Mauna Kea Summit Perserverance

Page Type
Trip Report
Hawaii, United States, Australia/Oceana
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Feb 17, 2002
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Created On: Mar 7, 2003
Last Edited On:
17 February, 2003

Having barely caught my flight from Oahu to Hilo on the Big Island (Hawai'i, the location of Mauna Kea), getting my bearings, dinner (obtained at the Thai restaurant on Kilauea Ave.- open late and definitely recommended!!), and getting the food, drink, etc. required for the next day's climb/hike, not to mention the 40 mile drive up to 'basecamp (the visitor centre- where short-term acclimatization efforts would be attempted),' I didn't reach the visitor centre & trailhead until past midnight. Though I couldn't see any change in scenery in the dark during the drive from Hilo to the mountain, the warm, tropical coastal air was gradually replaced by cooler, dryer, inland air the further I went along.

Despite my efforts to veil my car (which wasn't supposed to be there anyway, as signed on my rental car agreement), trepidation of being discovered by a disapproving ranger & being shooed away (this mentality instilled in me from wilderness rule-governed, hiker-camper-/climber-/outdoors recreational user-monitored and controlled state of California) had me tossing and turning, consuming much of the already limited rest time that I'd allotted myself. Finally dozing off, I awoke uneasy and restless, slightly before my originally decided upon wake-up time of shortly after 04.00, having slept less than 2 hours.

04.17: After depositing my hiker information form in the box outside the Ellison Onizuka Visitor Center (named after the Big Island native astronaut who belonged to the doomed Challenger shuttle mission), I walked toward the apparent trailhead at the far end of the parking lot with a renewed sense of determination and hope- the sky was clear, the moon was bright, and despite my lack of sleep, I was energetic and enthusiastic. This enthusiasm quickly diminished. The 'trail,' which led past a memorial of some sort on the left, went on for another few dozen feet before vanishing, leaving the hiker staring dumbly at the barbed livestock fence barring further progress, & standing confused and frustrated in the stark high-desert landscape. After another few tries at retracing my steps to attempt to find the 'trail' ended in failure, I was forced to reconsider my strategy.

04.35: My 2nd 'start' commenced. Following my inability to determine the correct starting point of the summit trail, I wandered off on a doubtful, yet possible 'trail (a dry creek bed),' leading toward apparent observatory worker dorms. I hoped that this might later become, or lead to, the correct summit trail. This first led me past said dorms, then an apparent vehicle/road-plowing equipment maintenance station, and then straight into… (bummer!!) the Summit Road. At this point, my plans to summit by sunrise threatened, if not impossible, the difficult decision was made to continue (albeit disappointed & begrudgingly) along the road until the trail was spotted, at which point I'd go cross-country to reach it. The poor quality map which I'd printed out (not labeling which line was the road, and which the trail- the trail actually being drawn darker than the road!), as well as other accounts, made it seem that the trail would be visible from, and run more or less parallel to the road, anyway.

Initial gains in distance and elevation were promising, though it appeared that I would have to settle for viewing a Pacific sunrise on the trail en route to, as opposed to actually on, the summit. As time wore on, and elevation was (ever more slowly) gained, this was actualized. What I had at first presumed to be the ocean, far below, revealed itself to be actually a layer of clouds hovering over the sea and much land, as far as the eye could see. The sunrise was marvelous, but the increasing light layed bare a stark and ugly volcanic landscape composed of nothing but brown rock, leaving the stereotypical beauty of Hawai'i far below, at more hospitable elevations. The stillness was also pervasive, & heavier than any I'd ever experienced. Nothing was heard except for the wind, which even sounded lonely (and the infrequent car).

Shortly after sunrise, I encountered a strange sight in Hawai'i- a chunk of snow on the road! Upon gaining elevation, the quantity of the frozen material multiplied to entire fields, covering the upper flanks of Mauna Kea. Mostly for the novelty of it, I'd have to suspect, people actually come up here to sled, and even ski/snowboard! The desire to undertake this activity is beyond me, as the snow which I witnessed was shite, closer to what I'd call ice, with a great deal of sharp and menacing-looking rock breaking through.

