Mauna Kea in the winter
Jan. 7, 2011, today my friend Jean and I flew to Hawaii so I could climb Mauna Kea. The ranger I spoke to on the phone a few days ago said the forecast for this week looked good. After flying, renting a 4wd, and driving almost two hours we got up to the Visitors Information Station(VIS)at 9,200' and it was just beginning to snow. If it snowed all night we could be stuck so we drove back to the saddle road and spent the night at the State Park.
We awoke early and I was anxious to get going. As we headed back up the Saddle Road we could see the huge peak covered in white. It was beautiful. We made it back up to the VIS without needing the 4wd. The road was closed so they could clear the snow and no one really knew when it would open.
We selected a scenic parking spot since it looked like it would be quite a wait. They block the road with a ranger vehicle which is their procedure. Then they let certain vehicles from the astronomy community pass, but not the general public until the snow plowing is finished. It was very cold and windy this morning and I was discouraged at my chances. The ranger on duty speculated that the road might open in the mid afternoon. Since my plan is to hike up to the summit and hitch a ride back down, I didn't want to venture out if the road remained closed for the day.
At about 9:30 I went out to chat with the new ranger on duty, it was Shane. He remembered talking to me on the phone on Monday. After he appologized for the weather, he enouraged me to go for it. He said even if the road didn't officially open there would be vehicles decending the road in the afternoon. That's all I needed to hear. I put five layers on plus several gloves, thermal hat and face warmer. The wind speed was about 30 and the temperature 27. Just above the VIS the paved road becomes gravel and the Humu'ula Trail leaves the road toward the south. Some hikers prefer to hike to the summit on the road. It isn't as steep and has switchbacks which the trail doesn't have, but you need to watch out for vehicles traveling on the icy narrow road.
The trail was blanketed with six inches to a foot of fresh snow. It made route finding interesting. The snow covered the volcanic rocks which cover the trail and you don't see the usual indentation typical of a dirt trail covered in snow. So I had to rely on the ocassional cairn or iron pole to mark the way. The scarcity of markers made this hike more of an adventure than I had anticipated. Most of the time I was able to keep moving while searching for the route. It got colder and windier as I ascended and I needed to keep my face covered, but I was able to remove my down jacket. My picture would have resembled someone in the Himalayas not Hawaii. I stopped just long enough to take a short video panorama about half way up when I had a nice view of neighboring Mauna Loa. I had been ascending for four hours when I sunk below knee level in the snow and for a moment began to feel discouraged. Within a minute I was elated as I rounded a hill and several small observatories came into view.
At this point the trail ends and hikers rejoin the road. My pace quickened as I hiked clockwise up the circular summit road. It was another mile and a half of very cold, windy, icy travel. My poles were a great help when a gust would hit and send me sliding. The summit road was closed to vehicles other than the rangers and I came upon one parked near the last spur trail to the true summit. The wind was now fierce and Dan, the ranger, told me he'd take me down the mountain if I made it to the top. I needed no incentive to head for the top. The trail went downhill for a moment then began to circle around the crater rim with the top in view about ten minutes away. As I approached the narrow edge I was hit by very high winds. I could see the top, less than a hundred yards away and kept at it. The wind battered me back and forth and I'd stoop down for relief. I finally got to a point where I couldn't take another step.
Dan said later it was at least 50 mph with higher gusts and the weather center reported the top wind speed for Saturday and Sunday at 70 mph. I'm not sure if I've ever been more frightened. I hunkered down for a moment and regained a little strength and composure. Then very carefully took a step downhill, then another until I could connect a few steps without being blown over. I slowly worked my way down to a more sheltered section and said a little prayer. When I got back to where Dan was parked I was simultaneously happy to be out of danger and significantly dissappointed. He was sympathetic and said I could watch the forecast and try again. Tomorrow would be worse than today, but mid week it should be better. He dropped me at the VIS and Jean and I drove a few hours to Ho'okena Beach Park south of Kona. We arrived in the dark about 9:00 and I fell fast asleep.
For two days we toured the island and today we drove through Waimea where I was able to get the Mauna Kea forecast for the next few days. Tomorrow was my best chance to try again. We drove back up the saddle road and up to the VIS, where again I hoped to spend the night. And again the wind speed was up and the temperature was down and snow was expected. So we went back to the State Park for another night. Just before dark we were visited by 7 large black wild pigs with tusks. You would not want to hit one of these while driving. It poured most of the night and I thought with the over night snow at higher elevation my chances of getting another chance at the summit were slim.
Jan. 11, 2011, this morning we drove back up to the VIS for the fourth time. The road was still blocked and we pulled in the lot. According to the rangers, today will have the best weather for the rest of the week. We decide to wait it out. After my first attempt we returned our $150/day 4wd vehicle. So today if the road opens I'll need to find a ride up as far as I can get. Around noon I was talking with a woman who was also waiting for a chance to hike to the summit. Cheryl from Maine, her daughter Mary and their friend Adrian were all hoping to hike today. They volunteered to give us a ride up in their jeep if the road opened. I related the story about my Saturday attempt. Mary shared that in her highpointers manual they state that hiking Mauna Kea is great every month, except January. I had not read that.
Cheryl and Mary have done all the 4,000' peaks in New Hampshire and know a bit about wind. Finally at 2:30 we joined a line of cars heading up the road. They opened it up to the six mile mark leaving us a two and a half mile hike up the road and summit trail. We parked around 12,000' and left the car in Jean's hands. The four of us took off up the road. The wind was supposed to be around 30-40 mph at the summit. I was very motivated and moved quickly up to the summit trailhead. No one had been on the track yet and I broke trail in about a foot of snow. The wind picked up again, but it wasn't as fierce as Saturday. When I got to the spot where I had to turn around before, I was shocked to see how close I had been. It took one minute from there to the summit.
Words cannot express how happy I was to reach the top. Even though the wind was significant on top, I took a minute to take a panorama video. I was so happy that I actually enjoyed the 2 1/2 mile downhill back to the car. It was dusk when we got back down to the VIS. Cheryl thought the wind on top today was about 45 mph. So with that in mind I know it must have been well over 50 on my first attempt. We bid farewell to our new friends and drove down the mountain for the last time.