Saturday, June 30, 2018

Mauna Kea: Sea to Summit

In the past few years I’ve developed an interest in the state highpoints. Yes, some of them are silly, at least as far as a climbing objective, but with state highpoints it is more about visiting new areas than difficult climbing objectives. It’s a different thing. But many lists, at least for me, are about visiting new areas. When I first starting doing the Colorado 14ers it was more about visiting different areas of the state and learning the ranges. The 14er list was just a manageable number to direct my wandering. Sure I could chosen different peaks in each range and sought more solitude, but lists save you that effort.

Jus like with the Colorado 14ers, I’m not in a great hurry to get all the state highpoints, but I do have a goal of getting at least one per year. Last year I failed and didn’t get any, so this year I was determined to make for that. Earlier this year, Mark, Derek and I linked up three highpoints that border Colorado. Two of these (Kansas and Nebraska) were drive-up highpoints. We didn’t hike at all. We could have started anywhere and made a hike of it, but didn’t. Mauna Kea is similar in that you can drive to the summit, but here I didn’t make that choice. The Nebraska and Kansas highpoints are not mountains, or even hills. Mauna Kea is a mountain.

Measured from its base, deep in the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain on earth, rising over 33,000 vertical feet from its volcanic vent in the frigid, dark depths. If you dropped Denali in the ocean next to Mauna Kea, it would barely break the surface. Mount Everest would be 4000 feet short of Mauna Kea’s summit. For most mountains on earth, certainly all the 14ers, it is impractical to start a summit attempt at sea level. Despite the difficulty, Tim McCartney-Snape did Everest from the sea. That’s amazing. And it inspired me to do my “Poor Man’s®” version of it on Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level at 13,802 feet. As already stated, a road goes clear to the summit. This is the longest, hardest cycling climb on earth. The total gain is the greatest and the altitude and the grade make it absolutely brutal. It is more vertical gain than two Mt. Evans from Idaho Springs, with much steeper grades. It makes Alpe d’Huez (most famous climb in the Tour de France) look like a grocery run. The grades are so ridiculous that the shop were I rented my bike stated flat out: “You can’t ride to the summit on a road bike.” Which isn’t really true, as this account proves. This rider did on the same gearing that I was riding: 34-32. Originally, I was thinking of riding the whole thing, but this was my 25th anniversary trip and I decided to hike the 13-mile roundtrip Humuula (check this) trail to the summit with Sheri. This meant I’d get off the bike at 9200 feet.

I rented a BMC RoadMachine from Mountain Road Cycles in Waimea and picked it up the day before the big ride. The bikes 28cc ties made me think I was riding a mountain bike, but that appears to be the trend nowadays. To ride the gravel sections above the visitor center, you’d want even wider tires, and realistically you’d want a full-on mountain bike. My carbon bike was also outfitted with Shimano Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting and this was the primary reason that I rented this bike. I wanted to try this relatively new technology out. Conclusion: I want it. Yes, it is at least a $500 upgrade to my existing bike (provided I don’t have to replace my chain ring or rear cassette) and probably more like $1000, but it is sweet. Lately, I’ve been dropping my chain when I put considerable torque on my pedals while cross chained. Yes, better shifting and cable adjustments should eliminate this problem, but with electronic shifting it really can’t happen. The electronic shifting does the micro adjustment of the front derailleur depending upon which gear selected in the rear cassette. That’s so cool. The shifting is quick and precise at the very light touch of a button. No pulls of any cables required.

I did a shake-out ride of 30 miles, mostly downhill back to the hotel. The next morning I was up at 5 a.m. to dress and eat. My bike was waiting on our balcony, prepared with a couple of water bottles. I took it and my shoes down to the lobby via the elevator and then I walked, barefoot, to the Pacific Ocean. Standing ankle deep in the tiny surf at 5:32 a.m., I started my wrist unit. I walked back to the lobby, stopping to wash the sand off my feet, put on my shoes and socks, and hopped on the bike.

Sheri waited 90 minutes before following me in the car. Frankly, this ride would have been nearly impossible for me without her support. The only available water is in Waikoloa Village, less than an hour into the ride, and at the Visitor Center, which was about seven hours into the ride. Having Sheri to constantly supply me with food and water was a huge advantage and quite a psychological boost as well. It broke the climb up into small sections and even though I never stopped for long, just the two or three minutes at the car with Sheri was a nice little rest. I only needed to carry one bottle once Sheri caught up to me. I downed a tremendous amount of liquid and ate regularly, trying to avoid any bonking.

After riding south on Queen Kaahumanu Highway (highway 19) for six miles, I turned east and up on the Waikoloa Road. I rode this until I hit the Mamalahoa Highway (highway 190), where I turned south again and even went downhill. In fact, by the time I hit the saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, I’d done any extra thousand feet of climbing. I soon turned left onto the Saddle Road (highway 280) and here the climbing became relentless and occasional quite steep.