Four or five vehicles were either heard (before I'd reached the road) or encountered driving down the mountain during my trudge to the summit (mostly still in the dark), returning their owners from observation duties at the summit. The drivers of the 2 trucks that halted upon my gesturing to inquire of the remaining distance (and of any awareness of a summit trail, which they lacked) gave me skeptical looks, most likely wondering to themselves why on earth I was walking up a driveable road in the freezing cold (25 - 30 degree F-temperatures showed the thermometer upon my start)- in retrospect, I don't blame them. I later wouldn't have minded flogging the 2nd fellow though, who informed me that the summit was at approximately mile-marker 6 from the visitor center (it turned out to be slightly past 8). Overall, however, little excitement was generated due to cars traveling in the opposite direction. This differed markedly from when, a while after sunrise, vehicles started passing me, casually speeding towards the summit - at this point, my elevation was great enough that the goal was clearly visible, yet my ever-decreasing energy level and stamina (coming from sea-level to almost 14,000 ft in a matter of hours) placed sever limitations upon my progress. The exasperation and anger that surfaced with each passing car was inversely proportional to my waning enthusiasm. I had to force a smile, while thinking malicious thoughts, when a VW bus pulled up beside me, the hippie and his girlfriend asking me if I wanted a ride (I declined). On I slogged, feebly propelled by underpowered muscles, reduced oxygen, and a barely adequate desire to complete my quest. The first 'hiking' that was done, after my initial shorcut that intersected the road, came near the end of my endeavour, when I cut across 2 of the switchbacks in the road climbing the final summit slopes (shamefully now, yet uncaring at that point), eroding the soft volcanic scree.

0855: A few minutes and many laborious steps later, I stood triumphantly at the summit, amidst futuristic-looking observatories. The park ranger, who had driven by me ½ an hour previous, relaxed in his truck and observed me passively, heater blasting. My opponent, Mauna Kea, had been conquered.

Alas! To my dismay, a distant point, appearing higher than my current one, was then discerned. It beckoned mockingly across an enormous gap (a saddle of perhaps 300 yds). This point was more dignified, separated from the road and the artificial environment, seemingly unaware of its flanks' defilement… I vowed to myself that it too, would succumb, and hobbled on across the interminable span, my rasping breaths coming quickly now…

0910: My quest finally completed, I stood atop the second high-point of Mauna Kea, on the roof of Hawai'i, surveying my surroundings. A huge cairn, complete with roof and offerings placed upon it (some kind of memorial?) had been erected there. The sun was now high above me, and most everything else was far below, with the exception of Mauna Loa in the distance, stretching from horizon to horizon. A good view was available of Puu Hau Kea (the crater neighboring the main summit mass, at 13,441 ft) as well, and the ocean of clouds below had broken apart in places, affording glimpses of the lush and fertile land beneath.

Suffering from the ill-effects of cold temperatures and altitude too quickly gained, the time spent soaking in and admiring the surroundings was short, and the desire to leave that inhospitable place was strong. It was time to get the hell out of there, & I deserted my victory quickly. At a point deemed reasonable to return to the road for my descent, having nearly circumnavigated the summit crater, I gained a newfound respect for mountaineers past who had not the facilities of ice axes, or especially crampons (either of which would have negated any difficulty whatsoever). Deciding to not continue 100 more yards to the point where I could walk across rocks to the road from my elevated location, I decided to slide down the 10-15 ft. of snow/ice between me and rocky section next to the roadway below. Accelerating far more quickly than anticipated, my hands were made raw by their brief contact with the snow, and the deceleration brought about by the sharp rocks beyond the snow/ice was quite painful to the buttocks. Once again on the road, I began walking towards the theoretical intersection (pointed out to me on the map by the ranger) with the elusive Summit Trail. I soon arrived (gasp!) at the previously mythical spot, watching the pathetic attempts of a boy brought up by his family to sled down a moderate section of the mountain, on the way.

