Thursday, January 13, 2005

Mauna Kea staff fears
for safety of snow-lovers

Observatory officials say
post-storm crowds often
come unprepared

HILO » With snow blanketing Mauna Kea down to the 10,000-foot elevation, state officials are expecting a crowd of snow-lovers during the weekend.

Play it safe

Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services has these do's and don'ts for a trip to see the snow on Mauna Kea:

» Bring sunscreen, sunglasses and protective clothing.
» Drive slowly.
» Carry out your trash.
» Leave if starts to snow.
» Don't go if you're under 16, pregnant or in poor health.
» Don't drink alcohol.
» Watch out for ice falling from buildings.
» Don't expect public bathrooms. There are none.

But Ron Koehler of Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services said, "We're not a ski resort."

In the past, "well over a thousand" cars per day have visited the 13,796-foot-high summit area following a good snowstorm, Koehler said.

No one other than observatory technical staff is allowed to the summit until ice melts from the road, which might happen today, Koehler said. The road was open to about the 13,000-foot elevation yesterday, he said.

"We're happy to have the public up there," he said.

But he also worries about them.

In the thin atmosphere, with sunlight bouncing off snow underfoot and on surrounding volcanic cones, people can get four to five times as much ultraviolet rays as at lower elevations.

"If you're without sunscreen, you're going to get toasted," Koehler said. In the cold air, people cannot feel their skin burning.

Once, a group of teenagers became temporarily snow-blind, unable to open their eyes, he said. Other than first aid, the nearest medical help is an hour and a half away. In the worst case, snow-blindness can be permanent.

If clouds come and winds pick up, the cold gets a lot colder. The wind chill temperature on the mountain Tuesday was minus 25 degrees, Koehler said. On Monday the wind blew at 50 mph all day.

Low air pressure and 40 percent less oxygen at the summit than at sea level can be an immediate threat to some people, causing fluid in the lungs and on the brain. Symptoms such as headaches, vomiting or extreme drowsiness mean people must be taken down the mountain immediately.

To make matters worse, some people drink alcohol at the summit, then throw beer cans out the window. Or worse. Rangers have had to pick up dirty diapers, said Bill Stormont, head of the Office of Mauna Kea Management.

"It's terrible," he said. But he resists the idea of putting out trash containers because blizzard winds can blow them across the mountain.

Stormont has only four special Mauna Kea rangers, two on duty at a time, who do not always get cooperation from the public. He and Koehler are expected to hire one or two off-duty police officers over the weekend.

"With uniformed police we get far better behavior," he said.

The police and rangers try to help people avoid injury. They point out that rubber inner tubes and bodyboards, unlike skis, cannot be steered. People sometimes speed down snowy slopes on them until they hit a rock, Koehler said.

Driving is equally dangerous. Someone driving down a 15 percent slope and hitting a patch of ice is not going to stop, he said. Observatory vehicles use tire chains.

UH Institute for Astronomy
W.M. Keck Observatory
Mauna Kea webcams

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