Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mauna Kea Revisited

Top to Bottom- Mauna Kea from Hilo Bay, the access road, and me getting winded at 13,000 ft and saying "why am I doing this?"

It's been two years since I summitted Hawaii's Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea literally translates as "White Mountain" , and I have had the priviledge of being there during the snow season. Yes, it snows in Hawaii. Located on the Big Island, Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the Pacific, standing at 13,796 ft. It is a dormant shield volcano and from the ocean floor to the summit it is the tallest mountain in the world!

The reason why I did the ascent was simple. It's a beautiful place and very few people do the full round circuit hike. I began my morning at sea level and drove an hour and a half to the Mauna Kea visitors center. After only 45 minutes of acclimation I sign the waivers so I can begin my way up the mountain. Running at altitude can be tough, but running at altitude when you began your day at sea level can be just plain brutal.

The gravel road begins at 9,000 ft and winds up the mountain for 9 miles to 13,796 ft. After a few seconds of running, I realize the trail is too steep and I begin a long power hike to the summit. An hour went by, and I guessed I was a few thousand feet into the climb. That was until I passed the 10,000 ft marker a few minutes later. The thinner air was already making the climb seem longer. For a brief second, I had a hard time imagining doing this brutal ascent for nearly four thousand more feet. Flatlander from Virginia+altitude=lung busting effort

As I went further up the mountain the lack of oxygen was clearly slowing me down. I kept moving forward and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I was getting more adjusted to the altitude, but not fast enough to compensate. I passed 11,000 ft, then 12,000. Mauna Kea seemed like it just kept going up. I would get over one massive volcanic hill, and see more on the horizon. My surroundings started off as arrid desert, then slowly transitioned to fine red volcanic sand. I hiked through stinging light rain, sunshine, fog, and whipping winds. Finally, I came to a stretch where I could see the true summit. I saw that I had about a mile to go, but also a very steep climb. This last particular incline is so steep that its combination with the altitude has been known to frequently stall out cars.

As I crested the top I was welcomed by the sight of several space observatories. Mauna Kea has perhaps the clearest skies on the planet and air that has been purified by several thousand miles of ocean. Having never hiked significantly above 6,000 feet before, this felt like the longest nine miles I had ever hiked. However, I was not at the true summit. I ran down into the mountain's culdera, and climbed about 100 feet to the true summit and a small shrine to the fire goddess Pele. Above the clouds I could see the ocean from all 360 degrees. It was a sight straight from a dream. I took a short video, some photos, ate a little, and hurried to get out of the cold. The temperature was 87 degrees in Hilo, 77 at the start of the run, and a windy 37 at the summit.

The run down was so steep my feet felt like they were on fire. As the altitude decreased I could feel my lungs growing stronger and stronger. Soon I was back at the visitor's center to verify my return from the summit. Though it took me 2 hours and 35 minutes to reach the summit, it only took 1 hour and 25 minutes to get back and check back in with the ranger.

All in all, it was a rare, beautiful experience that I will never forget.

1 comment:

ultrarunnergirl said...

beautiful! love reading about your adventures.