| Mauna Kea Trip Report
Hawai'i: a Land of Contrasts
Forged in the fires of volcanic upheaval and shaped by the erosive blades of wind and water, the islands today truly contain tremendously diverse environments. From lush, tropical rainforests, soaking wet hillsides to arid alpine deserts, verdant valleys filled with towering waterfalls to snow-capped volcanoes nearly 14,000 ft tall, all surrounded by a turquoise sea, Hawaii just about has it all. (If not already selected ,select "View With Large Photos" on the top middle of the page for better pictures showing more detail).
The island chain in the middle of the Pacific ocean that collectively make up the state of Hawaii and the 50th state of the U.S., is simply an outdoor lover's paradise. While the plan for this trip was the four main islands, Mauna Kea is on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where this report pertains to.
My first martial arts instructor used to say, "to know the flower, one needs to understand its roots."
I figured a good way to understand the islands of Hawaii was to get up close and personal with its volcanoes, their vehicles of creation. On the Big Island, we planned to see the three well known volcanoes which comprise most of the landmass of the island. Aside from the still active Kilauea and gargantuan Mauna Loa, the goal on this hike was to summit Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in the islands of Hawaii.
Prior to embarking on the climb of Mauna Kea, a couple of days at Volcanoes National Park were mandatory!
Kilauea was among the first things I wanted to see and we learned that the lava was flowing again after a short hiatus where it had recently stopped in any area that was reasonably accessible on foot. Arguably the world’s most active volcano, at least since 1983, Kilauea comprises the southeastern part of the Big Island or that same part of the slope of Mauna Loa.
That same night after a 90 minute drive and mile hike across hardened black lava, we walked to a point where flowing lava was visible! This coincided with sunset, which made the 2000+ degree glowing lava easier to stand out. The lava wasn't flowing down the mountain in a 40mph river that some might have seen from the 1980's but nonetheless was a cool thing to see! It was flowing slowly down the flanks of the mountain over the course of probably 5-10 miles from its source at the crater though, which we could see as the molten rock became more visible as the sun went down and small patches of the mountain would start to glow.
Viewed from above the superheated lava flow, the sunset was blurred into an abstract-like painting as the heat waves rose off the molten rock. Very cool looking and I was able to capture it in a photo. I was watching new earth form and was standing on some of the newest land on the planet, being only days old and still over 400 degrees just a few feet beneath where I stood, which used to be a paved highway road. 100 yards to the left were two houses that the lava consumed only weeks before.
The next morning, we got to the active Halema'uma'u crater in the Kilauea caldera before sunrise to be welcomed by a cloud of gas and steam glowing blaze orange in the early morning darkness. As dawn rose, we saw that this crater within a crater, was only a portion of yet another crater. Smaller fumaroles emptied gasses all around us. This was an amazing place.
After spending the day hiking in the park, before leaving for Hilo that night, we stopped by and did one last hike to the section of road where lava had overtaken it awhile back. (Note road sign in photo!) That lava field covered hundreds of acres in all directions and was probably 10 feet deep, reaching all the way to the ocean, forming new land as it went.
We also did the Kilauea Iki trail and walked to the area near the coast where many petroglyphs
are found. Both were short hikes, but pretty neat. I should add thart it was very wet here, being the rainy season and coupled with the fact were essentially walking in clouds, got fairly wet.
One other cool place we went on the Kona coast was Pu'uhonua o Honaunau, a historical area aimed at preserving traditional Hawaiian life which had served as a place of refuge for defeated
warriors or those violating sacred laws of the land. Apparently this was also the place for royal residences. Human-like Ki'i or Tiki stand guard over the grounds.
After spending the prior evening in Hilo, walking amongst giant banyan trees (in a light rain)and watching Green sea turtles cavort in the Big Island surf, we awoke at 3:30AM and drove up the Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea trailhead located at the Onizuka Visitor Center. Situated at roughly 9,200ft, the Visitor Center provided a good starting point for the climb. The Center is named to honor Ellison Onizuka, an astronaut from Hawaii who perished in the Challenger disaster of 1986.
The Saddle Road by the way was undergoing construction when we were there and has sections that are rough semi graded dirt which slowed travel down considerably.
