Back in October 2002, I joined Jim Pushaw, Ed Gilman, and Dick Cowan on a hike to the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii via the western flank of the White Mountain. Almost everyone who summits Mauna Kea, which at 13,796 feet is the highest mountain peak in Hawaii, does so the easy way by driving to the top of the mountain, which is peppered with astronomical observatories. We did not drive to the summit. Instead, we would drive to the 8,000 foot level via a remote 4×4 road, camp there, then drive further up to 10,000 feet and begin hiking there on a non-trail. And here is our story.
The total roundtrip distance was approximately 10.5 miles. As I mentioned, the hike’s starting elevation was approximately 10,000 feet and the terminus was nearly 14K feet. The hike time to summit was approximately 5 hours and the descent time was 2.5 hrs. We started hiking at 8:30 a.m. and the summit was acquired at 1:30 p.m. We returned to our start point at 4:45 p.m.
On his last visit prior to our ascent day, Jim drove up to do some “trail clearing” of the jeep road we would use as our launch point for the summit ascent; that is, he removed large stones from the roadbed to make for better driving conditions. And Jim provided the ground transport in his Jeep Cherokee 4×4.
Ed, Dick, and I flew from Honolulu to Kona on the Big Island on a Saturday afternoon. Jim met us there and we drove off to find a place to camp high up on the slopes of Mauna Kea. After heading up the Saddle Road, Jim took a turnoff on a dirt road. He had scouted out the area several times prior to this day. The “area” was a spot high on the flank of Mauna Kea’s west-facing side.
Prior to the weekend, we discussed many issues, mostly via email, including gear (Dick came up with a nicely detailed list that the rest of us used as a guide), the altitude (three of us tried 120mg of ginko biloba twice daily the week prior and this seemed to help us), and basic logistics. Dick brought along a GPS, which proved invaluable for directional assitance and wayfinding. Best of all, he knew how to use it.
Based on my altimeter watch reading, we camped at around the 8,000 foot level of the mountain. We had a quiet uneventful night in anticipation of the summit try the next day. It did drop into the 30s that night, very, very cold for we warm-weathered Hawaiians, but we had brought warm clothes and were prepared. We also were prepared for the next day and the adventure that awaited us.