Mauna Kea, 13,796ft
Date climbed: 11:10am 9/2/2011 and 12:30pm Dec 19, 2014
Eric Gilbertson, Matthew Gilbertson, Jake Osterberg
Sept 1-2, 2011
More photos on the MITOC Gallery
“This guy has to pick us up,” Matthew yelled, sticking out his thumb as a silver jeep approached. We were 12,000ft up on Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in Hawaii, and Jake was getting hammered by altitude sickness. We had hiked to within 700 vertical feet of the summit, but had to turn around and get down ASAP before Jake got worse. It would take hours to hike back to our car at the 9,000ft trailhead, so we were walking down the summit road hoping someone might pick us up. It was slim pickings for cars driving by on that Thursday morning, and the only other car we’d seen had passed us by, but we were feeling good about this jeep.
The journey had started Wednesday morning with 15 hours of traveling from Boston to Hilo, Hawaii, where we all converged at 7:40pm. Matthew and I were hoping to tag our 49th US state highpoint, and Jake was shooting for number three. I guess you’d say this wouldn’t be a typical Hawaiian vacation – we would be on the island for just a long weekend, with no plans to visit any tourist beaches, stay in any hotels, or eat in any restaurants. In fact, we were actually hoping to see some snow if we got lucky.
Using Google Maps street view we had carefully planned out multiple stealth camping locations for our first night out, and after picking up the rental car and picking up a few gallons of water at the Hilo WalMart, we sped off into the night. Luckily for us the Big Island of Hawaii is actually pretty sparsely populated, with the only major towns on the coast. We were driving into the heart of the island, toward Mauna Kea, with Jake behind the wheel and Matthew navigating toward campsite #1 marked on the GPS. Unfortunately google maps was not as good at notifying us of road construction activity or fog. The first four potential spots were either blocked by construction vehicles or we missed them in the limited visibility. We eventually punched out of the fog and the road construction, but that was also exactly the altitude where the trees stopped (and, consequently, where our pre-planned campsites stopped).
We turned around back down the road to try to find a spot we had missed in the fog, but this one turned out to be no good – construction vehicles were parked in it. It was getting pretty late by now (about 4am east coast time for us), and there was even talk of paying to stay in an official campground or worse – a hotel.
We decided to try looking around above the treeline just in case, and soon stumbled across a gravel access road for the power lines. It got us off the main road, and we could even park the car behind a large boulder out of view from passing cars – perfect! We threw down the tents and finally took a well-earned sleep.
The sun woke us up at 5:30am local time, and we quickly packed up and got moving. Within half an hour we had driven to the Mauna Kea visitor’s center at 9000ft, and got out to assess the road conditions up ahead. Now the original plan for our Hawaii trip was to rent mountain bikes in Hilo and bike the whole 40 miles and ~14000 ft of elevation gain from sea level to the summit. But I had recently injured my knee and, since the doctor told me to rest it for 6 weeks, I figured such a biking trip would certainly injure it even worse. There was an access road to the summit for the astronomers at the Keck Observatory, but driving up for us was not an option because first, that would be lame, and second, the road required a 4WD vehicle and we had chosen the cheapskate 2WD rental car.
There was, however, a ~7 mile trail to the summit, and I figured as long as it wasn’t too steep and we took a slow pace my knee should be ok. We started walking at 7:15am and were soon stopped by a person driving down (probably from the observatory).
“Did you guys sign in? Do you even have a map?” he asked in a way that suggested he didn’t think we were prepared.
-Yes we have a good map, but didn’t see a sign-in place because the visitors center isn’t open.
“Well that trail is tough, and there’s no water, so be careful,” he warned as he drove away. He must have had to bail out some unprepared hikers in the past, we figured. I’m sure if he had known our credentials he wouldn’t have been so concerned.
We kept hiking and the trail was indeed steep, but not unmanageable. We started out in scrubland with occasional grass and bushes, but soon rose above the vegetation line into a landscape more similar to the moon or mars than anywhere else in the US. It was amazing that just last night near Hilo we were driving through rainforests, but now we were hiking through a desert. I guess the clouds always come from the same direction, and dump all their moisture on one side of the mountain with nothing left for the other.