Following the snow-filled depressions marking the Summit Trail (also a 4WD road at that point) leading around Puu Hau Kea, new agitation was ignited when all visible signs of the 'trail' magically (but not wholly unexpectedly) vanished. Seeming like a good time to relax, I sat down under the sun, allowing the warming air to evaporate my trail-induced vexations. Finally rising, I decided that slogging across the desolate volcanic talus field seemed less unappealing than returning to the loathsome road. I trudged along, about 100 yards separated from the expressway, where my approximations obtained from inspecting the map would have placed the 'trail.' Eventually confronted by a large uprising of land, the road veering to my left, my deciphering of landmarks depicted on the map predicted the 'trail''s presence on the far side of the aforementioned extrusion. From here the 'trail' would skirt the cone on the side opposite the road, separating the two more definitively, leading to lower slopes, and eventually, the visitor center (the ranger had been kind enough upon our brief conversation to give me a newer, legible, and- amazing!- labeled map of road and trail). I wandered distrustfully toward this doubtful goal, when the volcanic rubble onto which I had stepped shifted unexpectedly, twisting my unsuspecting ankle! I cursed the mountain, expressing my discontent with its spiteful retaliation. After recovering, I sensed renewed disappointment due to the lack of discovery of any notable trail that would be had after attaining its theoretical location. I was filled with surprise and awe upon discovering a clearly marked Trail, in its proper place according to the map!!! It was amazingly discernable and well-marked, and I hesitated to trust my senses, fearing an illusion that would disappear at the rubbing of my eyes.

Ankle sore, I nonetheless quickly attained the Trail and began to follow it, lest it vanish again cruelly before my eyes. My sense of confidence at concluding the ordeal positively began to steadily rise. I rounded the bend, the Trail now present and substantial, and took in the surroundings with newfound appreciation. The gentle yet continual slopes of Mauna Kea surrounded me, rising ever upward. Snow-capped Mauna Loa was ever-present in the distance. Hawai'i stretched out far below, a paradise far-removed from the harshness and barrenness ruling Mauna Kea's upper elevations, while a serene layer of clouds covered all signs of the surrounding ocean, and much of the land as well. My body was also no longer accosted by the indiscriminate altitude gods, and everything was at peace. In the changed atmosphere, I withdrew the bottle of Steinlager beer I'd brought along for my summit celebration (but had no desire to drink while there). It soothed me and added to my enjoyment of the final phase of my mountain journey.

12.08: After much elevation loss in a short amount of time, and after once again losing the 'trail (surprise, surprise)' after its convergence with the road, plus briefly jogging to ensure a sub-3-hour return time, my rental Chevy Cavalier, now no longer alone, was reached at the visitor center parking lot. After briefly conversing with some of my parking lot neighbors (one group of which had strangely filled their pickup bed with snow!), the constricting shoes & heavy pack were shed as I slumped into the car under the sunny & now warm sky, muddled brain attempting to come up with plans for the rest of the day.

Driving back (unfortunately all under the aforementioned cloud canopy past a certain elevation), the enormous fields of lava that had not been visible during the drive the previous night revealed themselves, glorpy and deformed looking. Pockets of lush vegetation became larger and larger, until 10 mi later, the lava was gone. The roller coaster-like up-down-left-right drive was quite a joy! Eating at Café 100 in Hilo (another recommendation!) and writing postcards, I then briefly visited Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, & then beautiful Akaka Falls, before reluctantly returning to the airport to first fly back to Honolulu, & then to return to San Francisco.

The hike up Mauna Kea (like my trip to Hawai'i in general) passed in a whirlwind, too quickly to interpret or appreciate fully while there, but allowing the fond memories and recognition to increase with time. Aloha, and mahalo, Mauna Kea!


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