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Summiting Mauna Kea – Elevation 13,796 ft.

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A recent work trip to Oahu, Hawai’i gave me the opportunity to hike to one of the most prominent island summits in the world. I would like to share my experience, in hopes that it will help anyone else willing to make the journey. A $160 plane ticket on Hawaiian Airlines gave me passage to the Big Island where Mauna Kea peaks over the small town of Hilo. I left Oahu around 7:30pm and although I had booked a rental car (which couldn’t be picked up from the airport until 6:00am), I had not yet figured out my accommodations for the night.

As I sat on the plane debating my options, I became engaged in conversation with the couple that were sitting next to me. They were well dressed and a little disheveled from racing to the plane from an art exhibition. Ingrid, a teacher of Hawaiian history, and her husband Jerry, who was some sort of appraiser, gave me a brief history of the island and tips on where I could stay that night. Apparently, there are few hotels in Hilo, and the ones that do exist are not easily accessible from the airport. When I asked the couple how people normally get from one place to the other, they replied that, with the lack of taxis in the area, most people are driven back and forth by their neighbors, which kind of put a damper on my situation. However, they ended up telling me about a reformed ex-hostile named Arnott’s Lodge. They called it a “rite of passage” to the island, and I decided that it sounded perfect. Ingrid and Jerry were kind enough to drive me 5 minutes down the street to Arnott’s. It turns out that the lodge is more or less like a well-kept dorm room. There are single and shared spaces, all of them having access to a kitchen and bathroom. I chose the cheapest option, which was a shared room for $30/night. My roommate was an interesting Thai girl named Gulapa who was making her way around the United States. Ultimately, I had a wonderful night meeting people and participating in engaging conversation. The accommodations were absolutely sufficient for my needs and the price really couldn’t have been beaten.

The woman at the front desk had arranged for a taxi to come pick me up at 5:15 the next morning to take me to the rental car station at the airport. After getting my rental car, I headed straight to Mauna Kea. The start of the trail is about six miles up the mountain (9,200 ft) at the Onizuka Visiter Center. The effects of the elevation were immediate. I had no sooner parked than I experienced a headache and nausea. My research suggested staying at the visitor center for 30-45 minutes to acclimate. As I waited out the adjustment, I walked to the visitor center to sign in (they require that hikers sign in, and check out with the front desk upon return). Near the sign in station is a large, extremely informative sign:
“The summit elevation is 13796 feet (4200 m), where the atmospheric pressure is 40% less than at sea level.

Less oxygen is available to the lungs, and acute mountain sickness is common. Symptoms include headaches, drowsiness, nausea, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. The intensity of these symptoms may be lessened by spending at least ½ hour at the Visitor Information Station, 9,200 feet (2800 m), before traveling to the summit. If these symptoms persist or become severe, immediately descend to lower altitudes. High altitude exposure is particularly hazardous for pregnant women, for persons in poor physical condition or with heart or respiratory problems, and for children or teenagers. Extended exposure to high altitude can cause permanent damage to younger persons whose bodies are still developing. For this reason, it is strongly recommended that none of these individuals (including children under the age of 16) travel above the Visitor Information Station.”

I hung around the visitor center for about 40 minutes and headed out at 7:30am. The beginning of the trail is located up the road approximately 100 or so feet and to the left. PLEASE NOTE: This is NOT a casual afternoon stroll. If you don’t go prepared for this hike, you will be miserable. Although the mountain was dry when I was there in May, it can snow at any time of the year. Mauna Kea was my first high-altitude climb, and the first two miles involved some of the most intense physical and mental challenges of my life thus far. Within 20 yards of the trailhead, my heart was racing and I felt nauseous and out of breath. That can be really discouraging when you consider yourself a very active, in-shape person. The first couple miles of the hike are comparable to walking through a sandbox that has been tilted up 65 degrees, with high winds, and lacking breathable air.

The trails are clearly marked, initially with signs, and later with metal poles. There are fewer trail markers towards the beginning of the hike; they seem to increase as you get higher. After about an hour, a stinging sensation developed in my right jaw and right ear, which eventually faded with acclimation. I had to take breaks constantly. I decided to use the markers as stopping points. Every 50 or so yards I would stop at a marker for about 30-60 seconds, visually find the next marker, and move on. This seemed to work for me as I was making pretty good time. After an hour or so of climbing sand, the hike shallows and I began to travel over lose volcanic rock. My body had adjusted to the elevation at this point, and I had developed my break and hydration routine. I was shocked at how much water I consumed. Nearly every break I needed to hydrate. Your body is working so hard to breath at this elevation that it becomes easy to dehydrate. The stress of the hike prevented hunger, but I occasionally forced down some trail mix or part of a protein bar.

After a few hours you will come to a split in the trail. If you follow the trail to the left, you will discover Lake Waiau, which is considered sacred by the Hawaiians. I saw the lake from a distance, but was distracted at the idea that I might be near the summit. Luckily, I was right and as I took a right at the fork I soon had a full view of the observatories and the summit pyramid. After nearly four hours of intense climbing, I was flooded by excitement and joy when I saw my destination. Once I got to base of the pyramid, I had to walk along the summit road (used for those who drive to the top). At this point, it is extremely windy and cold. The more I ascended, the windier and colder it became. I can’t portray enough how grateful I was that I was wearing head/ear protection and gloves. Once I reached the end of the road, there was a parking lot. Across the street was the beginning of the trail that signified the final push toward the summit. With the steepness of the terrain, and the constant pauses to catch my breath, it took about 15 minutes to finally get to the top. I arrived at approximately 12:15pm. I’m not sure if I was having a “girl moment” or if this is what all mountaineers experience, but reaching the summit was quite emotional. I had beat the mountain and had pushed the limits of my own capabilities. It became obvious how mountain climbing can become addictive.

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The summit was intense. The view was unforgettable. With below-freezing winds up to 100 mph, I took a couple minutes to enjoy my success and was ready to head back down. I ended up being delayed at the top, as two guys who had driven up were headed up the summit trail. I waited to ask them to take my photo and then proceeded to a lower altitude as soon as possible. Descending the mountain only took about half the time that it had going up. It didn’t place as much strain on my knees as I predicted, but the loose volcanic rock required attentiveness. NOTE: It is more difficult to follow the path on the way down. Make sure you are looking for the pole markers, and not just at your feet. I accidentally wandered off trail and had to back track to find the path. On the way down, I passed three other hikers…none of which were prepared for what they were about to experience. All of them were wearing shorts and t-shirts and had minimal amounts water. They would be hating life within a couple hours. The last two had left the visitor center so late that there was no way for them to make it back before dark.

I came across the visitor center around 3pm and felt pretty good about my pace, and the entire experience as a whole. A short time later I was barely able to move my limbs. I headed to the airport four hours early just so I could sit and not move. But I was proud of what I accomplished. I am already planning on my next mountain adventures.

What I had with me:
– Beenie, sunscreen, & sunglasses (THESE ARE MUSTS)
– An Osprey pack with a 100 oz water bladder (I almost drank all of it)
– Snacks for the 13-14 mile trip
– Enough layers to handle below freezing temperatures, and gloves
– First aid and emergency supplies (to include headlights, batteries, trash bag & candles, whistle, webbing, etc)
– Poncho (turns out Hilo is the rainiest city in the United States)

What I wish I had with me:
– HIKING POLES (life would have been much easier trekking through that sand with poles)
– Chapstick

vanessa griffin stafford mauna kea

Hope this was helpful to you. Feel free to comment below with any additional tips for high-altitude hiking/climbing.

Safe climbing!



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