Monday, December 15, 2014

Making a Personal Seven Summits List


Honestly, I don’t like writing blogs like this much. Why? Because more often than not they become a history of “things I wish I would have done”. I’ve made these at the beginning of seasons before - and almost always I fall short of what I’ve intended to climb. That’s bad. I feel like I’m not achieving my goals. But this blog has been sitting in my “Google Drive” for a few months now. Guess I either better finish it and publish it, or delete it and forget it forever. I’ve also been not very inspired lately - either to climb or write. Maybe it would be better to complete the thought of this, although it feels a little like taking a blog “from the vault”. So, I guess I’ll finish it….

Last fall, I was lucky enough to do a guest spot on the short-lived podcast “In Ice Axe We Trust” discussing the Casaval Ridge route on Mt Shasta. The guys - The Last Adventurer (Chris) and The Peakseeker (Matt) - were really cool and we started rambling a little bit off-topic at one point, at which time the subject of the Seven Summits came up. Many climbers aspire to climb the “Seven Summits” and by that I mean the highest point on each of the seven continents. Of course, there begins the debate about what is a continent (Australia or Oceania?) and also about where the dividing lines between such continents exist (Mt. Blanc in the Alps or Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus?). So the list itself includes anywhere from 7 to 9 mountains depending on who you want to listen to.

My thing was though, these are not my Seven Summits. Climbing is a very personal endeavor for me, and I’ve never been one to let others pre-determine what my goal should be. Full disclosure: I’ve climbed Mt. Elbrus and Kilimanjaro. I did both of these early on in my climbing “career” and I’m proud to have summited. They were both excellent objectives and once (well twice) in a lifetime trips. I wouldn’t trade doing them for the world. It was all about the process of learning to climb and learning what I liked about climbing. Learning what challenged me to climb more and what made me want to climb and keep climbing.

But climbing someone else’s list is not my thing. If that goal works for you, that’s great for you. There are many thousands of people who take up the challenge and I only support and admire their determination, passion and courage in undertaking such a grand adventure. But I knew early on that it was not for me. For one, my wife is one of those people who is pursuing (as of this writing has 7 of 8) this dream, and had I tried to concurrently pursue it myself the financial implications for our family would have been quite severe. But there is more to it than that. If it were something I really wanted to do - like really wanted - I bet we could have found some way to make it all work.

Here’s the deal. I don’t think that the standard “Seven Summits List” is right for every climber. I also think too many climbers decide too early on in their climbing odyssey’s what their ultimate goals are. Aside from the financial burden, which is huge, some of these mountains may just not be that interesting to every individual climber. They may also not be within every climber’s abilities. Too often people set their sights on the Seven Summits, yet their fitness and devotion to climbing may never propel them to a level where climbing say Mt. Everest is even possible - or evem really a good idea for their health.

I realize that climbing the tallest mountain on the planet will always be a draw for some people. It isn’t for me though. It never has been really. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted from climbing. When I was talking to Matt and Chris I referenced the fact that I had just climbed The Grand Teton, and that it was part of MY Seven Summits. (Which it is, more on that later) But yet at the time I really hadn’t fully boiled down and defined for myself what my Seven Summits really are. Even though I said it at the time, and completely meant it, I didn’t even fully realize what my goal was to be at the time I said it. I knew the pieces were there, but I just needed to decipher them. The time has come now to do that.

Perhaps someone can learn from my example that it isn’t necessary to climb a Seven Summits list that someone else made for them. I hope people can recognize my point, that every climber needs to find their own set of goals. For some, this will still be the standard Seven (or 8 or 9) Summits that everybody knows. But this blog is about My Seven Summits. And as this list came together for me, I think 7 is just the right number. Maybe for someone else it could be the Four Summits, or for somebody else it might be the Fifteen Summits. But Seven will work fine for me.  It should be for every individual to decide what goals they want to set for themselves. In life, I never let anyone else choose what things I should accomplish. In my opinion, climbing is no different. Here’s how I ended up with my list.

My wife and I climbed Mt Elbrus in 2005 and Kilimanjaro in 2006. As I said, they were great and I had fun, but I didn’t ever feel like telling people “I’m climbing the Seven Summits” because I knew that I wasn’t going on these climbs for that reason. I was climbing with my wife and having great vacations. For me, I wasn’t checking anything off a list.

