After a restful night camping at 8000 feet, we were up early on Sunday morning ready make a go for the summit of Mauna Kea. We piled into Jim’s Cherokee and he drove us further up Mauna Kea’s western flank via the 4×4 road. We eventually stopped and started hiking at around the 10,000 foot level. The 4×4 road actually continued beyond this point but it became rougher and prudence said to begin hiking where we did.
The good thing about hiking above 10,000 feet on Mauna Kea is that the weather stayed below us. We enjoyed clear, sunny conditions during the hike. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, it was raining downslope, a fact we realized when we saw the wet, muddy condition of the jeep road at lower elevations during our exit drive down the mountain. Though it was sunny up high, the temps all day were in the mid- to upper 40s. However, because we were hiking and exerting ourselves, we hardly noticed the cool temps. In fact, it was quite comfortable hiking weather. If we were hiking on Kamaileunu, a rugged trail on Oahu, we’d be sweating and frying; up on Mauna Kea up over 11K feet, hiking was wonderful.
As for the altitude, as I mentioned, the ginko seemed to help, for the worst any of us experienced were low-grade headaches and a bit of nausea while eating at the summit. The worst could have been high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a life threatening condition. The high altitude did slow us down. This was apparent as we plodded laboriously in a semi dream state for a mile and a half up the steep, winding observatory road to the summit. Being at close to 14,000 feet, I experienced a feeling of malaise and a yearning to just lie down and doze. At the summit, Jim assumed the napping position and I told him to be careful because he might lay down and not want to get up again. I experienced that feeling on Mauna Loa and actually felt very comfortable laying down on hard rock.
As for gear, attire, and supplies, we all were adequately prepared for the hike. Long pants, for protection from the sun and from possible falls on the rocky terrain, were a must. Additionally, we all wore wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. We all started with multiple layers on our upper halves. After a half hour of hiking, we had stripped off all but the bottom layer; we were too warm. We all had gloves, both for hand protection in case of falls and for warmth. My gloves, a pair of Columbia brand I picked up at Ross’s Dress For Less in Kaneohe the day before, worked wonderfully at the chilly, windy summit. We all ended up carrying more water than we drank. I suppose the coolness and the altitude made us feel like drinking less than we should have. My three colleagues wore hiking boots. I opted to wear a pair of New Balance running shoes. I also carried a roll of duct tape in anticipation of a catastrophic shoe blowout. Fortunately, the shoes held up. Liberal coatings of sun screen were mandatory. I remember looking at a sign along the observatory road near the summit that said something like, “Warning, sun exposure at high elevations can cause severe damage to skin and eyes.” That reminded us to lather up again at the summit. I used two hiking poles and these were invaluable to me for balance over the rugged terrain.
The terrain: in a word, rocks. It is obvious that Mauna Kea is older than Mauna Loa. On Mauna Kea, there is an absence of lava tubes and flow channels that are all over the place on Mauna Loa. There were some sections of ball-bearing-like rocks about the size of baseballs. Not comfortable to walk on, these segments always put us on guard of twisting an ankle or knee. The best walking was along sections of flat old pahoehoe flows. At times, we hiked along cindery, sand-like sections which were okay if flat but tedious if on slopes. We also passed massive cinder cones along the way, two prominent ones at the 11k level that bordered a huge flat flood-plain area the size of a couple of football fields. As we got to 12,000 feet, we first came into view of two huge cones, Pu’u Pohaku (13,186) and Pu’u Poliahu (13,631), the latter named for the Hawaiian goddess of snow. Our route and plan was to skirt to the south of Poliahu, in rolling, generally level terrain. This was a good plan and by following a drainage that appeared like a streambed, we eventually caught sight of the summit cone, Pu’u Wekiu, dotted with observatories. The streambed route intersected the Mauna Kea trail just before it ended at a junction with the Mauna Kea Observatory road. The road, by the way, is beautifully paved. And, yes, it is possible to drive all the way to the summit of Mauna Kea via the Observatory Road, but we are hikers after all.
There is a 1.5 mile walk up the paved observatory road to the summit. To get to the summit from the highest point of the road, we followed a cindery trail down (yes, we had to go down to go up) to a wind-whipped saddle; then there’s the final climb to the summit cairn and benchmark, elevation 13,796, the roof of Hawai’i. We took the obligatory pictures there and ate lunch, at least what we could stomach due to the nausea brought on by the high elevation
On the way back down, we nixed a return walk down the road and instead descended snow-ski fashion the steep cindery slope of Wekiu, losing about 500-feet of elevation in just a few minutes. This was fun, probably the most joyous part of the hike.
Flora and Fauna: Treeline extended up to the 9000-foot level. Mamane was the dominant species of tree up there. Lower down, the forest was more dense and included some ohia and koa. Above treeline, the vegetation became progressively thinner the higher we went. At the 10,000-foot level where we parked, for example, there were scattered smidgens of grass and smatterings of a plant that looked like a blooming silversword but was actually a weed; otherwise, there was not much else in the way of plantlife. Above 11,000 feet, plantlife was just about nil. As for fauna, we encountered tons of bird species all along the way from the start of the jeep road at 6000 feet to about 9000 feet. We chased flocks of quails up the road as we drove along. We also saw (and heard) chukars, a pueo, and smaller species, some which I’d guess were natives like amakihi and apapane. Jim said on a previous scouting visit, he’d talked with some folks who were doing an inventory of palila, a native bird species. There are also goats and bighorn sheep up there. We saw the former dashing off to our left as we drove down in the afternoon. We also came upon numerous animal tracks, probably made by goats but saw no animals during the hike. And right where Jim parked his Jeep were bones from a goat, bleached bright white by the intense sun. Jim told us he’d seen mouflon sheep on previous visits. Above 11,000 feet, the only life we encountered was a buzzing fly or two. What these flies were doing up so high was beyond us.
Discoveries: We came upon several smashed transistor-like devices on the mountainside on the way up and on the way back down. Someone surmised that these were measurement instruments from weather balloons. We also found shards of plastic, maybe the remnants of a weather balloon. At around 12000 feet, we came upon a single ahu (rock cairn). We used this as a visual landmark and Dick marked it as a waypoint with his GPS. Why this cairn was there and what it marked was a mystery to us because it was basically out in the middle of a vast area of remote, convoluted territory. And, along the slopes of Poliahu, we found a Nerf football. Very puzzling and strange this find was. Another interesting discovery was at the summit, which features a benchmark and an ahu. The latter is adorned with an array of offerings, including leis, flowers, fruit, and a gourd.
Summation: This was a tough hike, due to the extreme elevation and the lack of trail to follow. We’d have been challenged navigation-wise in a whiteout situation. Always looming was the possibility of injury from long hours of rock hopping under trying physical conditions. My cell phone couldn’t connect to numbers I dialed though Jim said he was able to make a call on his, so if one of us was hurt, getting help wasn’t a sure thing. We were fortunate to have this chance to hike to summit the way we did. The remoteness of the area we hiked added to the sense of adventure and challenge. Thanks again to Jim for not only coming up with the idea but for following thru to make it happen.