Mauna Kea isn’t particularly well-known as a destination hike. Most people get to the top by car. But after my husband became the only person in Hawaii to come down with a severe case of flu in the middle of August 2013, thus putting the kabosh on our plan to backpack the Muliwai trail (more on that later), Mauna Kea seemed an attractive alternative.
Due to the unexpected change in plans we had several wild card nights – no reservations, no nothing. Two nights before we climbed Mauna Kea we stayed at a 1970s hotel on the edge of Kona, complete with kitchenette and ancient dinette table. Ocean front was an understatement as the second floor unit we were in was bombarded with large waves throughout the night – unclear what the decibel level was. The next night we returned to the semi rundown estate of the Rockefellers outside of Waimea, now converted to a somewhat quirky bed and breakfast – without the breakfast.
The next day we awoke early to an hour or so drive along Hawaii’s oh so well maintained road to Mauna Kea. We parked at the ranger station at approximately 9200 feet elevation about 7 am and signed in. Little did we know that only two other hikers would sign in that entire day.
After the first bit of the hike – some fields, some green – we might as well have been hiking on Mars, or at least my idea of Mars. Black and red lava rocks, occasional prehistoric (maybe) cairns of rocks, and very little that resembled vegetation. The temperature varied between extremely hot and downright chilly during the few moments when the sun went behind the clouds.
One of the more peculiar features was that even though the road up would occasionally pop into view I felt more isolated on Mauna Kea than anywhere on Kilimanjaro, much less Mt Elbrus. The trail wasn’t always well marked and it was not hard to imagine being found years later after suffering an unhappy death from dehydration.
Making the trip even more interesting was the rapid elevation gain – literally sea level to almost 14,000 (13,796) feet – in about six hours. I usually don’t feel anything at 14,000 feet but I definitely started to have a headache near the top, combined with some dehydration.
As you approach the top, all of a sudden you start to see the telescopes. Peering up over the orange landscape and the gradual volcanic cones, it is as though you have inadvertently wandered off course and ended up on Another Planet. There’s also a set of porta-potties, a nice reminder of earth, however. I kept thinking of the novel Cloud Atlas – one part of which involves an adventure at the top of Mauna Kea by the observatories – “you’re crazy. There ain’t nothing on Mauna Kea but Old Georgie and his temples hid in ‘closure walls. He’ll not let you in unless you’re ‘ready died an’ your soul is his.”
There we encountered the only two other hikers we saw the entire day. But the last mile or so up requires walking along the side of the road, with cars whipping past you. Resentment toward the motorists kicks in – they hardly deserved the summit! The summit itself involves a trek down one indentation and then up to the peak – flat on top – with various offerings to the Hawaian volcanic gods placed on a small stone altar. The wind is much more intense and as we had no idea how long it would take to go down we didn’t stay long.
It turned out our fears were unfounded. While we hiked to the summit in under 5 hours we got down in just over two – scree skiing most of the way. The sun went in and we had a good 45 minutes of walking through clouds – very refreshing after the blazing sun of earlier.
Once at the ranger station, we were met by bus loads of tourists there for night sky observation tours. While it wasn’t exactly a return to a space station, our seven hours of hiking felt like light years.