I went through a few years after we climbed Kilimanjaro not really knowing what I wanted out of climbing. We went to Colorado on vacation in 2007, and I found that I really liked climbing Colorado 14ers. They were fun! That’s a very important element, right there. For my 40th birthday in 2009, we went on a climbing trip to Bolivia, which turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. I hated Bolivia. It was not fun! I almost quit climbing altogether, but then we returned to Colorado later that summer (as we had every year since ‘07) and climbed some more 14ers. Having fun again! Through all of this, slowly, a more clear picture out of what I want to achieve in climbing began to take shape.

Sometime during these years I discovered the website peakbagger.com . What I like about Peakbagger is that it’s not a social site like Summitpost or 14ers or any of those. It’s really just a site where you sort of keep a personal diary or journal of the mountains you climb. But another of the little cool things it does, after you’ve entered a few of your conquests, is that it will start to suggest lists you might be climbing based on them. If you’re a climber and you don’t know about peakbagger, you really should check it out, particularly all the little tools it has on your personal “home” page. I find a really good way to take stock of what you have done, and what you might do.

Since I made that comment on the iiawt podcast, I started to concern myself with another little section on my peakbagger page - The “Life List” it’s called. Defined on the site the Life List is; A master "bucket list" of peaks, a combination of proudest past ascents and most-desired future ascents. After all, isn’t that what a Seven Summits list is or should be? So I went about trying to fill it up. I thought to myself seven would be a good enough number as any, and it satisfied my desire to have this list be a personal Seven Summits list.

The Grand Teton

The first one was easy. The Grand Teton has always been a mountain I wanted to climb, ever since I was a child. I wrote about climbing it last year - The Great Grand Teton. Adventure of 2013. So coming up with #1 was easy - but what then? Do I put in one of the actual 7 Summits that I’ve climbed? Elbrus or Kilimanjaro? Were they really climbs of my life? What about other summits from the actual list? What about Aconcagua or Mt. Everest? Are they even actually own my own list?

Denali

My next entry did happen to be one from the traditional list - Denali. The original plan was for me to go with my wife when she went to Denali in 2006. Of course, finances and vacation time realities made themselves known at this point, and this was probably the first time I re-evaluated my own climbing goals. But unlike the rest of the mountains from the traditional lists, the dream of climbing The Great One never fully escaped me, and every time I would see a photo or a video or even if someone just mentions a trip to Alaska - I knew in my heart it was still something I very much want to climb. So now I had 2.

At that point I realized this was MY list - and it had to contain the mountains that I wanted to climb. Again, not goals that somebody else set for themselves - they had to be goals that I would set for myself, just like when I was 8 years old and I wanted to climb the Grand Teton. And for the first time I really had to ask myself the question “What do I really want to climb?”

The Matterhorn

After climbing the Grand Teton last year, one idea definitely came to my mind. Years ago in fact, my father sent us a Christmas gift - a very nice framed picture of a mountain. We’ve hung it in our garage, and it hangs right next to the entry door, so essentially I see it every day multiple times. It’s also a type of climbing a got a little tiny taste of on the Teton - mixed alpine climbing. It’s another mountain that is an icon, not just in the USA but in the world. A bucket list mountain if ever there was one. The 3rd mountain on my list is the one and only Matterhorn.

I Want to go back to South America

After we came home from Bolivia, I swore I would never return to South America. But over the years, I think I’ve softened my stance on that a bit. I strongly considered making an attempt at Aconcagua a couple of years ago, but again, finances and time off considerations trumped that decision, and in hindsight luckily so. Aconcagua does not make my final list. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find the Andes a beautiful and intriguing range. I’m just not going back to Bolivia - ever.

So I haven’t really figured this one out yet, but it’s taking a place on the list. How can I do that? Well, I can do that because it’s my list and I make the rules. Seriously though, I want to do something challenging in South America, not just the usual, normal touristy routes. I remember the guides of Bolivia taking all these completely inexperienced people up 6000 meter peaks - it seems like something that any physically fit person who can hire a guide to take them up should really not be on my list. It can be on yours, if that’s what you want. Just doesn’t belong on mine.

