, the blue moon was fantastic, the clouds below us, the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa in the distance. There was no need for the headlamps or flashlights we brought, as the path laid clear ahead, lit by the moonlight. It was peaceful and beautiful, the worries of the rain, the low tire pressure, the clouds, the police arrests, the protesters, and everything else, all left behind. From that point on it was just us and the mountain, in a gentle, uneven embrace.

We hiked up for five hours straight and reached the 4000m altitude mark at around 3:40am. It was getting cold and we could definitely
feel the effects of the altitude: I felt very nauseous and Michael was light-headed and with a headache.

Besides climbing the mountain at night the other goal was to watch the sunrise from the summit. Since we got near the summit at 3:40, we had more that two hours to wait around until the sunrise. With all the high altitude symptoms both of us were experiencing, it was becoming unsafe to wait until the sunrise. We turned around and hiked down to our car for about two hours. It would have been spectacular to see the sun rising over the Pacific from Mauna Kea, but sometimes safety takes priority. This way it can be a ‘next time’. As we got to the car at the visitor center, ready to get back home, the sun was rising from the east as the moon was setting to the west – different from what would have been at the summit, but still beautiful.
It was difficult and beautiful, challenging and fulfilling, and perhaps the first crazy thing Michael and I did together. A great experience to have, two weeks before he is off to college.

Read the narrative of my first Mauna Kea climb here.

Geology and wine – Cotnari, Romania

Considering its location, the Cotnari region in Romania should be a difficult place to grow grapes.  The  vineyards are located between 47o17′ and 47o35′ northern latitude, in the middle of the continent, away from the beneficial influence of the Atlantic or the Mediteranean Sea.  In spite of that, from Cotnari come some of the finest wines in Romania, thought to be “some of the best in the world” by A. Julien, the Frenchmen who mentioned this area in Topographie des vignobles connus of 1832.

There are two factors that cause this area to be great for wine-grape growers: the Foehn-type winds, and the string of depressions that offer protection from the cold air from the North.  By the way, “depression” in geography is a landform at a lower elevation compared to the surrounding areas — nothing to get depressed about.  Both the Foehn-type winds and the depressions are influenced by geology, hence the point of the post: geology and wine are very much linked.

The Foehn winds, or Chinook winds as they are known in North America, are dry and warm winds that blow downslope of a mountain range.

The Cotnari area is in the rain shadow of the Eastern Carpathians, hence the warmer climate, somewhat unusual for this northern latitude.  The Eastern Carpathians started forming over 100 million years ago, in Cretaceous time, by collision between tectonic plates.  The Eastern Carpathians thrust-and-fold belt slowly uplifted since the Cretaceous to become the beautiful mountains of today.  Prior to the Cretaceous time there were no mountains, therefore no Foehn winds, no warm climate, no wine.  The dinosaurs could not have grown grapes around the Cotnari area, maybe this is one of the reasons they went extinct 🙂  The small depressions that offer protection and good micro-climate for grape-vine growing are also a result of geology: they are controlled by subsidence along the myriad of faults associated with the mountain belt.  The result for the Cotnari area and its wine?  Nice annual average temperatures of 9deg C, early springs and nice late autums lasting through October.

The Cotnari wines come from native varieties of grape: Grasa de Cotnari, Feteasca Alba, Francusa, Busuioaca de Moldova.  My favorites are Francusa, for its subtle, flowery taste, and of course Grasa de Cotnari, the perfect companion for a dessert.  So this weekend, enjoy your favorite glass of wine and think about the geology that made it possible.  As we say in Romania – Noroc!

Sources and further info:

Cotnari website

Romania, the land of wine by V. Cotea and F. Andreescu

Nice photography from the Carpathians in Romania are found here

Cotnari vineyard blogpost on TrueRomania

Dracula and geology

Poienari Fortress (in Romanian -Cetatea Poienari) is located on the upper reaches of the Arges Valley, in the Southern Carpathians of Romania.  It was built between 1456-1462 by Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler (photo below), the Prince who ruled what was at that time the southern part of Romania, the Pricipality of Valachia.  Yeah, the one that inspired the story of Dracula, but I am talking about the real person here, so let’s stick to the facts and history.


