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

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