Why Limit It To Just Tops of Mountains?

Here I realized something else about my list. Why was I restricting it to summits at all? Some of the things I really want to do are more outdoors things rather than just “climbing” goals per se. If I was truly going to make a personal 7 Summits list, why should I also follow someone else’s rules that all the “Summits” have to be summits? Conformity has never been my thing. My list has to  be uniquely my list and as such I make the rules for my list. My rules are that saying something is a “summit” is just basically saying it is something I want to accomplish, not necessarily the highest point on a mountain - although most of them are just that. I wasn’t going to limit it to mountain tops, though. The only limits a Personal Seven Summits list can have are the ones you yourself impose on it.

Hike The John Muir Trail

The mountains are calling me, and I must go…. and the John Muir Trail is calling me. I know I have to do it. I want to do it so badly. I’ve actually gotten the permits to do this on 3 separate occasions. The thing is, right now I barely have enough vacation to do it, and that’s if those 3 weeks or so on the trail would be the only thing I do for the entire year. That’s really hard to do. I like taking vacations, and it isn’t healthy to blow your entire vacation time all in one trip. You do that, and you’re stuck working for the rest of the year with no shining light of time off beckoning you in the distance. That’s not a good way to go through a year. So the JMT will have to wait for one of these upcoming years after my vacation allotment is increased. But the JMT still calls me. Sometimes I try and figure out how I could do it faster, even though I know that’s folly. But I will cover those 211 miles of California wilderness one day, and that will be a “summit”. The fact that I can probably bag a couple of California 14ers in the process is just a bonus.

Climb All 58 Colorado 14ers

This is one my wife and I have been working on already for years. What started out as a simple vacation to Breckenridge in 2007, has turned into an annual pilgrimmage to the Centennial State and its numerous 4,269+ meter peaks. We’re now just 5 peaks short of our goal of all 58. (While many folks have different lists of the Colorado 14ers, to understand why we chose the 58 list you can go back and read this  blog. ) This coming 2015 we hope to finish up the last of them on our list - Little Bear Peak, Capitol Peak, Pyramid Peak, and North and South Maroon. So I’m certainly hoping that sometime next July or August I will be crossing the 2nd of my 7 summit list off with this completed. It’s been fascinating journeying back to Colorado for what will be 8 years in a row, seeing a state I thought at the  beginning I was somewhat familiar with, and finding out over the course of those 8 years I didn’t really know her at all - it’s a state much better than I even imagined back then.

So that’s my list - My Personal Seven Summits list.

Wait a minute. You might be thinking “1,2,3,4… there’s something that doesn’t quite add up here.” You’re right. There are only 6 goals on my list of 7. I’m leaving one slot open. And the “South America” slot isn’t really taken up. One thing I’ve learned since I started climbing is never stop looking for the next challenge. This list, this is only a temporary list - maybe. There’s no doubt I’ll be updating it as I go along, and discover new goals that I may ultimately want to add in. I also have the freedom to subtract out any ones I deem to extravagant, although their substitute’s must be equal in their ability to test me in order to maintain the list’s integrity. That’s what I like about climbing, it never has to end, I never have to feel like “I’m done”. Once I complete this list, then I guess I’ll just make another.

Get ready 2015 and beyond, I've got some plans for you.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Climb of the South Sister

South Sister, Oregon
It promised to be a perfect day for hiking, as we woke up early that morning the last week of July in Bend and drove west. Mt Bachelor beamed ahead of us in the sunrise alpenglow. But the popular skiing mountain was not our objective for the day. Shortly after we drove past the turnoff to Bachelor, our real goal for the day boomed out of the Cascade forest to the north. The South Sister, at 10,363’ the highest of the 3 Sisters volcanoes and 3rd highest peak in Oregon, was in our sights. This was going to be some fun!


I guess I didn’t read the instructions to the trailhead close enough, because I assumed the trailhead would be on my right, closest to the mountain. The trailhead (called the Devil’s Lake trailhead) is actually on the left side, where the lake is. You then have to hike up and cross over the highway. The trailhead parking lot was already packed almost full - I think I got the 2nd to last parking spot, and it was not yet 6:45am! Surely all these folks weren’t on the trail, were they? Soon, we would find out. We dropped our $5 for the permit in the box and headed up.


