| Above the Clouds in Hawaii
Last year, Anna of this site started a thread floating the idea of heading to Hawaii for some peaks, beaches, and loafing. This sounded great to me, but that particular trip fizzled and Anna found her own special way to the islands last Christmas. Apparently she met some Hawaiian guy from Boulder... Unbowed, I resolved to find a way there, even if I flew alone. It had been far too long since I'd had a real vacation that didn't focus on hiking peaks to the exclusion of everything else.
Fast-forward to April 18. I boarded a plane bound for the Big Island, planning on hitching rides or renting a car, sleeping on the beach or finding a cutie to shack up with, and having beaches and 13ers on the brain. A cheap upgrade to first class meant I was good and silly by the time I landed in Kona. I shudder to admit it, but even Budweiser can go down easy when it's free.
Imagine my surprise when I exited the baggage claim with my luggage and saw Bobby and Katie Finn lurking curbside in a rented Chevy Craptiva. "What are you doing here?" Their answer: "We came to hike peaks, enjoy the beach, and loaf around in between. What are you doing here?" After I related my plan of dirtbagging and hoping for a cutie hookup with a roof over our heads, they offered to give me a ride to the big, swanky Marriott resort at Waikoloa, and, of course, I accepted. Going it alone isn't all it's cracked up to be, and the Finns are among the finest hiking partners known to man. Luckily, there was space for me there and I could keep the tent in its stuff sack.
BTW, the only part above that I guarantee is true is my description of the Finns. You can't ask for better people to share a summit with you.
Anyway, no self-respecting LoJ member goes to Hawaii and skips the two ultra-prominent 13ers, Mauna Kea (state highpoint) and Mauna Loa. These are not run-of-the-mill 13ers by any standard. The two battle among nerds for world's tallest mountain (from the ocean floor, not sea level). Mauna Kea is the state highpoint and has more prominence than Mt. Rainier. According to Scott Patterson's summitpost page, Mauna Loa "is approximately 375 times the size of Mount Hood, and has quite a bit more rock than either the entire Cascade or Sierra Nevada mountain ranges." I pondered which one would be more interesting to hike and was left with no answer, but "Go and find out!"
After a dinner of prime rib coupled with discovering that I really like Kona Brewing's Fire Rock Pale Ale, we hit the sack early enough to get a decent start on our first objective.
Stats (per my GPS): 13.5 miles, 2900' gain. Bob's GPS differed a bit.
Ascent Party: No, it was too early
Descent Party: YES!
We left our oceanfront hotel at O'dark thirty and made the long drive to the Observatory Trailhead at 11,000ft. From Waikoloa, this took almost two hours, so we started later than expected. The last 18 miles cover a very narrow, yet paved one-lane road that demands careful driving. Many curves and hill crests are blind, and the road is bounded by large, sharp lava rocks that will shred any tire that dares leave the pavement. It took a while, but we finally arrived at the TH. Having never left sea level and hiked to >13k, each of us was curious as to how we'd react to such a sudden change in elevation. Since I hadn't been higher than the top of the Pano lift at Mary Jane or the summit of Tucker Mountain at Copper since last December, I was particularly interested to see how my body would react.
We left the car, headed down an old 4x4 road for about 1/2 mile before the "trail" began.
The trail begins, with Mauna Kea in the background
It was immediately apparent that Mauna Loa was like no peak I've ever hiked. There's no trail to speak of for most of the route. One just looks for cairns in the distance while traversing old lava flows. The terrain was interesting and I liked its sticky traction and fairly gentle grade. Here's Bob shortly after we embarked.
Another shot of typical terrain for the first portion of our hike:
As we bobbed and weaved upward from cairn to cairn, I was surprised to notice that I wasn't feeling the altitude. After all, this was only my second peak of 2013 and we had been at sea level only a few hours prior. We kept going. We all noticed that no matter how high we ascended, Mauna Kea always looked much higher than our target. This persisted, even at the summit of Mauna Loa, despite less than 150' difference between the two peaks. Here's Kate looking back at Mauna Kea.
Photo by Bob
We found a cool little cave that'd be useful in a lightning storm, and a nearby benchmark. We stopped here for a break, then trudged upwards until we intersected an old road. It really seemed as if this unearthly moonscape would never end.
We followed the old road for a bit, then crossed into Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, of which Mauna Loa is the highpoint.
Here, a trail became apparent, as the terrain mellowed out a bit and looked more typical of an alpine class 1 hike on the mainland.
A peek across the island toward Mauna Kea showed a bank of clouds filling the valley. Having read about the difficulties that fog and clouds can present on this peak, we crossed our fingers that 1) those clouds would stay away and 2) our GPS units would hold out in case of a fogout.
Suddenly, Bob announced that he'd spotted something unexpected in the tropics--snow! There was a patch of white in the distance, so we left the trail in search of something we did not expect to see. at 12,931ft, we found it! There wasn't enough for a glissade, but we couldn't help but pose with it.
At about 13k, we found a cool pit toilet (rivals any I've seen for most scenic place to drop a deuce), which stands atop a crevasse, albeit one with no snow. While this hike was like nothing I've ever done, the crevasses were slightly reminiscent of Rainier, and the multiple, spuriously tall cairns match the one on Culebra.
