One Shaved Ice - Large, Please
The small brown radio alarm, set to play grass-skirt flowing Hawaiian music broadcast from a Kona radio station (KPOA 99.1 FM), followed programmed instructions and awakened me from a fitful slumber at 4 a.m. I had checked the recorded information for road conditions yesterday and my hopes for star-gazing and grand vistas at the Mauna Kea summit had quickly evaporated: continued precipitation, possible snow accumulation of four to eight inches, road to summit closed. Great. Three-hundred twenty-five clear days a year on the summit and I was going to have at least three consecutive days of clouds and cold.
I padded to the phone in the condo living room and called the number to receive updated information. Not good. As of late yesterday afternoon the road from the Visitor Information Center was still closed. Not that I was going to drive it, but it meant the weather up there was ornery. More inclement weather was the rule the next day, meaning today. What should I do? The only reasonable thing, I decided, was to drive to the trailhead and see what things looked like. I would be able to talk with a ranger , face to face, and get real-time news.
After a quick but healthy breakfast I picked up the pack I had put together the night before and slipped out the door. Rain. What? Rain. Oh, it was light, but it was rain. I drove away from the Kona Reef parking lot looking for a little good news in the complete darkness of 5:12 a.m., the windshield wipers stroking on slow intermittent.
The Drive to the Visitor Information Center
Palani Road leads north from the west end of Ali’i Drive in Kailua-Kona and quickly becomes Highway 190, the major road connecting Kailua-Kona with Waimea. Forty miles of nicely paved two-lane road with mile-marker 40 in Kona. At the junction of Highway 190 with Highway 180 Palani Road gives way to the more well-known moniker Hawai’i Belt Road. Speed limits increase from 35 to 45 to 55 mph every few miles, and the early hour meant few cars with which to share the road. The rain continued as my elevation climbed and the temperature backed slowly downward from the humid 78° I had felt in Kona.
At mile-marker 14 I turned right onto the Daniel Inouye Memorial Highway, a nine-mile stretch of road dedicated in September 2013 and not shown on my recently purchased eighth edition of “Hawai’i - The Big Island” map. However, the signage for the highway not only mentions the name of the highway but also the fact that it leads to the Saddle Road. This new route shortens the drive to the Mauna Kea Access Road by over 10 miles from the previous distance on this side of the island. The road literally begs for speed and keeping the posted speed limit was taxing for someone wishing to get to the long-awaited trailhead, this in spite of the 7%+ uphill grade.
Not long after passing the fog-dimmed rotating beacon of Bradshaw Army Airfield my odometer read 48 total miles (from Kailua-Kona) and to the left was a paved road with a huge sign announcing the “Mauna Kea Access Road” and in smaller letters the “Onizuka Visitor Information Center - 6 miles.” Darkness was yielding to early dawn and the light rain continued. I could now see low hanging leaden clouds stretching forever in all directions, hanging there like charcoal smudges with nowhere to go. Twelve minutes later, the odometer showing 55 miles from Kona, I pulled into the parking lot of the Information Center, orange cones blocking northbound traffic along with a truck parked 90° to the road’s direction. The truck, well used and needing new paint, had chains on all four tires. Light rain persisted. Somber clouds loomed. Forty-five degrees, a light northeasterly breeze. Could be worse.
Leaving the Trailhead
I saw several people milling around in the lot, demeanors tinged with a mix of disappointment and that what-do-we-do-now frown. With an air of forced enthusiasm I approached the driver of the truck, a middle-aged Hawaiian with a face that said, “Aloha.” In answer to my query concerning when the road might open he shrugged and gave me an oblique answer which, translated in my mind, meant “don’t waste time waiting for it.” He had come down this morning and even with chains had fought to stay on the upper portions of the road because of the ice and snow. I told him I was going to hike up on the trail and see what would be, and he seemed to be okay with the idea. He reminded me that poles marked the trail and that it was very cold at the top. I didn’t say anything.