The trail starts out in deep forest. The grade was fairly steep, but the crisp Oregon morning helped mask any additional heat caused by the workload. Walking at a fairly leisurely pace, we reached the junction to Moraine Lake in about an hour. There were just a few other groups on the trail at this point. By the time we reached the upper junction (that goes back down towards the lake) we were soon joined on the trail by more, and then more, and the more (!) hikers mostly coming up from the lake. Hiking South Sister is definitely not a “out in the wilderness alone” type experience.
Moraine Lake - Mt Bachelor to the right
But it was a solid and good trail. From the first junction to the base of the peak goes quickly, as the trail is essentially flat, wide and the views are spectacular. After a short break we started gaining altitude more quickly and encountered a few snow drifts still left on the lower slopes here and there and covering the trail in a few sections. Then we hit a steep section of scree and loose rock that went directly up and appeared to be off the main, summer trail. That led up to another steep section of snow, but there was a good well worn bootstep stair to follow up.
The trail evens out after the junction to Moraine Lake (looking back)
First big snowy slopes, most of it could be ascended by rock, but the very top was following bootsteps in the snow.
Back on dirt again above the snow slope
Looking back at a beautiful Central Oregon day
The scree and rubble just kept on coming. Finally we reached the bottom of the Lewis glacier and out of nowhere - fantastic view of a little lake at the base of the glacier (but it is NOT Teradrop Pool). We marveled at the picturesque scene at took a snack break. By this time there were climbing groups passing us both from below and descending from above. Easily there were 50-75 hikers up on the trail above us or just below us. And every few minutes more on the way.


Climbing up before the final push to the bottom of the glacier
The scree-filled ascent up to Teardrop Pool
Lake at the base of Lewis glacier - I thought mistakenly this was Teardrop Pool, it is not
From our vantage point just above the lake, we got a good look at the remaining (we hoped - no false summits please) portion of the route. It was obvious there was a steep more red portion just up above where the glacier has a bergschrund that was bottlenecking up hikers. We carried on, atop the ridge of ancient glacial till and remains and at last were on that section.


Looking ahead from the lake (which is NOT Teardrop Pool)
The very nice aesthetic of the ridge west of the glacier
A closer look at the upper slopes
It was tough,  but we kept at it slow and steady. It seemed like it took a lot longer than it looked like it would from below. At last we rounded the corner and saw all the large groups of people sitting in the rock shelters along the summit crater rim. From there, we could see on the other side of the crater the obvious highest point. We crossed the snow-filled crater, happy to relax on a flat stretch after all that uphill. After a short, rocky scramble we were up on top.


Looking back after ascending the last tough section
The actual summit is very small, and we quickly snapped a couple of photos before letting the throngs of other hikers enjoy their moments too. I was a bit disappointed that the sheer size of the summit crater (it’s huge, like a mini-Mt Rainier) did not allow for a proper panoramic shot from my iphone, but I did what I could.


Summit panorama
Some folks crossing the large snow filled crater 
The actual summit (small and crowded on a Saturday)
View from the top. Middle and North Sisters, behind is Jefferson, faintly we could see Hood, and even fainter yet we could see Adams on this day.
After lunch we started our descent and the gangs of climbers just kept coming. It’s an odd mix on the South Sister - sometimes we would see climbers overly prepared with ice axes, boots and gaiters on, other times we would see folks with nothing but t-shirts and shorts. Personally, I was glad to be wearing a good pair of boots and had a couple of different jackets to choose from, as the hike seemed to go through quite a  few different micro-climates.

Just before we made it back to the parking lot our water ran out. 2 liters was just not quite enough for this day, and it was quite hot in the lower elevations. Luckily the last stretch is back through the forest, and soon we were back to our car. South Sister was a really fun hike, lots of pretty scenery, and a just great day out in the mountains.










Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Bagging The Big Island






Looking back Mauna Loa from the slopes of Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea - highest point in Hawaii
“What? You’re going to Hawaii? But there ain’t no mountains there!”


