Journey to Another Planet – Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea
Mauna Kea

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.

View from our porch at the former Rockefeller estate in Waimea
View from our porch at the former Rockefeller estate in Waimea
Kona Tiki Hotel, Kona
Kona Tiki Hotel, Kona

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.”

Telescopes on Mauna Kea
Telescopes on Mauna Kea

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.

Clouds on the descent
Clouds on the descent

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.

Fly Like An Eagle

Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

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One reason I am enamored with altitude may well stem back to airplane trips taken early, early in my life. These started in the 1960s, when my mother, sometimes accompanied by my father but frequently on her own, would take my brother and me to England to visit our grandparents. In my earliest memory, I was four and my brother was two. I don’t remember much of that trip but from then on, I have much firmer recall. By the time we were six and four, my brother and I had realized that the coloring books dispensed by the flight attendants – then called stewardesses – made fine swords and the little Pan Am wing pins were potentially even better weapons to use against each other.

But, fast forwarding to the 1970s, my interest in how to torment my brother on long airplane trips had ceased to be my major in-flight activity. In those days you had to pay for headphones, which would enable you to listen to the single movie being projected on a drop down screen or the few “radio” channels assembled by the airline. This was an expenditure my parents saw as completely needless. Undaunted, however, my brother and I soon learned that if you pulled your armrest up to your ear you could actually hear the movie and the music – albeit risking a crick in your neck and not a very good sight line for the movie.

That particular flight – we must have been returning to the United States because it was day – the sun shone through the plane window, there were a few layers of fluffy clouds below us, below all that the Atlantic Ocean stretched as long and blue as my eyes could see, and the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” was playing through my armrest. I must have been somewhere in my teens. There above the clouds I felt safe – yet utterly free, unleashed of whatever cares pulled at me from far below. I was conscious, even then, that I would always remember that moment.

And to this day, when I board an airplane – despite the waits on the Tarmac, the ever narrowing plane seats, and the ever broadening list of things you have to pay for – I still hope that once above the clouds I’ll recapture that same feeling of serenity. Very occasionally I still do. But maybe that’s really why I climb mountains. Looking down from the summit at the rolling surf of clouds below gives a lightness to your soul that rarely happens anywhere else.