Legend has it that part of the construction was done by some of Vlad’s landlords who conspired against him.  The Impaler brought them at the construction site and pointing his sword he told them to build it or else….

I discovered the fortress during geology field work one summer, while working on my graduate degree in geology.  Geologically speaking the site is located very close to the boundary between the Paleogene strata of the Carpathian Foredeep and the crystalline basement of the Southern Carpathians.  This geologic boundary results in a very rough topography, which of course was the main reason why Vlad chose this location – another example of how geology and culture intertwine.


During the mid 1400s, Valachia was on the border between the Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and Vlad had a big problem with the Turks, as in …. he did not want them in his country.  His court was in Targoviste, a locality in the hills of south-central Romania, but this place was too exposed, easy to get to and hard to defend.  Vlad needed remote places to take refuge when the Ottomans attacked.  The roughed peaks of the Southern Carpathians thrust and fold belt offered good protection, and a place to regroup and then attack back to defend the land.


Today, the Poienari fortress can be reached by climbing ~1480 steps, which were built between 1969-1972 by the local Government, in an effort to make the place accessible to the public.

Poienari fortress. ©EarthRelated

Experiencing reality

I experience reality in two ways. The first, and the most common for me at this stage, is a linear mode. When my consciousness perceives reality in this way, people and objects only exist in time…

… I sample and analyze the chaos of events in the external world into a linear sequence; I make meaning through separation, and I use language to express my thinking…

… there is always a past, a present and a future…

… and when my perception functions in this mode, I know that the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is in charge…

In this mode, I sample and understand reality as in the time-line below:

Cloud cover on October 17, morning, afternoon and evening, over the Gulf of Mexico area. Bright dot represents Houston. Snapshots are from “LivingEarth”. ©EarthRelated

There is an expectation that events should occur in a linear, logical succession, “perfectly” ordered in time, with a beginning and an end.

I need this mode of experience to function in the world I am at present: I work, therefore I need to get to the office on time, I need to be at meetings on time, I need to finish projects on time. I have a family, and the significant people in my life depend on me to show up and do things in a time-bound fashion. Or do they?

The other mode I experience reality is non-linear…

… events are intertwined, each reciprocally influencing the other, and the perception is comprehensive and complete…

… the world is a “patterned whole”, where events occur simultaneously, in a timeless space, with no future or past, with no cause and effect, with no words needed for expression…

A Patterned Whole

Experience and perception as a non-linear, patterned whole, where events are intertwined and timeless. ©EarthRelated.

… and when my perception functions in this mode, I know that the right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex is in charge…

Are these two modes exclusive of one another? Is there a middle of the road, or should be one? Would I be able to function in my present life using the “patterned whole” mode of experience?

Creativity and social change

Human thought and action have the ability to permeate from individuals or small groups into larger social groups, society and even into the human race.  If there is any truth in this statement, I have great hopes and optimism that the Romanian youth of today, with their altruism and positive energy, will change the country for the better when they will have the opportunity to do so.  I experienced that fresh altruism, energy and passion for making a difference during a summer weekend in June, in a small city north of Bucharest.  A good friend of mine, Corina, has conceived, obtained necessary funding and is currently leading a social project in Târgovişte, Romania.  This is the project I witnessed in June; this is the project that gave me the optimism and hope that today’s creative young people will one day change the social environment in Romania, an environment that has been in need of change for a long time.

The project – “The Creativity Map of Dâmboviţa County” – with guidance form educators, mentors and creative minds is designed to engage high-school age students and enable them to understand and experience their own creative spirit and to acquire a skill-set that will assist them to map the creative landscape in the area they live.

