Peak(s):  Mauna Kea - 13803
Date Posted:  01/17/2018
Date Climbed:   12/27/2017
Author:  benlen
 Don't Eat the Snow In Hawaii   

Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii:

For first timers who may be interested in hiking Mauna Kea, and the tl;dr folks:

1. During winter, Volcano National Park's rangers, and those stationed at the Mauna Kea visitor center at ~9,200ft, actively discourage hiking of the mountain. To them, if the road is closed, hiking is more or less "closed." But you are not expressly prohibited from hiking the peak.

I was not harassed by any rangers (probably because I appeared well prepared for the hike) but a trio of hikers I met on the way down (also from Colorado) were questioned. They were in good shape and acclimated, but one was wearing tennis shoes, which I do not recommend. Snow and ice made the hike dangerous in some areas.

2. There does not appear, at least in winter, to be a strong culture of hiking Mauna Kea. Coloradans should expect to encounter people who think they are "weird" for wanting to hike, versus drive, to the summit.

3. There is also a sign at the observatory that discourages hikers from going to the true summit. Reasons for this are unclear. I imagine Hawaii doesn't want flocks of people who drive the peak to make a mess of the true summit. There are also documented religious reasons for not going to a summit. Apparently at one point only native chiefs or religious leaders were allowed on the summit. Full disclosure, I chose to go to the true summit, and there is a large cairn there. There were also fronds left from palm trees on the cairn. So I personally do not believe a respectable hiker should deny themselves the true summit.

4. Just because Hawaii is a tropical paradise, respect Mauna Kea as you would any Centennial 13er and 14er in Colorado. Pack all the requisite gear, especially if you are planning to summit in winter. Start early. At the time, Mauna Kea had more snow than most peaks in Colorado did! I had full winter insulated boots, micro spikes, a hard shell, winter gloves and hat, spare socks, and several layers. I utilized all my equipment.

Note: This is my first trip report on My goal below is to provide information for those interested in hiking Mauna Kea, particularly in winter. I hope to be as succinct as possible, but I am a person who tends to embellish a story! So proceed with an open mind, and hopefully you'll be entertained.

Mauna Kea from the air, on the flight from the Big Island to Oahu.

"I hate my life," I thought to myself, as I began the swift vertical gain up Mauna Kea.

Between 10,000-11,000 ft, the trail is steep and unforgiving, especially on lungs that had spent the previous 10 days at sea level on Maui.

Mauna Kea is a mountain I spent a significant portion of 2017 thinking about. My 2017 goal, aside from hitting 50 14ers at home in Colorado, was to cap it off with a summit of Mauna Kea, the "tallest mountain in the world" if we measure it from its base at the bottom of the Pacific ocean.

My parents were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary in 2017, and Hawaii was their intended destination. I could fly from Colorado and meet them around Christmas time on Maui, and then island hop to the Big Island, and finally Oahu (home of Pearl Harbor and Magnum PI, my television idol and inspiration for my mustache.) And admittedly, what I was looking forward to most wasn't Waikiki Beach, the Road to Hana, scantily clad native girls, or a catamaran trip to Lanai. What I wanted to see most was snow in Hawaii.

Based on my family's interests, and our time spent on the Big Island, there would be a relatively narrow summit window, two days, Wednesday the 27th, and Thursday, the 28th, in which to hike Mauna Kea.

Basecamp: Volcano, Hawaii, 3,500ft

The scenery around "base camp."

Pele's Secret Garden, our home away from home for two days, was a photographer's dream. At significantly higher altitude than Hilo, the two days spent after Christmas here were mild, even chilly, in the morning. Pele's Secret Garden is a home partially powered by solar and surrounded by thick jungle undergrowth. The mornings here bring incredible, diffuse light, which filters through the jungle to create some stellar photographic opportunities.

Pele's Secret Garden featured those cool, hipster light bulbs that are in vogue at restaurants.

The house has a fireplace. At first, I thought this a strange addition for a home on the Big Island of Hawaii. But after a chilly night where I found myself donning a Patagonia fleece and clinging to a mug of chamomile tea, I recognized how such a fireplace would be ideal during the winter months. Curl up with a mug of something hot, underneath the blankets with my lady friend, ahhh.

Pele's Secret Garden.

Our basecamp was not the closest nor most ideal spot for launching a 'summit assault' on Mauna Kea. The visitor center is ~60 miles away. But the house was close to Volcano National Park, where my family was vacationing.

My mother (Susan) graciously volunteered to drive me from Volcano to Mauna Kea and back. With the idea that I'd be gone most of the day, she'd explore Hilo, and take in the sights at Volcano while our less active family members (my father and brother) could relax at the house.

The distance between the Mauna Kea visitor center and Pele's Secret Garden.

The night of the 26th is when I started to become anxious. I had received warnings from the park rangers about 'closing the mountain,' and the website for the Mauna Kea observatory was grim. A weather front was moving in that would most likely close the road to Mauna Kea. But these warnings left out details pertinent to any would-be hiker. How far DOWN was the road closed? Just above the visitor center where the hiking began, or even further down? Would hikers be allowed?

Sure enough, when I woke on the 27th and checked the Mauna Kea website, the road was closed. I considered calling off the hike and trying again the next day, but Susan wisely suggested we go for it, and lo and behold, the road up to the visitor center was open. Beyond the visitor center it was gated, with a large SUV blocking the road. But hiking was allowed! I passed by on foot without any issues.

