First Day on the Mountain

It is a chilly day on Mauna Kea — near freezing. I am in a four-wheel drive with three engineers and we are cruising towards the Canada France Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea at 14,000 feet in the sky.

The engineers are chatty and friendly and haven’t the faintest clue as to why I am with them. Why does an artist want to spend time in a scientific community? We all try to make the best of the situation and discuss real estate prices in Hawaii and Vancouver. We arrive at Hale Pohaku, the stone house, at about 8 AM, an hour after leaving the warm, sunny offices in Waimea. Hale Pohaku is a facility for the feeding and acclimatizing of the telescope workers. It would be very inadvisable to roar up to 14, 000 feet without spending an hour or so getting used to about half that altitude. So we have a nice breakfast and enjoy the stark, desert-like views out to the famous Silversword plants.

These plants look like Dr. Suess designed them for Who-ville. They have a bushy base of silvery green knife like leaves with large stalks of yellow flowers, which only flower every 50 years. They are rare — only found on Mauna Kea at the vegetation line.  The silversword is protected and one is not allowed to touch it. They are very striking and I have plans for them — I wish to render them in ink made from the ground up particles of their dead leaves. I have permission from the director to collect the dead leaves lying on the ground for this purpose. And so, in the final moments before our final ascent, the engineers and I hop around the sacred plants, gathering wizened silversword leaves from the sandy soil.

When we arrive at the telescope, it is bright and sunny and freezing — about minus 10 degrees. Everyone tells me to ‘take it easy’ because oxygen deprivation can be quite debilitating. Steve, one of the engineering team decides he will be my ‘buddy’ for the day. This is a safety system to ensure you don’t go wandering off and pass out from the altitude. He hands me a walkie talkie and shows me how to use it to check in with him.

The first half hour I feel like I’ve had a few martinis and, after a cup of tea, I get down to work. I decide that the most oxygen my body will have all day is right now and so I tackle my landwork first. I carefully take snow from just outside the telescope and pile it onto the gravel of the ground surrounding the telescope into a large representation of the first famous imaging picture that CFHT produced. I go up onto the catwalk of the telescope and photograph my efforts from above with different filters. The image was supplied by Jean Charles Cuillandre, astronomer and master image creator of the team at CFHT.

Any physical exertions take a lot more out of you at 14,000 feet. After the landwork, I am somewhat dizzy and take a short break. I have some lunch with the guys in the lounge/kitchen area. Interestingly, since your brain starts to die at high elevation, the thing to do is feed it to save it. With sugar and salt. Really. Yes, up at altitude you are SUPPOSED to eat Doritos, doughnuts, beef jerky, ramen noodles — simple junk food type carbohydrates and salt to prevent dehydration. We are all so ‘good’ down at sea level and it is somewhat surreal to toss all those rules aside to save brain cells. Feeling better after a light lunch of junk food, I have a coffee — caffeine can help with the effects of altitude as well.

After lunch I take my camera out to the actual telescope itself, which is a large cavernous dome with engineering that resembles a James Bond movie set for an evil mastermind. The engineering team I am embedded with is changing the system from day observations over to night observation mode. There is a lot going on — cables to be switched and run, optic cameras to be exchanged and tons of machinery to be made operational before sundown. Frequently the engineers and software people have a short window in which to ensure everything is working properly. They work against time to solve some incredibly complex problems. It is absolutely fascinating to visually document their struggles and triumphs. If they don’t deal with the snafus, thousands of dollars of scientific time on the telescope will be wasted. They are heroes.

A telescope control room down at the corporate offices in Waimea at 2,500 feet means that observations can be done by remote. Dr. Christian Veillet, the director speaks of the early days of the telescope in the 1970’s when the observations had to be made up at the observatory itself. Apparently astronomers would get bored during the long, cold nights (the telescope is always kept at a specific degree of coldness to optimize the engineering precision) and decide to try and get some work done — handwriting their scientific papers. They’d have a feeling that all was well and that they were really getting somewhere. When they returned to sea level, they would find they had written gibberish due to oxygen deprivation. There is a quote, “Don’t ever work on the big problems at altitude.” With this story in mind, I have come prepared with a ‘tasks list’ for myself. I only get through about a third of it on my first day at the telescope.

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~ by Colleen McLaughlin Barlow on October 15, 2011.

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