It was 46 total miles for me to get from my hotel to the saddle. It took me six hours and I’d gained nearly 8000 vertical feet already. What did I have left? For Boulder readers, I now had to climb the equivalent of a steeper and longer Magnolia Road and then climb two Green Mountains on top of each other. And now I was entering a list mist with increasing winds. I grabbed my jacket for the next section, up the Mauna Kea Access Road, expecting to be cold and to suffer. Suffer I did, but the weather cleared and I have nearly perfect conditions the entire day, save for the ever present wind, which I think is impossible to avoid.

“Just six miles to go!” Sheri encouraged me. The first mile was pretty easy and I thought maybe this won’t be too bad. Wrong. It got so ridiculous that the only way I could keep moving upwards was by switchbacking across the full width of the road. This worked well, though, and, I was able to creep upwards. At the top of one particularly nasty section, where Sheri had parked, I sprawled on the hood of the car, hyperventilating.

I could not have rode this section continuously and I’ve never seen a road hill that has done that to me. I’ve ridden Haleakala four or five times, usually in around five hours (35 miles, 10,000 vertical feet), but I’ve done it in four hours. This took me seven hours. Mauna Kea is a much more difficult climb. And it isn’t nearly as pleasant. Frankly, there isn’t much to recommend on this ride, besides the difficulty. The road riding up to the saddle is quite busy, though there is a very wide shoulder and is very safe. The access road is much nicer and we encountered hardly any cars while on it. The lack of cars was essential for me to weave back and forth to lessen the angle. The road doesn’t switchback much so that the acuteness of the grade is difficult to perceive with your eyes, but painfully obvious to your legs and lungs.

The actual hardest climb in the world is apparently Mauna Kea from Hilo, on the east side of the island. I didn’t ride it from there for one reason: We were staying on the west side. I didn’t want to drive to the other side of the island and then bike back towards the middle. It might be something I’d consider if there ever is a next time. The Hilo side is shorter (just under 30 miles versus the 46 miles I rode) and therefore a bit steeper, but it doesn’t have the descents that the west side has, so it has less total climbing. The real drawback, though, seems to be that the east side seems to be shrouded in a nearly perpetual cloud. Riding up in that mist and the wind could be chilly.

Speaking of temperature, it wasn’t really an issue on this climb. Hawaii is tropical, of course, but it is paradise because it isn’t that hot nor that humid. At the coast the temperature in Hawaii seems to be nearly a constant 80 degrees - every day of the year. The temperature goes down as you climb and there is always the wind to cool you (and to fight against). If the weather is good, you can do the entire 14,000-foot climb in the same set of clothes, though I was prepared with warmer gloves, a hat, leggings, and a shell.

While Hawaii has a great variety of flora, depending up on the microclimate, this ride didn’t showcase much of it. The west side of the islands are the dry side and hence most of the tourist locations are there - to ensure perfect sunshine every day, all day. This lack of water meant that I climbed up through mostly grassland and short shrubs with hardly any trees encountered on the entire ride. Further up, on the hike, life gets harder to find. The top two thousand feet of Mauna Kea has no visible life. Nothing. No moss, no lichen, no grass, no insects, no birds. I assume this is because of the lack of water or the lack of moisture retention. This is in great contrast to every other non-ice-encrusted peak I’ve climbed. Volcanic rock breaks down into very fertile soil but apparently is takes thousands of years.

At the Visitor Center, I got off the bike and after some gyrations, we got the bike stuffed into the back seat of the rental car. I switched to trail running shoes and Sheri and I both carried small packs with forty ounces of Gatorade each, some food, hat, gloves, and our shells. A couple hundred meters up the road, we turned off onto the trail and it immediately became very steep and very loose. The first hour or so of this hike is quite challenging. This loose terrain would make for nice descending, but it was quite a chore to ascend.

I had hoped to knock out this 13-mile, 4600-foot hike in three hours up, two hours down. Early on I could see that wasn’t going to happen. We were on a four-hour ascent pace and would stick to it. It was all I could do to hike 1150 vertical feet (one quarter of the ascent) before taking a sit-down break. Sheri’s Achilles problem had her limping pretty severely and I worried that she was doing additional damage, but she soldiered on. My fatigue matched her injury and we moved at the same pace.