Oh, but your well-meaning co-worker is wrong. There is peak-bagging to be had in Hawaii. All you need to do is make a conscious decision to avoid the crowds, traffic jams, and skyscrapers of the other islands and turn your attention to the Big Island of Hawaii. There you will find not one, but two 4000 meter peaks (I say that because it sounds better than 13,000’) for your climbing enjoyment. And you still get to go to Hawaii. Mai Tai’s, tropical waterfalls/sightseeing and luau’s and all the other Hawaiian staples can still be on your agenda for the cost of only a couple of days out of your relaxation schedule.  A pretty sweet deal for those who collect summits and may also want to do an actual vacation for once.


There is no question the Big Island of Hawaii has a lot to see. Kilauea and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is an excellent starting point, with many hikes and sights to witness. The eastern side sees a lot of rain and therefore has an abundance of beautiful waterfalls, while the leeward side is more dry and has the usual tourist trap beaches and bars. But the Big Island also lacks the masses of people and their humanly excesses (cars, murders, etc) of the other islands, making it a paradise among paradises. We came to this place in June of 2014, to hike her volcanoes and to vacation.


We decided to start our volcano hikes with Mauna Loa, the second highest on the island at 4169 meters (13,679’). I was bit worried about the road we would take to the trailhead, both the Saddle Road and the observatory road. From the guidebooks we had, both recent editions, these roads sounded somewhat intimidating. Well, my worry was for nothing. The Saddle Road, Highway 200, is now the Daniel K Inouye Highway and was the best road we traveled on in the whole Big Island. The Observatory Road was also in better condition than advertised, but it is still 19 miles long and one lane. However, it was newly paved, and there remains only about one mile of dirt that lies well below where the observatory sits. (I was told by a tech I met on Mauna Kea that the reason for this was that the dust kicked up interfered with the delicate instruments of the observatories.) The only trouble we had was that our rental Jeep was surely not tuned for higher altitudes. As we gained up towards the 11,000’ starting point, our transportation lost more power and struggled mightily to make it up the next hills in front of us.


At the beginning of the Mauna Loa trail, right after leaving the dirt road beginning
Finally, we made it to the small parking lot just below the observatory and got ready. We were the only car in the lot, at 8:30am on a Sunday. The trail starts out following a road as it dips down to the west. Immediately, the scenery is bare and desolate - lava fields, some of it looking pretty recent too.


We had read that the trail was about 12.5 miles round-trip, one of the reasons we had chosen Mauna Loa as our first objective. Also, the fact that the elevation gain was not quite as severe as on Mauna Kea. (We would soon learn the caveat to that elevation fact) So it did not surprise us at all when we saw the turn-off sign that indicated we were six miles away. All was going well and we were making good time. Although the terrain is indistinctive, the trail is marked well by cairns, or as the Hawaiians call them, ahu’s. Some of these were several feet tall and could be seen from a very long distance.


Hiking up Mauna Loa
The slope of Mauna Loa is so slight, you really can’t tell what you’re hiking to - unlike most peaks where you have a definitive top of the mountain to point to and say “We’re going there.” If one were to get lost or disoriented, say in a fog or at night, on Mauna Loa, the lack of distinctive features of the hike seems like it could be overwhelming. Thankfully, we had a good clear day and it was still early, as we hiked up and over some increasingly jumbled new-looking lava flows. At 2.3 miles in, we came across two extra-large ahu’s that marked the location of a big lava tube. Pretty interesting stuff.


Lava tubes at 2.3 miles
Way out there in the middle of these lava flows, we finally spied something that looked so foreign and out of place - a wood sign. It pointed the way for the trail, as it joins up again with that 4-Wheel drive road. (I’m assuming the road is used by researchers and probably off-limits to the general public. This lead uphill (slowly) to another wood sign, and a trail that stretched through a sandy area. The sand was like a breath of fresh air after a couple of hours of hopping from lava rock to lava rock. Soon we saw another sign that announced our entrance into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. No Park Ranger stationed here? Go figure.


Hitting sandy slopes just after entering Hawaii Volcanoes Park
The sandy trail held up for quite some time and was a bit easier to follow and worn than the sometimes pick your own trail of the lower ahu portion (although this section still has ahu’s here and there, I’ll assume to help with navigation in the aforementioned times of diminished sight.) This lead almost up to the crater rim itself, although right near the end we were back to lava-hopping.


