"On Tuesday we talked about all aspects of the vegetation part of the project (which we are doing). Today we went through lots of herbarium sheets trying to learn the plants we will need to know on Mauna Kea. Tomorrow we will be going up there for the day to collect some plants. I'm looking forward to seeing what the field conditions will be like on this job."Later he wrote:
"I just got back from a week in the field. The base camp is at about 7600 ft. on Mauna Kea, the highest mt. in Hawaii. Everything is very dry and dusty up there. When I got back today I felt like I had dirt in every pore."Mauna Kea ("White Mountain") is a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii rising 9,750 meters (32,000 ft) from the ocean floor to an altitude of 4,205 meters (13,796 ft) above sea level. It is the highest point in the Pacific Basin, and the highest island-mountain in the world. When measured from its oceanic base, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) tall—significantly taller than Mount Everest. It is one of the oldest of the 5 volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawaii.
The world's largest astronomical observatory is housed on the summit of Mauna Kea, with telescopes operated by astronomers from eleven countries. Due to its high altitude, dry environment, and stable airflow, conditions are better for making astronomical observations than any other place in the world.
The broad volcanic landscape of the summit area is made up of cinder cones on a lava plateau. The lower slopes of Mauna Kea are popular for hunting, hiking, sightseeing, and bird watching in an environment that is less hostile than the barren summit area.
In Hawaiian mythology, the peaks of the island of Hawaii are sacred, and Mauna Kea is the most sacred of all. Under the kapu (taboo) system only high-ranking tribal chiefs or ali'i were allowed to visit its peak.
When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, settlers introduced cattle, sheep and game animals, many of which became feral and began to damage the mountain's ecology. In recent years, concern over the vulnerability of the native species has led to court cases that have forced the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources to eradicate all feral species on the mountain. In fact, shortly after John arrived on the island, he wrote to us telling about a wild pig hunt that was being done by helicopter in an attempt to diminish the feral pig population.
The project John worked on was part of the long term strategy to preserve the habit of the endangered Palila bird. While we were on the Big Island looking for John, his co-workers took us to see their base camp site from which they went up on the mountain to count and evaluate the vegetation that was essential to the survival of the Palila. We enjoyed seeing where he worked. They also showed us the Silver Sword plant, one of the endangered plant species on Mauna Kea.