We saw a few people descending, but the trail was pretty deserted. We took another break at the halfway point and then again when the trail joins the paved road for the final mile to the summit. The road up from the Visitor Center has an extensive, loose, gravel section, but we only saw it from afar. The top part of the road returns to very nice pavement and this is what we walked up. The road leads directly to a domed observatory (there are many up there) on the very top of one of Mauna Kea’s summit peaklets. The true summit was maybe 100 meters away and probably less than ten meters higher, but a sign asked that hikers not go any further because of cultural significance to the native Hawaiians. I question how many of the natives really feel this way (like the Navahos with Ship Rock), but we respected the wishes of the sign and took our summit photos at the top of the road.

It was cold and windy up there and we didn’t linger that long, preferring to descend a bit before taking a break to eat and drink a bit more. The way down was long, but it was so much nicer to be working with gravity than against it. The hike took us seven hours for the roundtrip and biking back to the hotel was out of the question at this point. It was going to get dark and I had no lights for my bike. With the climbing on the way down, I figured it would take another 2.5 to 3 hours to reverse the 52 miles back to the hotel. I was a bit disappointed in not being able to finish back at the hotel, but I was pretty wasted as well. I’d been going for 13 hours and 20 minutes. Still, I had completed my main goal of going from the ocean to the summit of Mauna Loa - the second most prominent peak in the United States, after Denali.

Mauna Loa Photos
Mauna Loa Relive

Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa
Hawaii has some other cool challenges. There is a 50-mile trail that goes up Mauna Loa, the sister peak to Mauna Kea and only a tiny bit lower. Mauna Loa is an absolutely humungous mountain. I read once that the total volume of this peak, if taken from the base in the ocean, is greater than the entire Sierra Nevada range! There is a road that heads up Mauna Loa from the saddle. This road is incredible. It’s a one-lane road with perfect tarmac winding its way through black, fantastical lava rock. The surrounding terrain varies from such rough, sharp lava as to look nearly impassable on foot, to smooth, hard flows up higher. The elevation is printed on the road every 500 vertical feet. This road continues to over 11,000 feet, climbing 4000 feet above the saddle in 18 miles.

From the end of the road it is a 6.8-mile (not the posted six miles) hike to the summit. Some of this is over such smooth lava rock that is seems like you should step right through it, like it was still molten. At 3000 degrees, it’s nice that the rock is not molten… This mountain must have hundreds of square miles of pure lava rock, with, again, almost nothing growing in most of it. The top 5000 vertical feet of Mauna Loa has no visible life. This is the most unique geography I’ve ever seen. Is there another place on earth like this? Four billion years ago the entire surface of the earth was like this.

Mauna Loa is pretty young for such a huge mountain. It began erupting 700,000 years ago and got above sea level just 400,000 years ago. As previously mentioned, these peaks Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are about 33,000 feet tall from their base in the ocean. But the sign at the trailhead for Mauna Loa talks about how the crust has been crushed by the weight of the mountain and hence the real base of the mountain, as far as the lava produced from the vent, is 56,000 feet below the summit. Suffice to say this mountain is huge. It used to be considered the biggest volcano on earth, but now there is thought that the Tamu Massif might be a single volcano covers 100,000 square miles (Mauna Loa is 2000 square miles) - nearly the size of Olympus Mons on Mars - but it doesn't break the surface of the ocean.

Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 (as far back as eruptions are accurately dated) and the flows from these cover over 800 square kilometers. The most recent was in 1984 and covered 220 square kilometers. These flows are what you hike up. Some of these flows look like slick rock, though the friction is great for hiking. This must be the lava that cooled while slowly flowing down the slopes and is known as the “pahoehoe” lava. There are plenty of lava tubes that you hike over and around as well. None are huge, but some are many feet in diameter. The toughest lava to hike over is the extremely rough and sharp talus that appears to the lava that cooled while flying through the air. This is known as the “aa” lava. These formations are so twisted and identifying cairns is tougher since so much of the rock looks like cairns.

Sheri and I hiked Mauna Loa three days after doing Mauna Kea. Once we left the saddle, we didn’t see a single person until we got back to our car and there we just saw two other people who had just driven the road up and weren’t hiking. I’m confident we were the only two on this hiking trail all day. This hiked proved longer and more tiring than expected. Perhaps were were losing our acclimatization or maybe it is extended time above 13,000 feet.

We hiked pretty easily to 13,000 feet and then had 2.75 more miles of tedious lava talus to hike through to gain the very summit. We’d had enough by then. Curiously, the only life we saw on the mountain was only at the very summit. Here I saw a ladybug and many flies. Sheri’s yellow pack in particular was covered in about twenty of them. There was a summit register here and the last recorded ascent was five days earlier.

Another great challenge for ultra-runners would be the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, which goes for 175 miles along the western coast of the Big Island. Of course there are countless resorts along this coast, but the entire coastline in Hawaii is public land so access is never barred to anyone hiking this trail. At our resort, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, part of this trail is on the golf course cart path and therefore must be open to the public.

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