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!