Several generations gathered in Târgovişte City Square on a beautiful summer evening to celebrate the joy of creativity, inspired by a group of enthusiastic high-school students and their mentors. ©EarthRelated

The project website is located here, it is still work in progress and  the content is in Romanian only.  For the English-speaking audience here is a quick summary:

The project was initiated and is being led by the  “Friendship Ambasadors” a non-profit organization from Târgovişte.  The principal goals are to teach highschool-age students  the antreprenorial spirit in the field of creative industries, and to map the creative landscape of a small comunity, which does not have the ability and internal resources to plan its own creative industry. The project benefits from the help of the Association of Creative Industry from Iaşi, from the support of the  “I. Heliade Rădulescu”  library and the Dâmbovita County Cultural Center.  The success of the project is ensured by several charismatic and competent mentors  who work with a group of about 20 students.  The students, with training and guidance from their mentors, will map the principal creative industries in the County  and will present the results of their work to a large audience in Târgovişte and in Bucharest.  In this practical manner the designers of the project encourage the creation of cultural, intellectual, moral and material values, and their intelligent consumption at the level of an entire community, while also emphasizing the relationship between education, culture and the achievement of  success and meaning in ones life.

Improvisational theatre taught by Dalina Costin, at the June workshop. The students are given the opportunity to experience, learn and practice a variety of creative skills, which will not only help the success of this project, but will unravel their authentic creative spirit. ©EarthRelated

Students are being taught creative skills during a June workshop in Târgovişte. ©EarthRelated

Dalina Costin, actor, drama teacher and casting director, teaching creativity through improvisational theatre and other techniques. ©EarthRelated

The creative spirit is a fundamental characteristic of humans – we all have it, but our ability and knowledge of how to express it varies depending on the environment we lived in and our life experiences.  Creativity is a deliberate act, is a courageous act that leads not only to personal expression but also has the capacity to effect fundamental social change.  This is what was so inspiring about witnessing a small part of this project.

The participating students are making a deliberate choice to engage in something that will lead to change – change in themselves, which will certainly lead to change in their environment and community.  They spent a weekend, and will spend many more, engaging their hearts and minds in something with a potential to alter the status quo in a positive way.  And there was so much joy in what they were doing…  It was the joy of learning something new, the joy of being out of their comfort zone and to feel the creative growth associated with that experience, the joy of being with peers who have similar passions, the joy of learning from educators who believe in what they do.

Corina Leca, the initiator and leader of the project. ©EarthRelated

Corina is the heart and mind of this project.  I know her since University, when we both learned about rocks, geology and time that is measured in millions of years, not only in “human-years”.  After graduations we took different paths, I am still practicing geoscience, while Corina is heavily involved in work that leads to social change.  She is and will continue to be an inspiration to me: grass-roots action, social engagement and civic education are not easy endeavors in a young democracy like Romania’s, or in any young democracy across Eastern Europe or anywhere around the world.

People like Corina are trail-blazers who get their energy from core values transcending the individual and operating in a sphere where the greater purpose is the ultimate and only goal.

During a weekend in June I experienced greatness in Târgovişte.  That feeling will stay with me for a long time and the experience became an inspiration to get involved and give back.

Mauna Kea and the path to knowledge

Mauna Kea view from Mauna Loa Observatory

Mauna Kea has many dimensions: for the native Hawaiian is a sacred place filled with tradition and spirituality, for the geologist is a volcano in a post-shield stage, for the astronomer is the window to the Universe, for the biologist is a biotic ecosystem with the greatest diversity anywhere in the Hawaiian archipelago, for the tourist is a car ride or a long hike away from the highest peak in the state of Hawai’i, for the Guinness Book of World Record’s enthusiast is the tallest mountain on the planet (when measured from the sea-floor).  What does it take to understand, to know, to get to the essence of such a place?  For me it is to grasp the deep meaning and interconnection of all of these dimensions, and in the process of doing so, to grasp other dimensions that are not immediately apparent.