I returned to my mid-sized SUV rental and reflected on the Alamo rental policy regarding this area. The car could go to this parking lot and no further. I was in compliance, so bully for me. I asked a nearby fellow loiterer if he would please take my picture; he was from Germany and very disgruntled that the road was closed. But he willingly operated both my camera and iPhone to take departure shots, one of which could possibly be used to accompany my obituary if things became really hairy on the storm-ravaged summit area.
I was prepared with plenty of food and winter gear: rain jacket/windbreaker, microspikes, winter cap, buff, headlamp, several layers including a North Face Thermoball puffy, ice ax, gaiters, trekking poles and Gore-Tex gloves. The only extreme winter items missing were the crampons, and I had somewhere along the line decided that if I needed them it would set some kind of record, and I wasn’t into the business of setting records. So off I went, past the cones, past the wondering gaze of the bemused truck driver and up the next hundred yards of black pavement, wet and glistening in the misty dawn light heralding the advent of a new day.
I was excited to see this trail about which I had read so much, the trail which roughly paralleled the highway. Just as I reached the turn-off point I heard the whining roar of diesel engines. I turned to where the racket was coming from and saw a full-sized faded yellow road grader bull out of a maintenance yard followed closely by a fading-to-tan colored snowplow, the plow blade angled up like a warrior’s shield in battle. They turned right and were quickly out of sight, the sound of their engines carried to me by the strengthening wind. Think positively I told myself. Hmmm.
Hey, I could see fine, just not far. The trail was signed and distinct. I was used to climbing in the teen elevations. I had gear. I was prepared. Onward and upward was the watchword. After all, my rain jacket was open, my bare hands were decently warm and my baseball cap was more than generous in keeping my head warm. It was the perfect set up for a sting operation the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Robert Redford and Paul Newman pulled one over on the big screen with Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano providing the background music.
The wide trail was easy to follow. Alpine grasses and occasional shrubs were struggling for life along the edges; soon they just were not there anymore. They had given up, something I hoped not to do. Visibility seemed to gradually diminish as though Mother Nature were pulling curtain after curtain of thin gauze around me. Wind speed was increasing, the temperature was falling. Not like a rock but more like death by a thousand small cuts. By 7:50 I was socked in and by 8 o’clock sleet was pulsating down, thousands of tiny white flecks. As the temperature ebbed and the wind chill increased I stopped to put on my gloves and winter hat. For fun I checked my elevation: @11,100’. At least I was making decent progress. I dug out my small red digital camera and snapped a photo of what I thought was a snowy round blob in the distance, but that was the last picture I dared take until hunkering down on the summit.
Let It Snow!
As the trail narrowed not only iron poles but occasional large cairns helped to mark the way. Some of the cairns had been sloppily painted with yellow paint or dye of some sort. Wind speed seemed to increase in proportion to my elevation gain. By 8:35 sleet had become wet snow and I could not help but notice the 30° angle at which it was falling. Visibility was down to less than ½ mile and I was having trouble spotting the trail because of the rapidly deepening snow cover. This was not the moonscape about which other hikers had raved. The wind began teasing me unmercifully, letting up for 15 seconds only to return with unhinged vengeance.
At 9 o’clock I checked elevation one more time: 12,140’. That wasn't too bad; it meant I had less than 2,000’ to go. But my gloves were getting wet; the trail was vanishing. Were it not for the poles and cairns I would have been a stranger in a strange land, a nomad in a sea of wintry sand. There was still one connection I had to the modern world: I could hear the sound of vehicles on the road to the east. Not constant, only every now and then. Yet the sound was unmistakable. I suppose this was comforting in the sense that absent other alternatives I could claw my way in that direction and make contact with civilization.