Above Mauna Kea Visitor Center, 9,200ft

The trail above the visitor center. This part of the hike was foggy and cloudy, before things got really interesting about 11,000 feet.

Just above 9,200ft, near the Visitor Center on Mauna Kea, the landscape on the Big Island vaguely reminded me of some of the peaks in the Sangres in Colorado. Desiccated plants were locked in a desperate battle against encroaching brown, and a dusty, meandering trail marched upwards into the clouds.

If you were to take the often dry landscape of Colorado's foothills, and blend it with the cloud cover and fog of the Cascade Range in Washington, you would have a close approximation of what Hawaii's two big volcanoes look like on their lower slopes. It was only hiking higher did the landscape change from volcanic island to winter wonderland.

Above 13,200ft:

There's something thrilling about a snow covered, alpine environment. The crisp, clear air. The intoxicating sunshine that elevates the mood. The encompassing silence. Yes, this is the drug that I most appreciate.

This is also where the hike up Mauna Kea becomes LONG, and the mileage sets in. The initial spurt of vertical gain is followed by significantly more moderate gain on a trail that meanders through volcanic rock and snow (in the winter.)

Wind blown snow and ice became more prevalent, and microspikes became a must for secure footing. When the observatory and road came into sight, it was clear the summit was close.

The hike up Mauna Kea (unless you take an alternate route) involves the last 600 or so vertical feet walking up a paved road. In summer, I could see this being a chaotic and unwelcome distraction. But as the sole hiker at that time, this was welcome. Off snow and ice, I was able to make significant progress quickly up the road.

The road with Mauna Loa looming in the background.

Another view of the road.

I was passed by a few Ford F-150s, ferrying workers up to the Observatory. I waved, and they waved back. I feared that maybe these gentlemen would inquire why I was hiking, or ask me to turn around so close to the top, but such a feared outcome did not transpire.

A few curves in the road, and I was presented with a view of the summit. Looking at the summit from the Observatory, it appears somewhat unimpressive. There's an obvious trail, but the observatory is so close to the summit proper that it somewhat diminishes the peak.

The first glimpse of the summit from the road.

The nasty frozen rocks. I tripped and fell on these. Nasty!

The summit cairn.

Mauna Loa, and surrounding volcanos, were much more impressive.

The mighty Mauna Loa.

Better yet, Pu'u Pohaku became a mental note. If Hawaii continues to get decent snow in the coming years (and with climate change, nothing is certain) I would love to return and ski Pu'u Pohaku. The peak appears to hold snow well and has some beautiful lines. Next time.

Pu'u Pohaku, a great potential ski tour.

Of the two big volcanos, Mauna Loa seems to hold more popularity for Big Island locals, and I can see why. The massive crater looks stunning covered in snow, and dominates the view from Mauna Kea. There's also the added bonus of it being slightly shorter, which means fewer people will attempt it. I'd love to return in winter also to take a crack at Mauna Loa. Again, next time.

The last hundred or so vertical to Mauna Kea's summit proved treacherous. There wasn't much snow, due to aspect and how the wind scours it, but there was significant ice. I would fall on my ass on the way down. Ice covered rocks are the worst.

Still, I felt blessed to have the summit all to myself. In total I spent about 10-15 minutes there, sent out messages with my Delorme InReach to family and friends, took the requisite pictures, and then made to depart.

My family received my Delorme messages and replied, saying they were leaving Volcano and would meet me at the base of the mountain when I was done. "Great!" I thought. "This is all going splendidly."

But it was at ~13,200ft that I began to feel the altitude acutely. It was as if my mental and physical energy had powered me through in spite of 10 days at sea level, and now, coming down, I was drained. Snorkeling and sailing really did a number on my Colorado acclimatization! The weather was perfect, however: mid-30s, sunny, and off the summit I was protected from the wind. I took a seat on the ice and settled in for a pleasant gulp of some hot tea and a chocolate bar. That turned into several more gulps of tea, and an entire chocolate bar. And then a CLIF Bar, the Christmas flavored ones. Delicious.

It was then my solitude on the mountain was delightfully interrupted by the arrival of three hikers, two men and a woman. Conversation revealed they were from Denver, Colorado. Go figure! We exchanged the usual pleasantries, they asked about the summit, and warned me of overzealous park rangers who had harassed them at the visitor center. None of these individuals was carrying as much gear as I was, but seeing as I enjoy carrying a kitchen sink up 14ers, that's not surprising. I wished them well.

Feeling reenergized from the food and drink, I began sprinting down the mountain, with the intent to make my family not wait too long at the visitor center. This was a pleasant experience, as snow kicked up behind me, the sun provided that intoxicating Vitamin D, and thoughts of a triumphant return to Volcano filled my mind. The possibility of a hot meal back at "base camp" was motivation to make this non-runner hoof it.

At ~13,200, the path became entirely wind blown snow and ice. Microspikes a MUST. Mauna Loa in the distance.

In total, I managed to reach the summit and back in under 7 hours. I checked in at the visitor center to confirm I had returned safely from the hike, and then got back in the rental car for a nice nap all the way back to Volcano.

Below I've included a brief video of the trip. If you enjoy that sort of thing, and you jive with my zany humor, give it a watch. Until next time. -Ben

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

01/18/2018 10:29
Thanks. I have printed this as I hope to hike this in the near future!


Well done!
01/18/2018 10:37
Both the report and the hike! I don't suppose I'll ever hike it but now I know something about it and it's fun to think about.


02/19/2018 16:10
Beautiful! I love the weather on Hawaii's peaks.

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