A Sacred Place
Mauna Kea is a legendary place in Hawaiian culture and is an area which engenders a great deal of respect, playing a central role in Hawaiian spirituality. While other island high points have great significance to Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is considered the most sacred and is held in the highest regard not only by native Hawaiians, but all across the Pacific as the highest point in Polynesia. Mauna Kea, also known as Mauna a Wakea is linked to the progenitor of the Hawaiian people and is known to connect the land to the heavens.
As such a special mountain and a place of strong "Kapuna", climbing to the summit takes one closer to the spiritual and the supernatural realm, closer to the "source." To native climbers, as one ascends, the presence of their ancestors could be felt or the wisdom of elders might be tapped for spiritual guidance. Several Shrines placed along the route to the summit are testimony to the importance of this mountain to the Hawaiian people.
Mauna Kea and its surrounding area is a magical place. In less than an hours drive from the lush (wet) rainforests outside Hilo, you find yourself surrounded by rocky, barren terrain resembling a Martian landscape. Few plants grow up here and the dusty earth is stained brick red all the way to the summit, but life exists here. The plants and animals that ekes out a living here, however, is special and in many cases are found nowhere else on earth.
Standing at 13,796ft, Mauna Kea, or "White Mountain" is the highest point on the islands, though if measured from its oceanic base, rises roughly 33,000 ft, making it taller than Everest on an absolute basis. Its name comes from its occasional snowfall in the winter months on its higher elevations.
This climb was more meaningful for its uniqueness, the cultural significance and scientific importance of the mountain rather than the technical challenges that the route presented. The fact that it was the tallest peak in Hawaii also lured me into wanting to climb it. Its history of volcanic eruption further added to its appeal as did the fact that there could be snow on the summit, some of the only snow found at these latitudes on earth (little did I know that back at home, we had just received two feet in a recent storm). Its relative isolation also meant it would likely be a nice quiet hike.
As others have mentioned, the actual route more resembled a climb up a Sawatch Fourteener and was all Class 1 to the summit, but walking through the volcanic landscape, the climb was so much more, a place where a certain amount of "mana" could be felt. This was reinforced as we hiked and started walking above the clouds and the northern flank of Mauna Loa became visible peeking through the low lying inversion layer.
The weather and temperature differentials we experienced in the 24 hours around this climb were fairly extreme. On the morning we left, it was a balmy 74 degrees out and calm, following a humid, rainy 82 degrees the night before. As we got to the trailhead, it was a semi-uncomfortable dry, 40 degrees, though the wind was howling at a good 35-40 knots, enough to blow my pack over, making it quite cold when factoring in wind chill. This felt especially cold being that in the days leading up to this, we were in 80 degree temps. Doing some simple math I was estimating that it would be in the low to mid 20s on the summit...Wait, aren't we supposed to be in *Hawaii*... 20 degrees!!??
So, we left the tank top and snorkel gear in the car and dressed like we were doing a Colorado 14er in November. With the winds howling in the pre dawn air, I was happy to have my balaclava. Had I been selected for a random bag search at the Kona airport, I am sure the TSA Agent would have looked at me funny with that in my pack on a trip to Hawaii where sea level temperatures hovered around 80*F.
Starting out shortly after daybreak there were some clouds we moved through at around the elevation of the trailhead. I took a wrong turn straight away, wasting a half an hour and a couple hundred feet of vertical. Note to would be climbers: From the parking area, walk UP the road a hundred yards or so until you see a break and a dirt walkway leading to the trail. The proper route follows the Humu'ula Trail. Do NOT walk up the mountain trail directly opposite the parking lot-it goes nowhere.
You can also choose to simply walk up the road, but I think the trail across the mountain terrain is far more interesting a choice. If you choose to drive up the road, note that many parts are unpaved and pretty rough and steep, so make sure your rental vehicle is up to it and permitted to travel here. There was one person climbing up on the road who was actually being supported by a vehicle for food and water, which I thought was a bit odd. Looked like a Tour de France support car!
As you climb, soon after reaching a plateau of sorts, several cinder cones become visible and you really feel like you stepped out of the Mars Exploration Rover and are on Olympus Mons. I was waiting to start seeing little red men come out.