At the crater rim, but still a long ways off
We reached  the rim and the fork in the road. To the right, a sign marks the distance to the summit - 2.5 miles. The way to the east - the left - goes down to the Mauna Loa cabin, on the “long trail” to get to Mauna Loa’s summit. Apparently this trail starts down near the main part of the park (near where Kilauea and all the attractions are) and takes 3-4 days to hike. While this seems like a supercharged hike, we weren’t about to spend 50% of our Hawaiian vacation hiking one mountain. Seems like a pretty hardy route for those who choose it though.


Hiking up the barren landscape

So we looked to the right, and up to a distant point we assumed was the summit. The trail curls around this side of the massive crater before continuing up to that point. We even had to hop up over some “lava crevasses” which were about 3 feet wide and looked really, really deep. Peering into one we even got a glimpse of some tropical Hawaii snow! The wind up here was pretty constant and cold, and you wouldn’t even know you were in Hawaii.
Some of the cool sights on Mauna Loa

I did start to feel a bit of AMS, to be honest. Of course, we were staying right at the beach, and had just drove up here from literally sea level. And that elevation gain part? Well, round trip on Mauna Loa involves about 6 miles (round trip) of travel over 13,000’. Mauna Loa is not a steep mountain by any means, but it certainly is high. Although a bit annoying, it was not enough to turn me around so we pressed on, thinking that the summit must be the high indistinct point ahead of us.


Are we on Mars????
As we neared closer we could see all kinds of scientific looking equipment scattered around. Mauna Loa is an active volcano, and it’s last big eruption was just 30 years ago. We felt like we were on Mars, the place is just so void of any sign of life and then there are these science things placed around that look like they came from outer-space. But as we neared the “top point” we had been eyeing for the last hour or so, our hearts sank.


"I hope that's the summit!"
False summits….

Mauna Loa has got lots of them. I lost count, maybe from the slight headache I had, mostly from a growing feeling of just wanting to be on the top so it could be over. It was certainly getting to be a long slog, and well past the advertised mileage. The finally we spied a high point on the crater rim where there could possibly be no higher - I turned on the GPS just to confirm it anyway- and yes, we had finally reached the summit, itself marked by a large ahu with some offerings to the Gods tucked into it from hikers past. Our mileage marker - we use a Garmin Forerunner - logged in the distance to the summit at 6.8 miles - a 13.6 round trip, more than a mile longer than the advertised distance.


From the summit - The massive crater of Mauna Loa can only truly be captured by a panorama photo
We did our normal summit routines - taking photos, signing the summit register. We found no one had signed the register since June 4 - 11 days before. Apparently, Mauna Loa does not get a lot of hiker traffic, and since we hadn’t seen another human soul all day it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. We also did our usual postings to Facebook and Twitter. There was a fairly good 3G signal up there, good enough for slow internet even. Although if you waked ten feet in the other direction you might be reduced to No Service. Very spotty but quite good enough, especially since I would learn something I did not know about Spot.

I have a Spot 2, and my little hobby I like doing is using it at summits. It posts a little map to my FB or Twitter. So there on Mauna Loa I fired it up and made a post. But checking on my phone a few minutes later, nothing showed up. I let it run through its full cycle, something I hardly ever do just to see if it was maybe just a temporary glitch. Still no post. Later, on our descent it dawned on me what the problem was - and I had just enough signal to confirm it by doing an internet search on it. Spot Messengers Do Not Work in Hawaii. If you have one and you plan to do this hike, just leave it at home.

On the way down we did come across another couple heading up. It was quite a shock - we hadn’t seen anyone all day. We came across them about 45 minutes into our descent, which I would put them at least one hour from the summit. And the time was getting short. We had summit just around 1:00pm - but had spent at least 45 minutes on the summit. So these folks we figured to be at least 2 hours behind us assuming they spent any amount of time enjoying the top at all. Very dangerously close to returning in the darkness. I really wonder how they fared.

We arrived back at the parking lot just about 4:30 - a full day of hiking indeed. Sure enough, some yahoo was idling his car in the parking lot waiting to ask us questions about the hike. This is very frowned upon, apparently the fumes from idle vehicles can interfere with the delicate instruments of the observatory. Nevertheless, we told him of our adventures and luckily he moved on down the hill. We were glad we had stashed some Pepsi’s in the cheap cooler we had left in the Jeep, as we were far away from any convenience stores. One hill down, one left to go.


