After hitchhiking by boat through the South Pacific Islands, I landed my first job in Hawaiʻi, as a four-day-a-week tour guide for the Mauna Kea Observatories. I started there in 1988 and did my last stint as guide in 1996, but the mountain has continued to be one of my most important touchstones—a source of primal beauty, spiritual connection, and inspiration. Here, to share that wonder with you, are some of the photos I’ve taken over the years.

All photos by Tom Peek

View from the summit at dusk, looking to the northeast with the mountain’s shadow rising above the clouds.

The view of Mauna Kea from the outskirts of Volcano Village, near where I live.

Back then, in the late 1980s, I was the only guide and I ran our little Visitor Information Station at Hale Pohaku and conducted afternoon observatory tours and nighttime stargazing with the old 25-inch telescopes on the summit. A great thing about the job was that during my stints I lived at the astronomers’ base camp 9,300 feet above sea level and had plenty of time to intimately experience the mountain.

Where I worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Visible (with its solar filter for sun viewing) is the 11-inch telescope I bought for the Visitor Information Station with money from a Big Islander so that young people could safely participate in our stargazing programs. The station was some distance below the astronomers’ base camp.

Chatting with young islanders during my first year on the mountain.

A high holy place . . .

My boss at the base camp, Tom Krieger, told me that part of my job was to also share with the public the non-astronomy history and cultural significance of Mauna Kea, displayed in our information station exhibits and other materials. Studying those, I learned early on that to Native Hawaiians—and many other islanders—this mauna, like other mountains in Hawaiʻi, was a holy place (a wahi kapu), home of the snow goddess Poliʻahu and other Hawaiian deities and the site of Lake Waiau and Keanakakoʻi, the largest ancient adze quarry in Polynesia.

Like an island in the sky, 14,000-foot Mauna Kea rises close to the heavens.

Over the years I was taught by kupuna (elders), cultural practitioners, and Hawaiians with generations of ancestral ties to the mountain that Mauna Kea—with its high sacred lake, ancient burials and shrines, sprawling adze quarry, and age-old stories (ʻolelo)—was indeed the most sacred of all the archipelago’s mountains. I shared this with the public, but also with observing astronomers, many of whom were woefully ignorant of the rich cultural aspects of the mountain (and even of the Hawaiian Islands in general).

Lake Waiau at dawn, with Puʻu Poliʻahu in first light and the mountain’s shadow on the left.

The weathered remnants of offerings left on the shores of Lake Waiau.

Tailings from one of scores of ancient tool-making workshops at Keanakakoʻi, the adze quarry high up on Mauna Kea.

A remote ancient marae on Mauna Kea as it appeared in 1988, my first year on the mountain.

A summertime view of Puʻu Poliʻahu, the mammoth, multicolored cinder home of the luminescent snow goddess, Poliʻahu.

Puʻu Lilinoe, home of the mountain’s goddess of mists, located just below Mauna Kea’s summit.

A place loved by islanders of all walks of life . . .

During those early years on the mauna, I met many other local residents from all walks of island life. These included hunters, hikers, longtime observatory technicians, base camp employees, former Boy Scouts who in youth had trekked the steep mountain trail to the lake and the adze quarry, birdwatchers, and biologists studying Mauna Kea’s unique flora and fauna.

They, too, in their own ways, revered the mountain.

Whenever the mountaintop is draped in white, residents from across the island race up to marvel at Poliʻahu’s handiwork, play in the snow, or bring some back to lower elevations to build snowmen.

One of my kupuna, Aunty Leinaʻala, told me that “the mana of the ‘aina comes up through your feet if you walk the land,” and I’ve done that on Mauna Kea for years—in the daytime and at night, and in all kinds of weather, even during the mountain’s legendary blizzards. And so Mauna Kea long ago became as important to me personally as the Mighty Mississippi on whose banks I’d grown up in Minnesota and Lake Superior whose bold, pristine waters I’d swam since childhood and later sailed as a young man.

Evening mists move up Mauna Kea’s upper slopes from the Hamakua Coast, bringing life-giving water to the mamane forest at 9,000 feet.

Snowplows, common in my home state of Minnesota, appear here in Hawaiʻi only on the mountain of the snow goddess.

On the mauna with Native Hawaiian mentors and friends . . .

Living and working on the mountain, I soon developed friendships with Native Hawaiians tied to the mountain, some with ancestral bonds reaching back 2,000 years. Among them were wise elders who patiently shared their rich and complex culture with me, urged me to deepen my relationship with the island, and taught me lessons about the foundational importance of aloha in our relationship with the land and each other. Some also encouraged my efforts to digest with my pen what I was experiencing with them.

To walk the mountain with them was a great blessing, enlarging my understanding of Mauna Kea’s central role in their culture, and deepening my love for the mountain . . . changing me forever.

The ahu kupuna, a lava-rock altar built at Puʻu Huluhulu by Native Hawaiians to honor the ancestors, including revered elders, now passed, who had fought to protect Mauna Kea and other important places on the ʻaina.

My first kupuna, Aunty Leinaʻala Apiki McCord, a traditional cultural practitioner whose ancestral ties and contemporary  practice bonded her closely to both Mauna Kea and Kilauea.

Joining the fight . . .

After all these Mauna Kea experiences—at the base camp, on my own, and with my Native Hawaiian and other island friends—there was never any question about my getting involved with their efforts to protect the mauna from further development, and I’ve done so for almost three decades. In addition to the magazine and newspaper commentaries I wrote about the controversy, and my testimony at multiple public hearings, I also worked behind the scenes—as an advisor and writer—to support the efforts of my friends.

Also, as a former member of the astronomy community, I tried to help astronomers understand the longstanding reasons that Big Islanders, particularly Native Hawaiians, were calling for an end to the persistent push for more telescopes, but, unfortunately, with almost no effect.

Mauna Kea protectors (kiaʻi) gathered on the Mauna Kea access road on July 17, 2019.

Eventually, after decades being ignored at hearings and in courtrooms, Native Hawaiians and other islanders blocked the mountain access road to stop construction equipment from reaching the mountaintop, but they always stayed in aloha, committed to nonviolence and peaceful civil disobedience. Whenever we got word that police were heading up to try to break the blockade, my wife and I joined them at the road.

Those tense moments—with armed police in full riot gear trying to intimidate us—only deepened my commitment to this magnificent legendary mountain and to the islanders who revere and defend it.

Mauna Kea kiaʻi at the roadblock honoring the mountain at the start of a day that would bring a flood of armed riot police to break up the gathering and arrest 34 elders who refused to budge from the road in order to protect their sacred mauna from further desecration.

Ku Kiaʻi Mauna!

For a deeper understanding of Mauna Kea and the community’s efforts to protect it, watch the acclaimed 2006 documentary Mauna Kea – Temple Under Siege by Puhipau Ahmad and Joan Lander. Some of Tom’s early testimony is included in the film.

Another great film illuminating the Hawaiian view of the mountain is Standing above the Clouds, featuring, among others, Mauna Kea kiaʻi Aunty Pua Case and her daughter Hāwane Rios (available through PBS).

Here also is a beautiful musical tribute to the goddess Poliʻahu, written and performed by Hāwane Rios.