Nine thirty. Cinderella’s coach turned into a pumpkin. The handsome prince was transformed into a frog. The drooling mouth of a hungry wolf appeared at the door of grandma’s cabin. Why? The iron pole standing erect and solid next to the trail seemed to be the last. In vain I sought any sign of a pole or mega-cairn beyond. With 3” of snow blanketing the landscape and chalky visibility at less than 1/4 of a mile, discerning cairns from volcanic boulders became impossible. I began probing by venturing in different directions, knowing that the trail lacked sharp switchbacks. Three minutes out, three minutes back, following my footprints back to the pole, now both my mental and physical anchor point. After three fruitless attempts to spot another pole or cairn I made a decision to move forward and slightly to my right, an eventual meeting with the summit road the inevitable result. I hoped…
Suddenly a snow-covered humongous mound materialized squarely in front of me. A cinder cone disguised as a giant Hostess Snowball. But what to do with it? Knowing that there are several cones in the summit area could I assume that this was one of those? I had three choices: circumnavigate the cone either to the left or right or make the effort to climb to the top and see if I could see any better from the apex. Trying to stay positive with the notion that surely the view from the top would allow better than the limited visibility I now had, I began zigzagging toward the summit, a gently-rounded arc maybe 300’ above. Zounds, the slope was steeper than I had estimated, but the snow accumulation allowed me to kick in steps which held like stirrups. The further I climbed the fiercer the wind buffeted me. Didn’t have much desire to philosophize but the irony of the situation, this slice of winter in Hawaiian paradise, flitted through my mind a number of times as I forged to the summit. To think that less than one hour from the TH vacationers were snorkeling or enjoying generous lunches while sitting at outdoor tables in warmth.
Once atop the cone I entertained mixed emotions. In spite of the howling wind I heard the unmistakable sound of a vehicle’s engine. Then, as if by magic, I spotted a giant cairn to my right. Then another as I continued along a wide band which seemed to be a rim of sorts, curving like a large letter C in front of and behind me. After following the rim past several more 3-foot high cairns and wondering if this could possibly be the trail I saw it: the dark-gray ribbon of road far below me. Like a loose shoelace on a layer of milky-white flannel. Yes! My lifeline, my contact with the real world, a sure path to the summit. I was too cold to look at my watch, and it didn’t matter.
Seeing vaguely where the road led, I was facing a choice of where to go from there. The road looked like it made a sharp right-hand switchback and then – it was really hard to see much further since the hard-blowing snow was restricting my squinted vision – perhaps another hard left-hand turn. I could proceed straight ahead and down and cut off the two switchbacks or I could descend down and pick up the road directly below me. It was impossible to make out terrain features near the section of road with the hairpin turns and nearly impossible to judge the angle of the slope leading downward toward the road below. Discretion being the better part of valor I elected to descend directly to the road. Bird in the hand and all that proverbial stuff…
This side of the cone was no different than the other side had been: brutally steep and snowy. In retrospect I was lucky to have the snow, for I could envision the difficult and dangerous task of creeping down such a precipitous mass of volcanic rock and boulders were they bare. But if they were bare I probably wouldn’t have been here anyway, so the entire debate was a moot point, hauntingly farcical. Two minutes after leaving the cone’s rim I realized that the flat light and blowing snow had slyly masked the angle of descent. I was forced to carefully and slowly plunge step in switchback fashion for the entire 10-minute descent, several times nearly losing my balance against the combined forces of gravity and unrelenting 25-mph winds.
I was perhaps fifty to sixty vertical feet above and two-hundred feet away from the road when a gray SUV moving at a slow speed inched upward along the slush-covered surface. Ah, more signs of humanity, living souls in this icy blur of confusion. Finally at the bottom of the cone, I ascended twelve vertical feet of berm to reach the rime-coated guard rail, carefully climbed over it with the grace of a bloated rhinoceros and attempted to assess the situation. It wasn't 30 seconds when I first heard and then saw a truck coming toward me. I flagged it down. The passenger lowered his window, smiled and greeted me with a look that said, “Buster, what in the heck are you doing here?” He didn't say that but only looked like that’s what he was thinking. I thanked them for stopping and politely asked how much farther it was to the top. “About a mile” was the informed response. Then the driver leaned forward and with a stern tone of voice and scrunched up forehead said, “You know, there’s a winter storm warning out today. We had a guy come up here in weather like this a few years ago and we found his bones a year later.” I guess that this was his way of asking me to be careful, so I assured him that I was prepared and would follow the road to the summit. The passenger, maybe not wanting to join in the mockery-fest, said that should I need assistance at the top I could knock on the door of a rectangular building and the occupants would let me in and allow me to warm up. I thanked them, my temporary wind-break accelerated away and I watched as they were quickly swallowed in the splotchy gray gloom below me.