I wanted to hike Mauna Kea ever since I spotted its snowy peak on a sunny morning in December, while running up Kaiwiki road in Hilo.  It was not from the desire to have the hike as part of my “record” (in fact I don’t even have a “record”), it was not because I wanted to “conquer” the highest peak in the state.  As I was standing in the middle of the winding road, literally out of breath because of running uphill, but also figuratively breathless because of the view, I felt a deeper yearning to experience that beauty and mystery by foot, up close and personal, to attempt to understand its many dimensions, to get closer to its essence.

I did the hike in mid-July after some homework and research regarding the logistics.  It was a solo hike and must admit I was a little apprehensive about it because did not know how I would react to that much altitude gain. I have never been above 3,100m of elevation ever in my life, and the summit is 4,205m high.  From the Onizuka Visitor Center to the summit there are almost 1,400 meters of elevation gain.  In normal life I live at sea-level, so it is obvious why I was a little worried.  But knowledge and experience take courage, the courage to often embark alone on a journey, to be fully present, to see where the journey takes you and how it feels.  I departed from the Onizuka Visitor Center (elevation 2,804m) on the Humu’ula trail at 8:30 in the morning, and about half an hour into the hike I left all the vegetation behind – it felt like being on the Moon, and the views were extraordinary.

View from the Humu’ula Trail towards Mauna Loa. No vegetation, basalt and the cinder cones everywhere. The trail is visible in the lower left corner.

Information and/or a collection of facts are not knowledge, although both are often mistaken as being such.  Both information and facts prepare one for understanding, but the path to true knowledge is an arduous one, and goes beyond processing information and way beyond mere intellectual experience.  I am a geologist, and in a place like Mauna Kea I can’t help not to think about volcanoes, different types of basalts, hot spots, wether glaciers existed or not there in the recent past, etc. But the vastness of that place soon makes one realize that the essence of Mauna Kea lies beyond what one can grasp by thinking only from one point of view (geology in my case), or from just using the intellect, or just from putting the facts together.  True knowledge and understanding makes use of our inner consciousness and intuition, and requires experience (“tasting” life) with a humble attitude.  And is not hard at all to be humble in the middle of that landscape.

The hike to the Mauna Kea summit from the Onizuka Visitor Center is approximately six miles, and it took me about five hours.  The six miles back took “a mere” three hours, but the last hour was somewhat taxing on the knees – slopes are steep and I was tired after all the hiking.  There is cell phone coverage only for the first couple of miles from the Visitor Center, after that you are on your own.  Not too far from the summit, at 3,970 m, is Lake Waiau.  For ancient Hawaiians this was a bottomless lake, which went deep into the heart of the mountain and was the portal for spirits to travel to and from the spirit world.  The name comes from Wainau, who in the Hawaiian mythology was one of the four snow-maidens of Mauna Kea.

The four snow-maidens were all queens of beauty, full of wit and wisdom, lovers of adventure, and enemies of Pele. They were the goddesses of the snow-covered mountains. They embodied the mythical ideas of spirits carrying on eternal warfare between heat and cold, fire and frost, burning lava and stony ice. – from Sacred Texts

Lake Waiau, a sacred place for the Hawaiians.

Not far from the lake, the Humu’ula trail ends as it merges with the road leading to the astronomic observatories.  The trail emerges from between two cinder cones and the views open up suddenly.  The expanse of the mountain, the immensity of the  blue sky and the thirteen telescopes perched on the ridge make for a surreal experience.

End of Humu’ula trail and the first view of the telescopes from the Mauna Kea Astronomic Observatory.

Lake Wainau represents for the Hawaiians the portal to the spirit world.  For today’s scientists the Observatory is the portal to the Universe.  For a detached observer like me, not involved in the controversy of erecting a research center on sacred grounds, the proximity of the Lake to the Observatory is almost magical.  With a temporary suspension of disbelief I can imagine myself at the end of my hike as traveling, using the two portals, from the spirit world to the edge of the Universe :).  An allegory I can use for the path to knowledge and the true essence?  The link between my humanity and the extra dimension of understanding.