We took a rest break at 11,000ft and noticed how the altitude was starting to make us breathe harder.
Matthew and I were quite familiar with the effects of altitude, and we all tried to force down as much food as possible, knowing we’d soon lose our appetites when we got higher up the mountain.
We were all still feeling good enough to keep going, so we pressed on up the mountain. At 12,000 ft we saw the access road to our side and a couple cars driving up. Amazingly, the road was actually paved here. Now I’ve heard that they pave the last 2 miles of road so vehicles don’t stir up dust that might interfere with the telescopes. I think an untold motive is that they *don’t* pave the bottom few miles so they can deter most of the tourists from driving up to the summit.
By the time we hit 13000ft Jake had hit a glass ceiling and could go no higher. He had the classic signs of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) – pounding headache, fatigue, lack of hunger, and generally feeling terrible. Somehow Matthew and I were doing ok, but we knew Jake would only get worse unless we got him down immediately. We thought about hiking down, but the fastest way for Jake to get better would be to get him in a car already driving down. So we cut over to the road and started walking down.
Luckily the silver jeep stopped and a nice couple from Texas offered us a ride. It looked pretty cramped so Matthew and I offered to hike down and meet Jake at the bottom, but they insisted there was room so we all squeezed in. We soon arrived back at the visitors center and said goodbye to the couple after thanking them again. Jake was feeling a little better, but still not 100%. Luckily we still had another 9000ft of increasingly oxygenated air to drive down through, so we got in the car and pushed on all the way to Hilo at sea level.
None of us had even considered leaving Hawaii without that summit, and we were already planning how we could make it work. We all decided Jake would recover the fastest with a good night’s sleep in a hotel and good meal at a restaurant that night. Then we could trade in the car for a Jeep and drive up to our high point at 13000ft and continue the hike to the summit (thus still climbing it honorably). Hopefully by resting at sea level and following the climb-high-sleep-low mantra of mountaineers we would all be better prepared the next day.
With our own new silver jeep at hand Friday morning, we confidently drove back up to the visitors center and onto the rough gravel road. We soon reached the 13000ft mark and pulled off to the side to park. We could see the summit, but it still wouldn’t feel right to drive up. Since the trail merged with the road soon anyways, we decided to just hike up the road. We were all feeling good and within an hour we reached the road’s end at the Keck observatory. After another tenth a mile of trail hiking we reached the top and the roof of Hawaii! State highpoint number 49!
It felt like we were on Mars – the summit was on the rim of a huge caldera and all the rock was red and volcanic-looking. There wasn’t a single sign of vegetation up there, only a few huge telescopes and a bunch of red rocks. Across the island we could see Mauna Loa, another volcano only 100ft shorter. Down on the coast Hilo was still covered in clouds, while the other side of the island looked like a desert under clear skies, and to the south side of the island there was smoke rising from some active lava flows.
Unfortunately we couldn’t find snow anywhere. It was pretty chilly up top in the low-40s and windy, and had probably dropped below freezing that night. We’ve seen pictures of people skiing from the summit, but maybe that’s only in the winter. We took a bunch of pictures on the top and stayed until we were too cold to last any longer without moving. With no regrets we walked back to the jeep and drove back to Hilo, going from freezing-cold in the 40s F to the sweltering heat of 90F in less than an hour.
We had a few days to check out some other sites on the Big Island and I’d definitely recommend these destinations. On Friday and Saturday we went hiking in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and got to see the glow of lava from a caldera (we weren’t lucky enough to see any flowing lava, unfortunately).
On Saturday we drove to Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States. The best part about this point is the cliff jumping. We jumped off a 40ft, overhanging cliff into the ocean many times and it’s quite a thrill. The water is super clear and you can see all sorts of tropical fish (but watch out for a big tiger shark that lives there, and the marlin that sometimes swim around). To get back to the top of the
cliff we swam into a cave on the side of the cliff, and timed our swim with the incoming surf to push us to the top where we could scramble up through a rock tunnel to the surface. We also drove our jeep out to Green Sands Beach to go camping, and down into the rainforests of Waipio Valley. There’s awesome body surfing waves on the black sands beach of Waipi`o Valley as well.