The Road to Success
What I had seen from above on the cone summit was exactly what I now had to stride: two-lane paved road, a serious right switchback, three-hundred feet and another just-as-serious switchback in the opposite direction. What I hadn't been able to discern from the cinder cone was the condition of the road. Starting at the crest there was ice, then progressing toward the edges a delightful mixture of ice, slush and melting tire tracks, a strip of pure slush and lastly a narrow shoulder hidden by three to four inches of pure white snow. This lathery mix would be my path to the top. I hadn't walked one hundred feet before I spotted a mile-marker reading 7. So one more mile of road to the top. I believe I had read that the final portion of the Humuula trail was nothing more than the road itself, so I hadn't been too far from the actual way in spite of losing it prior to the cinder cone. (Later research revealed that this cone was probably Puu Hau Kea.)
I had quit keeping track of time but I knew that my goal to be at the summit by eleven o’clock was history. Just keep trudging I told myself. I didn't curse the snow or the wind, but I did keep wishing I could see further than the length of a football field. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, then thirty minutes and I finally saw a dome-shaped structure ahead of me on the left side of the road. The outlines were grainy, like pixels being enlarged beyond their capacity, but there was no mistaking the shape. Was I hallucinating or was I finally nearing the summit? A few more steps and I stopped wondering: there were now two such buildings coming into view! Happy day, I was close. But where was the actual summit? Passing a sign off to the right I continued walking the road and marveling at the research facilities, pictures of which I had seen in many trip reports and tourist brochures. But where were the blue skies and the marvelous unending views? And wouldn't someone be there to lovingly place a welcome-lei around my neck? These would not be my lot today.
The road began a slight descent, more buildings appeared in front of me and I figured I needed to keep going, speculating the true summit to be somewhere off to the right. Looking right I could see squat. When the road ended at a building I began to wonder if I would find the actual summit. Hearing an engine idling I glanced to my left and saw the source of it. I thought I could see someone inside. I hiked over to the vehicle, the driver rolled his window down and I asked him if he knew where the true summit might be. He responded that it was “back up the road a little bit” but that was all he knew. Well, it wasn't exactly a blueprint; it was more of a scrawled pencil note on a crumpled piece of paper. But it was a start. I was cold, my gloves were sopping wet and I was ready to get on the summit as quickly as possible so I could think about getting warm.
I retraced my steps up the road. Then I saw several men, all carrying Styrofoam boxes, the kind one gets at a restaurant when leftovers will be cached in the home fridge. The men were in single file scurrying for one of the buildings I had passed. I had sought temporary shelter from the wind chill near some kind of porch at the end of one of the buildings, and as I spotted this group I quickly left it and hailed the trailing fellow. He didn't have a jacket on, so I made my query about the summit short and to the point. His response was friendly but incredible: he had worked there twelve years but had never been to the true summit! But he added that there was a sign a little ways further, beyond the guard rail, and that I would need to clamor over the railing to find a path which led down and then up to the summit. Smiling and thanking him for the directions I wished him well and turned to find the sign.
Finding the Summit
It was the sign I had seen earlier, and I quickly read it. For Pete’s sake, if I had taken the time to read it as I passed I would have not had to find my way to the idling truck, etc. But no matter, I was here and the summit was close. I couldn't see more than a hundred feet, but I could see the depression of what must be a trail leading from the sign down into a gentle dip maybe thirty feet below the guard rail. I followed it down and across a short level stretch of deep snow to a point where the way led slightly right and definitely up. How far up I didn't know, but I began kicking steps into the virgin drifted snow, often more than a foot deep. Now I was wishing I had strapped on my OR gaiters, but too late now to worry about that. I chuckled as I briefly thought about the fact that I would be alone on the summit – provided I actually found the summit.