Telescopes near the Mauna Kea summit

It’s a bit easier to get up early in Hawaii. Time there is 3 hours different from our usual Pacific time, so waking up at say 5am was really no big deal. For Mauna Kea, we left the place we were staying at 6am and by 7:15 we were at the Visitors Center. By 7:30 we had left our registration slip (it’s free) and were on our way.

From the visitor center, we walked up the road about  500 feet or so to the trailhead. (We could park the car at the visitor’s center.) The trail is loose, sandy, ash and the first 2 miles are steep kitty litter. Very steep.  Some sections were around 35 degrees or so, and the fact that the surface of the trail is loose, cindery ash surely doesn’t help. It doesn’t switchback either, it just goes mostly straight up.


The sandy, loose beginning slope
Now Mauna Kea at least has something its neighbor to the south Mauna Loa, does not have - actual plant life! We even saw a few birds. The morning was cool as the clouds seem to be gathering somewhat below us, but we were focused on what was ahead of us up the mountain. No other hikers were on the trail this day, and glancing over at the road to our right there was not much sign of activity as well. Just a few trucks with official looking symbols on the sides, techs and engineers on their way up to the observatories that sit atop the mountain.





The upper part of the trail
The long trail to the summit

Eventually, the trail did relent a bit, and we settled into a good hiking rhythm. The scenery, however, took a bit of a turn to the ordinary for us, although truly out-of-place one would think in a tropical paradise. Although dominated by the typical volcanic debris we were so used to from our home mountain of Mt Shasta, we also noticed many rocks atypical of just an island volcano.
Rocks consistent with terminal moraines and  glacial till caught our eyes. Honestly, it did feel a little boring. It felt a bit like hiking up Misery Hill (without snow) only we could catch a glimpse of the summit cinder cone and knew it was still far away. The clouds were continuing to gather below us, obstructing any island views hikers on other days might enjoy.


Lake Waiau
Another oddity, Lake Waiau, was a short side-trip. There isn’t much amazing about this tiny lake, except for its existence in the first place. We rounded a corner and caught our first glimpses of some of the massive summit telescopes.  After resuming the trail for about a half a mile after this, we finally ran out of trail and hit the pavement of the road for the final summit push.




We quickly walked up the big single switchback and avoided a couple of gasoline climbers including a tour guide van - and endured their quizzical looks that seemed to say “Why are you folks hiking when there is a perfectly good road here to drive?” At last we spotted the true summit hill which was actually an aesthetically pleasing final walk-up. It took us five hours to reach this point. After some time on the summit taking photos, and our requisite social media postings (the cell/data signal was hit and miss the whole way. I literally could go from No Service to 5-bars of LTE in just a couple of steps.) The views of the giant star-gazers all lined up together is something to behold. The clouds that had been coalescing below us, now all but guaranteed our descent would be a foggy - and likely wet - one when we should choose to head that way. My wife had a blister that needed care, so we sat on the side of the road and took care of it as a few trucks passed slowly by.


The final hill to the summit (no road, thankfully)
A friendly Hawaiian walked over from his Chevy Tahoe and started conversation, asking us where our transportation was (I happily pointed down at our feet). A very talkative and informative guy who I would later learn worked as an engineer at many of the observatories here, he was taking a couple of friends on a quick tour that day, and as soon as they returned from their short hike from this parking lot to the summit, he let us know if we wanted he would be happy to give us a ride down. Without qualms, we accepted his offer. As this was our last big hike of  the vacation, we were ready to start enjoying Hawaii. It was a good thing we did too, as on the drive down the rain started and the fog moved in thick. I was more than a little impressed with his driving skills in these conditions, I’m not sure someone who wasn’t more familiar with the road could have navigated it as well. We made it down to the Visitors Center, got some souvenirs, and by 4:30 we were back in Kona sipping Mai Tai’s.


Mauna Kea Summit - Aloha!
Yes, there are mountains in Hawaii. Very enjoyable and hikable mountains too. Plus, when you finish with your hikes, you're still um... you're still in Hawaii!