Day 159: Whipple Observatory, Cat 1 climb to the MMT

This morning, we left the RV where it was and walked the half mile or so up to the Whipple Observatory visitor center:


The visitor center is 12 miles and 4,500 vertical feet below the observatory itself, which sits atop the craggy summit of Mount Hopkins.  The primary instruments located at the visitor center are the VERITAS gamma ray telescopes.  Each of the four telescopes in 30 feet in diameter:


In the visitor center, stations are set up to schedule an astro-photograph to be taken from the on-site automated telescopes.  Assuming there are clear skies tonight, we should receive our image of the Ring Nebula (M57) tomorrow:


The visitor center had a model of the MMT, which sits at the top of Mount Hopkins.  Initially a telescope with six 1.8 meter mirrors, the MMT was refitted with a 6.5 meter mirror thanks to a new mirror spin-fabrication technique that now allows mirror greater than 5 meters in diameter to be made in a practical weight.  The MMT houses the third-largest optical mirror in the world.  To keep the size of its building practical, the entire building rotates, allowing the telescope to only have to rotate up and down within the building:



Trish ponders one member of the VERITAS array:



As we walked back to the RV, we could see two of the VERITAS telescopes:


In the distance, we could make out the MMT on Mount Hopkins:


Unfortunately, the only to see the MMT up close is by tour bus, as vehicle traffic is restricted about 2 miles from the summit.  Because the summit is at 8500 feet, ice is a frequent problem on the road, so the tour bus only operates from March through the fall.  The docent did say that the road is open to bikes, so I decided to attempt the ride.  It’s a 12.2 mile road, mostly gravel, to the top, with 4500 feet of vertical climbing.  This climb, on pavement, is a UCI Climb Category 1 climb, and is only 500 feet of climbing shy of being rates Hors Catégorie, the highest rating for a climb in road cycling.

The first couple miles of the route are paved:



The road quickly gets steep and goes to gravel:


At 6000 feet, I started to encounter snow on the shoulder and bits of ice on the road.  With 5 miles to go, there’s still a lot of up left.  Note the switchback below:


After 10 grueling miles of constant climbing, the road goes back to being paved and there’s a gate to be walked around:


The summit is at 8500 feet, so breathing became even more difficult in the final stretch.  The last 200 yards ratchet the grade up to over 20%!  At the summit, the cycle computer reported 12.2 miles ridden in 1 hour, 57 minutes, with 4634′ or vertical climbing. Once at the top, I could look down on the dorm facilities for the researchers:


The top of the mountain is so small that I couldn’t get far enough away to take a photograph of the whole MMT building:


It’s disconcerting that the sign is scratched.  I wonder what they hit…


At ground level, the building’s base rotates over the pad underneath:


The ribbon of road up to the summit can be seen starting on the right edge of the photo:


More of the crazy climb to the summit.  The 1.5, 1.3, and 1.2 meter reflector buildings can be seen in the center of the photo:


The doors of the MMT building:



Another view of the last few miles of the climb:


The first 100 yards of descent from the MMT building are so steep that I walked the bike down lest a hardware failure lead to an uncontrolled vault over the railing to the rocks far below.  After that, I did my best to keep both speed and rim temperature under control.  It took about 45 minutes to get down.

Back at the RV, the kids were completing a geography unit making their own compass roses:



After showers, we headed out at dusk about 40 miles North to overnight once again at the Desert Diamond Casino.  See the trip map for details.

Day 158: Dog Days of Winter, Tumacácori, and Tubac
Day 160: Errands in Tucson, Why reposition

4 thoughts on “Day 159: Whipple Observatory, Cat 1 climb to the MMT

  1. I just wanted to tell the kids. I think their compass roses are pretty. ^_^

    And 4000+ vertical feet on a mostly gravel road? Wow, color me impressed.

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