After two or three minutes of step-kicking and peering up to see if anything might be discernible, something resembling a top, I knew I was there. A partially-buried cairn, huge and dizzyingly beautiful. A near white-out, winds continuing unabated, snow biting at the exposed portions of my face, I proceeded to wriggle out of my pack, set it down, dig down into its contents to find the small tripod buried in there. I had a job to do: affix my Canon Elph to the small corked platform connecting the three telescoping legs. In better conditions this task was a no-brainer and easily done. But here it was a raw challenge. This mountain was, indeed, taunting me and ripping at my resolve. I hated to take off my gloves but I couldn't accomplish the task with them on. So off they came and, turning my back to the gale, I forced my numbed aching fingers to work the screw mechanism so that my little camera was securely attached to the tripod. I had made a nice sign to display on the summit but the wind chill and cold allowed me only one thought: get the camera set for a 10-second delay, plant the dang tripod, press the shutter release and hunker down for a photo so I could get out of there! This would be one of the quickest summit photo-shoots in history.
Fate had other plans. I planted the tripod, pressed the shutter release, moved a few steps, crouched down and watched as the tripod tilted forward one second before the shutter released. At least the camera didn't dive into the snow. I hurried to reset things, pressed the shutter button again and realized as the picture was taken that I had, in my extreme haste to get things done, forgotten to remove my Walmart reading glasses for the picture. Doh! So the third time would hopefully be the charm. I quickly stuffed the glasses back into the top pocket of my snow-soaked pack, went through the photo-shoot routine one more time and got the last summit picture I would take. Would have been nice to get one of me on top with the research igloos in the background but (a) I didn't have time and (b) I couldn't even see the road let alone the buildings!
The Return to the Visitor Information Center
Firmly entrenched in a hurry-scurry mode I packed up, slung my pack onto my tired back, struggled to put my sodden gloves back on my hands, red with cold and nearly numb, and carefully followed my boot pack back to the road. Already my steps were half filled with newly blown snow. At the aforementioned sign I managed to work up enough courage to briefly stop and take a picture of the sign and two shots of the looming research buildings I could see. I called it a day, having noted on top that my total time to the summit had been five hours; it was now 20 minutes past noon and I was going to bid the apex of Mauna Kea adieu and begin a long 8-mile trek down the road. But I was harboring thoughts about hitching a ride down, a little reward for having persevered to the top on a daunting day. As it turned out, that kind of thinking was pie-in-the-sky with a capital P. But I didn't know that then, and that was a good thing. Mother Nature and fate weren't finished with me quite yet.
I started down, the cold and the wind continuing to hammer away at my tiring body and my determination. At mile marker number 7 (I had seen this one before) a heard a car coming from behind. Two had already passed me going up. I put my thumb up in the standard hitchhiker’s pose and watched with a mixture of surprise and frustration tinged with anger as they motored past me as though I were invisible. What the? How could they? But they did. Later on I was told that “liability” was the reason these research folks couldn't give me a ride. Punched in the gut by Lady Justice, the present-day matron of litigation in all its sordid forms and permutations. So down I struggled, leather boots soaked and sporting a glossy sheen, their Vibram soles displacing chunked gobs of heavy slush with every carefully placed step. It was no picnic walking down that road with the wet, cold, icy conditions. Wherever I could I walked on the drifted snow on the shoulders, the traction there being by far the best of the entire surface.
The mile markers passed slowly; my time between them was averaging 20 minutes. Several were nearly unreadable because of the blown snow sticking to the face. When would the snow stop? When would the wind let up? Unanswered questions for the time being. Would anyone stop and give me a lift? Was it storming at the visitor center? And when would I be able to see something? There was always the warm and fuzzy thought that I had made it to the top, safely, and therein I took comfort and maintained a positive attitude as I made my way slowly down.