In case you’re wondering, state highpoint #50 for me and Matthew is Texas, which we plan to finish some weekend this semester.
I (Eric) returned to Hawaii in December 2014 with Katie with the goal of biking to the summit of Mauna
Kea from sea level. I’ve seen this described as the most difficult bicycle climb in the world, ascending almost 13,800ft in 40 miles, almost 100% uphill. It is definitely something that should be on a cyclist’s to-do list.
We first acclimated by doing a three-day hike up Mauna Loa. On December 18 we drove to a bike shop in Hilo (Hilo Bike Hub), and I rented a mountain bike for 24 hours. I waited until the shop was just about the close at 5:30pm to get the rental to maximize my time with the bike the next day. I chose a mountain bike because I wanted to bike 100% of the route, of which a few miles were rough gravel near the summit. I had read a few reports of other cyclists who claimed credit for biking all the way to the top, while in reality they had pushed their road bikes up the several miles of gravel road.
Katie and I stealth camped outside of town that night, and early the next morning drove back to Hilo. I touched the back wheel of the bike in the ocean at 5:30am, then started pedaling while Katie went back to take a nap.
The road started going up hill and would continue ascending for the next 40 miles. I pedaled slowly in the dark, trying to conserve energy for the remaining hours. I had several advantages in this ascent. First, I had already acclimated on Mauna Loa so the altitude would not slow me down. Second, I had just come off a 6-week bicycle tour in Eastern Europe averaging 90-100 miles per day, so was in good biking shape. I was riding a mountain bike now which wasn’t super efficient on the road, but it was much lighter than what I was used to riding loaded down with food, tent, and sleeping bag.
I soon left town and wound through the forest on the Saddle Road. The sun rose within the next hour few hours, and by 9:30am I had reached the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Access Road. As planned, Katie was waiting with extra fuel and water. I scarfed down a few sandwhiches and topped off my water bottles, then continued riding. Shortly later, I reached the visitor’s center and met up with Katie again for a final break.
Katie set off from the visitors center to hike up to the summit and I got back on the bike. The road turned to gravel briefly, but it was no problem for my mountain bike. As I climbed higher the road got steeper, and at one point my back wheel started spinning out in the loose gravel and I had dismount. I bet this was the area where the other riders started walking, but I was not deterred. I got back on the bike, backed up a bit, and pedaled carefully through the section without spinning too much.
Successfully around the turn, the gravel got denser and I made it to the pavement higher up. In the final few switchbacks the road got incredibly steep, probably close to 20% grade, but I managed to power through it and reach the end of the road.
At the summit parking lot I pedaled behind the guard rail and up the trail as high as possible, until I was about 100ft below the summit. Here I had to give up and carry the bike the remaining distance to the summit. I reached the top around 1:00pm, and had it all to myself.
After taking a nap for an hour Katie made it to the top, and we snapped some summit pictures. By then it was 3:30pm, and with the bike shop closing in just 2 hours I didn’t think there was a chance to get back in time. But it was 100% downhill, so I thought I might as well give it a try.
I rode back down to the parking lot, then started the amazing descent. It definitely helped to have disc brakes, because I would be applying the brakes for the next few hours. I blasted down from the summit, slowed down in the gravel, then continued all the way to the saddle road. I did have to pedal a little bit on the start of the saddle road, but then resumed coasting down.
Unfortunately I couldn’t remember exactly where the bike shop was, so biked around town a little bit before finding it at 5pm. I had somehow arrived well-before it closed, against my expectation.
The shop owner was very impressed, calling me “the closer.” He said plenty of people come to town and want to bike up Mauna Kea, but he’d seen very few do it. I’d just shown up and done it though.
Katie met me at the shop, and we celebrated with a nice pasta dinner that night before resuming our vacation to hike into Waimanu Valley the next day.