Both Finns are 6' or taller...
Soon after passing the junction to the summit crater cabin (I hear it's a great place to stay), we got our first glimpse of the giant crater...
...but we still had some hiking to do, 2.5 miles or so to the summit.
Eventually, we got to the summit cairn, laden with offerings left by previous summiters.
We enjoyed the sense of accomplishment, sharing perspectives on such a unique ascent, snacking, and taking photos of the view. Then, we noticed the abundant clouds heading our way, probably having already shrouded our cairn-to-cairn descent in pea soup. We decided to hit the road for the TH, no doubt conditioned by our Colorado roots to fear any and all rainclouds as potential carriers of Zeus' thunderbolts. Rain began in earnest.
We made good time downhill as the landscape became even more otherworldly and the rain began to fall, beating feet back to the rental Chevy faster than I would have guessed.
Overall, Mauna Loa was an amazing hike, like nothing I'd anticipated or seen before. We saw only one living creature during the entire hike--a fly that Bob swatted. No plants or animals greeted us. It was like hiking on another planet, but this is a planet I recommend checking out for yourself. I do recommend sunscreen, especially on your legs. Owing to comfy temps in the mid-40s (reminiscent of May or June hikes in CO), I wore shorts for this hike, but forgot to apply sunscreen below the belt. At the time of this writing (30 April), my legs are still red and have peeled nonstop for days. The sun's strong in these parts!
Stats: 11.5 miles, about 3900' gain.
Alpenglow on Mauna Kea from the Saddle Road
After a day of waves at the beach and beers + superb pizza at Kona Brewing, we were ready for another hike. The two Hawaii 13ers comprised the meat of our hiking goals on the Big Island. After them, everything was gravy, and we had nothing to do except relax.
We made the (shorter) drive to the Mauna Kea visitor center (9200'), arriving around 6:45 a.m., with no rangers in sight. After completing the required permit, we used a shortcut (thanks, Summitpost!!!) to park our car at about 10,150' near a switchback, and this sign:
This saved us at least a mile each way and about 900' of ascent. Why push it? As we readied our day packs, a ranger stopped by, asking if we'd completed the permit and admonishing us for "cheating" by parking higher. One look at him told me he's never hiked the peak from below 13000' on the road, so we laughed it off and listened to his canned safety spiel and genuine, warm regards about our day.
We hit the connecting use trail from our parking spot, and quickly joined the main Mauna Kea trail. From here, navigation was never a problem. The terrain on Mauna Kea is nothing like that of Mauna Loa. As they are neighbors, this is surprising, but not a problem. The first 1000' or so is on loose dirt, but the entire hike is class 1. While this peak has its own distinguishing features and amazing vistas, the hike is more trivial than that of Mauna Loa. Here are some pics from the initial portion of our ascent:
Kate ascends with Mauna Loa in the background
We could see masses of clouds filling the valley between us and Mauna Loa, just as they had two days before, but there was no reason to worry, and we kept heading upward until we could see the road ahead of us. We could tell a huge cloud inversion was in our future. At this point, I was reminded of the Crags trail.
Eventually, we reached a fork in the trail. Left led to Lake Waiau, Hawaii's only alpine lake. Right dropped about 200' to the road. Unsure if there was a connector trail from the lake to the summit path, we elected to drop to the road. Hindsight tells us that this was a mistake; the lake trail does reconnect with the road, and we added about 0.3 miles and 200' to our day. As we hit the road, we ran into another ranger, who was very friendly and regaled us with stories of unprepared hikers, snowstorms, and other things most folks would not expect. As he drove off into the distance, we hit the road (literally) for a few hundred vertical feet of paved grind.
Eventually, the road ends just short of the famed observatory, and the summit trail climbs about 100' to the top of Hawaii.
Just a little futher!
No matter how often I see this, it's always heartwarming.
We found our ranger friend waiting for us on the summit. He discussed respect for native cultures with us (duh!), and we had a friendly conversation with him before he took a few pics of us and headed down. Since this guy spends three nights a week on the summit, my guess is that he's one of the best acclimated Hawaiians out there.
Group shot! We are all heroes.
Bob had a headache, and I fell asleep; we lingered on the summit, atop Hawaii, for about an hour. The views in all directions are spectacular. While the cloud inversion blocked out the highpoint of neighboring Maui, the sense of being atop the world was good enough for me. Eventually, we decided that beers at the hotel sounded really good, and we began our descent
True summit is to the right
We took a different route down from the top and stopped by Lake Waiau to check out its shallow waters.
Apparently, native Hawaiians once threw the umbilical cords of newborn children into this lake, among other things. While I respect their culture, I had no desire to get in the water, so we took some pics and made our way down to the car. The descent went surprisingly fast to me, but Bob said it reminded him of going back to Paradise from the summit of Rainier. That was one of my most miserable descents, so to me, this would have had to be 10 times longer than it was, but to each his own. I was already feeling the aloha from these islands, and nothing could turn my frown upside down. As we returned to the beach, we had beers and dinner at Roy's (butterfish!) on our minds. What a great day!!!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):