The gentle slopes of nearby Mauna Loa dominated the southeastern horizon while the red sands of Mauna Kea enveloped our every step as we inched upwards.
Soon after reaching 10,500ft or so, the skies cleared and grew increasingly deeper blue with every step. The sun was pretty intense.
There were some ups and downs along the trail, the downs affording us a reprieve from the constant winds. The warming sun was welcoming and made the climb more comfortable, though its strength was penetrating even the best sunblock in the clear skies and thin air.
I don't think anyody else was on the mountain that morning and we never again saw that one guy who started walking up the road. As I stopped to rest amongst the cinder cones, the silence was deafening. Not only could I feel my pulse, I could *hear* it. When the wind intermittently died, I heard no birds, no insects, no branches blowing in the wind (as there are no trees)... just a cold silence in the stark beauty of a Hawaiian alpine setting.
One factor that made this climb difficult was the lack of acclimatization I had compared to climbs up other 14ers, where I'd usually take a day or two and hike at mid level altitudes
before going up to 14,000ft. With the exception of spending 20 minutes at the Visitor Center immediately before the climb (~9,200ft) getting our gear ready, we started this climb from
sea level the same morning in the humid coastal air.
Climbing the first few hundred feet from the start was tough, making me huff and puff like I was undergoing a lactate threshold test on a road bike. Once I settled into a nice pace, things got better, but I moved slow, like a Green Hawaiian Sea Turtle dragging its body up onto the beach in Kona. No speed records were being set today. However, I wasn't upset at moving too slowly, as I was taking quite a few photos an enjoying the surreal scenery that surrounded me, stopping frequently to soak it all in and savor each moment.
After coming up a hill, the first telescopes are seen, as was the first snow at around 12,800ft.
This was a special time, as it was the first time I'd ever seen these in person. I've wanted to see these since I can remember and felt like I was reliving my childhood reading Astronomy magazines. I stood in front of them wondering what worlds the scopes were "seeing" with their huge lenses.
Standing in and climbing across *snow in Hawaii* was also pretty interesting! The white blanket of snow made for a nice visual contrast on the red sands against the impossibly blue skies. There was expectedly less snow on the south facing slopes.
At the 7 mile marker, you depart from the trail and turn onto the road for the walk to the summit. The road switchbacks twice as it goes up and then the summit parking lot appears
at the 8 mile marker, though as we walked up, I realized this was not the summit. The true summit now first appears to the right as do two large round telescopes dominating the view before you. The summit is a 10 minute walk and another 75-100ft or so gain to the top.
Standing on the summit felt unreal. Red cinder cones dominated the summit landscape. I felt small on this mountain.
You're standing above the clouds, Mauna Loa looms to the southwest, snow covers the summit, tropical waters are still in sight to the north and you’re literally on top of all Pacific Polynesia.
The net difference from summit to trailhead was 4,600ft with a total gain of about 4,800ft
Luckily, we felt no signs of any altitude related problems, other than being a bit tired climbing up. The wind on the summit easily was hitting 50mph.
In the scientific community, Mauna Kea is well known for the clarity and dryness of its night skies making it very suitable for deep sky astronomy.
Situated far away from the urban sprawl and its associated light pollution and benefiting from a peculiar inversion layer of clouds where the cloud ceiling is often several thousand feet below the summit, the skies above Mauna Kea bear some of the lowest turbulence in the world.
It is for these reasons that the summit is home to 13 of the some of the most powerful and technologically advanced telescopes on the planet making the summit one of the most significant observatories for deep sky research. While this collective observatory is fascinating to contemplate, the presence of and continued construction of all the man-made equipment on the summit is considered a desecration by many native people.
A list of the telescopes on the mountain can be found here:
Neighboring peaks would occasionally peer out from the clouds as the winds moved moisture around the peaks rapidly.
Clouds moved up the slope of nearby Mauna Loa while we were on top.
As I mentioned, the night sky here was magnificent. In NYC, on a good night, you may be able to pick out two or three stars in Orion. Here, there were so many other stars in the sky competing for my attention, Orion was nearly unidentifiable! Can you pick it out below?
I actually took the below sunset photo on the Kona side before hand, but I thought it made a soothing finishing photo.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):