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By Donna Yuen

My heart skips a beat and I offer up a silent prayer as we hit a wall of thick white fog. The sinuous gravel road before us unfolds just a few feet at a time, and I'm terrified that my friend steering his four-wheel drive vehicle might veer right off the 4,205 meter-high mountain.

Then, all of a sudden, the fog dissipates, revealing a lunar-like landscape; snow covered volcanic craters loom against the horizon, and a blanket of soft clouds drifts below us. Ahead, shrines carved out of jagged volcanic rocks stand like sentinels watching over a timeless landscape. This is Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"White Mountain" or Mauna Kea as it is known to the Hawaiians is made up of cinder cones which still show evidence of glaciations occurring over the last 200,000 years. The dormant volcano surrounded by snow-capped peaks is the highest point in the Hawaiian chain of islands. With its stark, surreal beauty, it isn't surprising that native Hawaiians consider this a sacred site.

Mauna Kea's summit soars into the rarefied upper 40 percent of the globe's atmosphere, and the altitude plus the dry climatic conditions and clear skies offer ideal conditions for leading edge astronomical research. Sponsored by eleven different countries, including Canada, Japan, France, Chile, the US and the UK, observatories on Mauna Kea boast thirteen telescopes, including the world's largest optical/infrared telescope. Star gazers flock here on clear nights in the hope of catching a glimpse of distant galaxies.

Mindful of the high altitude and consequent physical effects, I dismount slowly from our vehicle. At -3 centigrade, the balmy temperatures on the beach in Kailua-Kona seem like a distant memory. My friends who live on the Big Island are frequent visitors to Mauna Kea and have come well prepared with food, warm clothing and thermoses of hot tea which we enjoy as we browse through the exhibits in the Visitor's Centre.

I decide to brave the outdoors and my friends send me on my way with a word of caution: "Watch your step, and move slowly. You can get out of breath with Acute Mountain Sickness very quickly at this height."


They are right: a combination of altitude dizziness and a sharp wind makes me stumble awkwardly, but eventually I make my way to the edge of a promontory. The snow covered terrain melds into a sea of clouds, seemingly spread out just a few meters below me. The vastness is breathtaking. I stand in awe.

I notice snowboarding tracks tracing nearby hillocks and as I do so, a snowboarder comes into view, riding down a gentle slope. What an experience that must be-snowboarding a volcano above the cloud cover! I watch him enviously and resolve to pack a snowboard on my next visit here.

Shafts of pink and orange light pierce the clouds as the sun begins its descent, its rays turning the ice-encrusted mountain side into a shower of tiny glittering diamonds.

As the skyline deepens to maroon, the temperature drops dramatically and then darkness triumphs. We reluctantly get ready to leave. The night sky is spangled with stars and I am caught up in the mystical spell of the god Wakea, the originator of all things Hawaiian. A full moon illuminates our descent and shooting stars streak across the horizon. For decades Hawaiians have come here in search of mana - a divine power. It is easy to understand why.


  • Ensure that you only attempt the summit in a four wheel drive vehicle.
  • Numerous local car rental agencies prohibit their customers from taking their vehicles up to the summit.
  • Spend at least 30 minutes acclimatizing to the altitude at the Visitors Center as visitors may suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness.
  • There are no public amenities beyond the Visitors Center.

For more information visit

Where to stay: Mauna Lani Resort at Kalahuipua'a

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PHOTOS by Donna Yuen:

1. Mauna Kea Observatory complex
2. Clouds below Mauna Kea
3. Dome of Mauna Kea Observatory
4. Sunset at Mauna Kea
5. Snowboarder on Mauna Kea


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