#1  Mauna Kea, Hawaii (13,796 ft.)

Let's be honest. My wife and I chose to honeymoon on the Big Island of Hawaii not because it boasts the highest point in the state but for the beaches and the volcanoes. Only six years later did I begin my true highpointing quest when I scrambled up Connecticut's Mount Frissell

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But even back in the dark, non-highpointing days Mauna Kea was definitely on our to-do list. After a few days relaxing and sipping overpriced fruity drinks at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, we booked a stargazing tour of the summit, for which you get driven up in a van. First you visit the professional observatories, and then you park a little way down the road and hold a "star party" with a portable telescope. I remember seeing a galaxy that resembled a moldy cheerio. 

Taking this route, in which you gain close to 14,000 feet in a matter of hours, is an excellent way to experience firsthand the effects of altitude on the human body. I was noticeably slower physically and mentally at the top, and it seemed to get cold very quickly. The summit is spectacular nonetheless, as are the massive telescopes. My wife is responsible for the amazing photographs taken en route and of the observatory itself.

Measured from its base on the ocean floor to its summit high above the beaches of the Big Island, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that last erupted some 4,600 years ago, is the world's tallest mountain. Much of its true height is obscured below sea level, but Mauna Kea still ranks sixth in elevation among state highpoints and is tall enough to sustain a seasonal snowcap (hence its name in Hawaiian, which                                                              means "white mountain”). Sacred to native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is described in myths as the firstborn son of the sky father and earth mother; Poli'ahu, the snow deity, is believed to reside on its summit. According to an ancient Hawaiian edict, or kapu, only high-ranking tribal chiefs could visit the top, where archaeologists have discovered some 76 shrines and a number of burial sites.

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The first recorded single-day ascent of Mauna Kea was made on August 26, 1823, by Jospeh F. Goodrich, an American missionary. James Macrae, a botanist with the HMS Blonde, reached the summit two years later and was the first scientist to record the endemic Mauna Kea silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense), now critically endangered (right). In the twentieth century Mauna Kea was developed as an observatory owing to an extremely dry, stable mass of air  above the summit as well as the mountain's exceptional remoteness from urban light pollution. Among the facilities housed there are the twin telescopes known as Keck I and Keck II, which you can glimpse in the slideshow.

Alas, I have no video from the 2004 trip, but that is as good an excuse as any to return to the Aloha State. 

 

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