Shortly after marker 4 two things happened. First a truck stopped, but its occupants only wanted to talk, not offer a ride. The driver was the same fellow who had graciously informed me about the fatal skeletal hiker years ago. He said wryly, “It’s me again. You getting tired of seeing me?” Then he asked if I was okay; I responded yes and he and his passenger continued their drive down the mountain. Second, the pavement stopped and was replaced by muddy half-frozen volcanic pea gravel. Nice – pull out the first team and let the second-stringers and scrubs mop up. The asphalt had been better, but I had no choice. Visibility gradually improved but lingering snow showers and brisk wind continued to plague me. I attempted to cut a lengthy switchback and quickly learned my lesson: stay on the road. Had I not been tired and hungry the bouldering down wouldn't have been half bad, but I was and it was all bad. Didn't think I would appreciate that slop of a road but compared to the precarious rocks and slippery boulder-fest on my improvised trail cut the road was a veritable freeway.
With two miles to go I heard the high-pitched whine of a diesel engine in low gear. I turned around and there was a snow plow heading my way. Surely this guy will stop and give me a lift. Wrong! And was that a smile or a sneer on his face as he ground past me? Well, just two miles to go, and the sleet had changed to light rain and I suddenly got a glimpse of the visitor center below. A break in the clouds allowed me to glimpse a small portion of the Saddle Road further down. My dogs were really tired, but knowing that the end lay a mere 40 minutes beyond inspired me like rays of sunshine following an angry thunderstorm.
As I made the final left turn and faced the gradual slope of the home stretch I saw yet another ranger’s car parked at a 90° angle to and blocking the road as had the truck nearly 8 hours earlier. I passed the maintenance yard where the heavy equipment was now a pack of sleeping behemoths, passed the Humuula Trail turnoff and made a slow-motion beeline to the road closure. The ranger was conversing with three ladies, all Asian and maybe not understanding English really well.
I greeted the ranger and in answer to his question said I had made it to the top. One of the ladies, eyes wide, looked at me and said, “You make it to top?” When I nodded and responded, “Yes,” she gave me a smile that melted my heart and she blurted out, “You my hero!” Well, that was quite the unexpected reward for 8 hours of toil. One of them said something to the ranger I couldn't hear and he looked at me and said that they wondered if they could take my picture. Embarrassed but inwardly pleased I suggested that the ranger take the picture with the four of us. He did and I thanked them, wondering as I walked slowly toward the parking area if I would be on somebody’s Facebook page later that day.
The car key was in my waistband pocket; I unlocked the car, unshouldered my pack with a tired grunt and placed it in the car. It was soaked on the outside but not soaked through. I still had on my rain jacket and winter hat. The temperature was still 45°. Light rain was still falling. Things hadn't changed all that much from eight hours ago. I asked a couple perusing the information on one of the visitor building’s outside walls if they would take my picture. The fellow gladly offered his help and I stood next to a plaque embedded in a large boulder, holding the sign I had been unable to display on the summit, and I then officially called it a day.
Glancing at my watch I knew I had no time to lose. My wife and I had scheduled a luau for 5:30 and it was already nearly 3:30. A quick trip to the very spacious and clean restroom, a quick text to announce my return and I was waving goodbye to the ranger and the three ladies who were still talking with him. The drive back to Kailua-Kona was uneventful and much more pleasant in daylight than it had been eleven hours earlier in the pre-dawn darkness. Light rain showers continued the entire time, and on the outskirts of Kona there were the familiar ear markings of a rush-hour mini-traffic jam. Arriving back at our condo on Ali’i Drive I “checked in,” got cleaned up and had a delightful time enjoying the luau at the Royal Kona Resort. I found out from my wife that it had rained all day in Kona. The luau had been moved indoors because of the rain. On the bright side, Kona had reported zero snow for the day…
So for me Mauna Kea was no ordinary state high-point. It could have been more or less routine with the obvious differences in landscape and setting, but for me it became a surprising adventure, one which I will never forget. Maybe the time will come when I’ll get to visit the summit on one of the 325 clear days-per-year advertised in the travel brochure. But for now I’ll have to focus on my personal entry into the Hawaiian twilight zone. Aloooooha.
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