Sea Level to 11,200
Mauna Loa from Mauna Kea
We were in Hawai'i for a conference and I was toying with a climb up Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa before leaving but was time constrained and almost wound up just heading to the Lava flows instead. One of my co-workers who had climbed with me to Mt. Lafayette a few weeks earlier was interested in some altitude so we went for it.
I read all the trail beta and the altitude warnings but it was <14k so it couldn't be that bad. We got a shuttle to the airport at 6:30A (had a 11:59P flight home) and picked up a rental with an official ok to go to the Mauna Kea visitor center on the saddle road but no further. I found a quick route up to the old volcano and off we went and in an hour and a half I went from 80' to 9200'.
The folks at the visitor center were amazing, they had a great setup for any astro nuts (my handle is dobsonian for a reason) and we agreed to hang out for 45 minutes to aclimate. If you get a chance enjoy the show, the displays, a cool shop and the scope outside which had solar filters, hydrogen alpha, and a spectrometer.
We suited up, filled out the emergency form and off we went. You feel the difference in the oxygen content almost immediately so we took it slow. Post to post, pausing, drinking plenty of fluids, a little maltodextrous to keep the energy up. The hiking was good but slow and the beach sand like quality of the trail especially on some steep sections kept your pace to a crawl.
About 1500 feet up (10,700 total now) we started taking more frequent breaks and were starting to really feel the air. I knew I should have gotten up the night before and camped out but I had obligations, I'd pay for that in a little while.
A hiker from CT that started just after us passed us and we watched him go up to a couple of large boulders 500' or so up and then stop for a while, seemed like he was loosing steam too. I kept pacing myself from iron rod to iron rod (the trail markers). About 20' below the same boulders I needed to stop for a breather.
As I sat down I started to black out, I realized immediately that AMS was kicking in. It hits hard and fast. I should have noticed the slight pounding in the temples and the numbness in the right fingers a couple of hundred feet lower. Sea level to 11,200 in 3.5 hours is not the most brilliant move I've made. I sat and drank and explained to my partner what was happening. I figured that I was most likely going to be heading down but for some reason I wanted to get to the boulder above and get a view beyond it so I dropped my pack and headed up. I made it 3 steps then dropped back to my rock perch. It was time to turn around, too high, too fast. I never experienced this before but everything I read about it was happening.
Still Feeling Strong
The way down
My partner and I turned around after getting a few panorama shots and headed down. I almost immediately broke into a jog. My muscles felt great, it was my head and the quicker I could get down the better it was feeling.
The loose cinder is so well behaved that it was like skiing down the Mt. side and in 10 minutes we dropped almost 500'. I overheated a little and dropped to a fast walk but the feeling of the downhill was magnificent. I'm used to my knees being battered by hard rock on the way down but this stuff gave and slid beautifully under my boots. It was less than an hour to get down and I felt better every step I took.
When we hit the hard pack on the 4WD road at the bottom it was like a brick wall vs the smooth cinder. It was still early and we had a midnight flight. The road to Hilo was nicely paved (unlike the Kona side) so we shot down to Volcano park and had a ball. Hit the end of the chain of craters road just as the sun was setting and watched the glow of lava rolling into the see as we hiked the reflector trail. Took a quick bums shower on the way out in the visitor center sink and off to the plane. I was beat but felt fantastic.
It started as an early dissapointing day but ended on such a strong note. I need to come back and do this right next time.