Other links on Mauna Kea

Morgan Brown’s site – description of the hike and cool photos

The World in a Tea Cup – Black Tea from Onomea Tea Company, the Big Island

Rows of tea and the beautiful view across the Onomea Bay, the Big Island of Hawai’i. ©EarthRelated

A cup of tea has a fragment of the world in it – I learned this while picking tea with friends at the Onomea Tea Plantation, on a sunny morning in July.

A perfect cup of tea draws its essence from the soil, the light, the climate, the passion of the people who grow the crop, and the joy of those who gather around it to experience the aroma, the flavors and to share stories. The goodness in a cup of Onomea Black Tea comes from the Hawaii’s unique micro-climates and the fertile soil that allow the Camellia sinensis to thrive. Both the climate and the soil are in essence linked with deeper energies inside the Earth, which define these islands in such a profound way.

Big Island of Hawai’i. Credit: NASA GSFC Landsat/LDCM EPO Team

It all started about two million years ago, when the Big Island came into existence from a temptation of the deep Earth to give birth to new land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  We geologists call this “temptation” a hot spot, a plume of hot magma from the Earth’s mantle, that pierces a lithospheric plate and forms a volcano.  The Big Island of Hawai’i is made of five such volcanoes that in time coalesced to give the beauty we enjoy today.  Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are the two most important volcanoes on the island today.

There is immense beauty and a mystery beyond words in the delicate balance between the Earth’s inner forces, the climate and the life on the Big Island.  The tall volcanoes trap the moisture from the trade winds, so that barren basalt is quickly turned into fertile soil to nourish a lush tropical vegetation. There are nurturing tropical rains, small annual variations in the altitude of the sun above the horizon, small annual variations in the length of the daylight period, small variations in air temperature because of relatively constant flow of fresh ocean air across the Island.  All of this permeates every living being, human, animal or plant, with the unique spirit of Aloha:  the joyful sharing of life energy in the present.

Tea at the Onomea Tea Plantation. ©EarthRelated

All of this, and surely much more, inspired Mike and Rob, the owners of the Onomea Tea Company, to put their passion and time into growing tea on the Hamakua Coast.  I knew very little about tea before my visit and the picking on that July morning, but talking with Rob and Mike, and the entire experience of being there gave me a new appreciation for growing, processing, preparing and enjoying the tea. It showed me that tea has a culture built around it, which blends seamlessly with the geography and the geology of the place where it is grown.

Tea picking is a very social experience.  As you share row after row of plants with a partner, all you do is pick tea and talk.  I met my tea picking partner for the first time that day, but by the time we finished picking we talked about more things that I usually talk with some people who I know for ages, and it all came so naturally.  Drinking the tea, of course, is very much a social experience.  As we enjoyed a delicious meal on Rob and Mike’s lanai that afternoon, we tasted various kinds of teas, all prepared to perfection, we shared stories, watched the waves reaching the shore and enjoyed a perfect Hawaiian afternoon.

Onomea Black Tea. ©EarthRelated

Wherever I am, as I enjoy a cup of Black Tea from Hawai’i, the flavors, the color and the aroma always bring back that world to me: the tall volcanic mountains, the energy from deep inside the Earth that creates land in the middle of the ocean, the gentle rain, the trade winds, the fresh ocean air, the sunny and crisp days, the people and their spirit of Aloha.  The whole world in a teacup…


To learn more about subjects related to this post, click on the links below:

Hawai’i Tea Society – a platform for tea-enthusiasts and tea-growers in the state of Hawai’i
Zakti – a website where you can discover information about the history and culture of tea,growing regions around the world, steeping techniques and much more.
U.S. Geological Survey – Hawaiian Volcano Observatory – everything you want to know about volcanoes and volcanic activity on the Big Island.
Volcanoes in action -impressive spattering at the western margin of the lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu, Big Island of Hawai’i.
More volcanoes in action – lava lake at Halemaʻumaʻu, Big Island of Hawai’i (with sound too).