Monday, March 10, 2014

Mauna Kea 13,796', Kona, HI

I couldn't come to Hawaii without ascending the state's highest peak. I knew it would be a long trip, but after a week of running on Maui, plus a few training runs on Kona, I felt in decent shape. It is interesting reading all the hiking guidebooks on this route which recommend about 10 hours for the roundtrip. I understand why they emphasize the dangers of altitude sickness and how cold and wet it can be in the winter months. But I have to remind myself that they are writing for the "high heel" brigade who likely never hike seriously. With a road right up to the summit this accessibility can lead to the assumption that this is just a stroll with minimal risk. But risk is relative and although I found this to be a very safe, unrisky route, my experience and perspective is hardly common.
Sunrise on the initial slopes of Mauna Kea

It was still dark at the Visitor Center when I arrived. There was one car in the parking lot and no-one around. Someone got an early start and I would doubtless catch them on the trail. It was cold and windy as I laced my shoes. I put on my windproof jacket over my teeshirt and this helped considerably. I packed a liter of water on my running sack plus a few provisions and a hat and gloves and started jogging up the initial section of trail. Very similar to Haleakala on Maui, the trail was very sandy. With the cloud cover I was treated to a beautiful sunrise.
Looking up the trail to the summit - about 4 miles and 3,500' away

With improving light I was able to make quicker progress, but the initial two miles of the Humu'ula Trail are very steep and gain altitude quickly. I was warm and blowing hard and was grateful for the stiff breeze. There was no sun because of high level cloud cover but I could see how this would be an ordeal in the heat of the day, particularly during summer.
Spectacular view back to Mauna Loa

At one point I stopped to check the map and gauge my progress. Looking up into the distance I traced the line of the trail and picked out 4 hikers about a mile ahead of me - 20 minutes at my pace. It would probably take me another 40 minutes to reach them. It was daylight and the view to Mauna Loa was spectacular. Unfortunately the cloud cover prevented sight of the coast line 30 miles away.
The trail curves to the right to connect with the access road and then another mile up to the summit (out of view to the right)

With targets in sight I kept up a steady, slightly elevated pace. I caught the hikers in 22 minutes as they sat taking a break. They were Norweigans in their late twenties and didn't look in very good shape. They has set off at 4am - 2 hours earlier than me - and remarked on how quickly I had ascended. I gave them some of my water and advised them to turn back. If they were struggling at this altitude they would be in more serious trouble higher up and they had another 3,000' and 3 miles to ascend. I left them pondering their decision. After another mile I looked back and could see them trying to ascend a little higher - not the best decision.
Puu Hau Kea - a volcanic satellite summit with my ascent trail visible on the right

Final 150' to the summit - cold and windy
Summit of Mauna Kea with Mauna Loa in the background
The many observatories from the summit
The upper 4 miles to the summit is a little more forgiving and I was able to keep a good pace. It was getting colder with altitude and I could see the snow line up ahead. The Humu'ula Trail connects with the summit road a mile below the summit and the final stretch to the road was frozen ground. The crunching of ice under my feet was welcome in comparison to the sand and when I reached the road I was passed by a steady stream of observatory workers driving to the summit facilities. I felt really good. I knew my ascent of the trail had been pretty quick, but it was only after I uploaded my data to Strava that I found I had broken the ascent record by 12 minutes. Not bad for an old guy.
A detour on the descent to Lake Waiau - the highest natural lake in Hawaii

Once on the road I jogged steadily up the final mile to the summit. A couple stopped their car on the way up and asked if I was OK and needed a ride. It was a nice thought and made me wonder what kind of state I was in. But I felt really good, thanked them, and set off up the final stretch. The Park Ranger was driving down as I crested the last steep section of road and he stopped for a chat. He remarked how quickly I must have run given the time. He had seen me leave the Visitor Center from his cabin next door and hadn't expected me at the summit for at least another hour.
Much warmer on the descent. View of Mauna Loa a mile above the Visitor Center

The summit is a barren place, but beautiful nontheless. Leaving the access road the final section of trail descends to a col and then climbs about 150' up to the summit proper. The snow and ice on this section posed no problem and although it was cold on the summit I took a few pictures, had a drink and then set off on the long descent.

I took a detour to Lake Waiau, the highest natural lake in Hawaii on the way down. This lake is fed by melting permafrost. There wasn't a lot of water because there is less melting in winter, but it was an eerie place with no vegetation at this altitude.

I made quick time on the descent and I made the whole trip 90 minutes quicker than I expected. I did not pass the Norwegians - they either walked across to the access road and hitched a ride, or returned down the trail. Sensible choice. But this was a great run and recommend it to anyone used to higher altitude running.

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