Mauna Loa: 12/14-16/07
We are heading back home to the good ol’ U. S. of A.!!
We flew from Bangkok to Tokyo, then directly Tokyo to Kona, Hawaii, arriving the morning of the same day we left! Back in the USA… I can read all the signs, I can talk to everyone, they all understand everything I say!
Alarmingly, when I am carrying my bag into the hotel lobby to check in, an unknown man sees me coming, backs up, opens and holds the door for me! Twilight zone! Where are we?!! Then, strolling around our hotel that afternoon is a strange feeling of sponging up another new place, new culture, and yet the mild ease of belonging somehow. My first impressions are that the people are a bit rednecky, the streets are a little overly clean and ordered, and every stranger is totally familiar.
We stay in Kona that night, then get some breakfast at Lava Java and go food shopping at the natural food store. I can read all the labels. The brands are familiar. Once we have gathered what we need for a few days in the backcountry, we drive south to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. After so many months in Asia, where driving is it’s own distinctive endeavor, the order and almost fanatical rule following on US roads is somewhat shocking. The patience when someone slows down, the staying inside the lines, the lack of honking, the courtesy... It’s disconcerting.
We can't find any fuel for our stove in Kona, so our first enterprise is to visit the ranger station, get our permit, and see if/where we can get fuel. Of course it is raining. It is raining, and it is the front of a large storm that will last through the days we are here. We ask for a permit to hike from the Mauna Loa Strip Road trailhead to the summit of Mauna Loa (13,501ft, 4115m) and reserve bed space in the Pu'u 'Ula'ula (Red Hill) cabin and Mauna Loa summit cabin along the way. The rangers look at us with bewildered eyes.
They call their boss over. “Nobody is up there.” They all stare at us. Then, fairly, start questioning us, trying to assess our experience. “Have you ever climbed a mountain before?”
I have trouble arriving at an answer for this. Should I start listing? I don’t know how to begin. Rod jumps in just naming mountain ranges where we have climbed, “The Sierra, the Cascades, the Andes, the Alps, the Caucus…”,
I start to feel weird, “… and others.”
The boss ranger says, “Well, no real mountaineer would go up there in a storm. I mean, it’s snowing up there!”
Maybe there something here we don’t know about? I thought Mauna Loa it is a fairly simple low angle walk on a marked trail over lava to the summit; no steeps, no glaciers, nothing treacherous. So we start asking the questions…
“Why, is there avalanche danger?” No.
“Chance of ice falls?” No.
“Danger of falling a distance on slick ice?”
“No, but the wind is so strong, it might blow you into the crater!”.
Whatever, just give us the permits, if it looks to treacherous, we’ll just turn around and come back. Really, the one thing to be concerned about, which the rangers didn’t emphasize, is visibility. If the snow storm reduces visibility enough, seeing the trail might be difficult, and since it is a broad lava field, it will be easy to get lost.
The ranger station doesn’t have any fuel we can use with our stove, so we head to the Ace Hardware store in the small town of Volcano. They don’t have any either. Rod figures out a way to rig a way our stove can work on the type of fuel bottles available. So maybe we’ll be OK. We probably have enough food that does not require cooking to make it through the climb anyway. It is cold and rainy, harsh reality after so many weeks in Thailand. Isn’t supposed to be warm in Hawaii?
We find a great B&B in Volcano. It is a big yellow old style Hawaiian ranch house, with some surrounding buildings. We get a room, (a room with showers and clean sheets (yippee!)) and a cat that keeps sneaking in and demanding pets. We unpack and pack up for our early start tomorrow morning, then head into the restaurant for dinner.
Wow! It is Christmas season! We have not encountered any Christmas stuff yet, and frankly, forgot that it is so soon. In the restaurant there is a large decorated Christmas tree. As we are eating, Christmas carolers come in and sing. With the cold rain outside, the burning fire against the wall, the carolers and decorations, it really begins to sink in that we are warmly coming home.
The next morning, at 6:30, we load our backpacks into the car (we decide to take a rope with us in case the visibility gets really bad), and drive up to the trail head (6,662ft). We almost run over an endangered Nene (Hawaiian goose). With our rain gear on, we start up the trail, the wind blowing hard. We find that it is hard to identify the trail because it is all just one field of grey rock. In fact, it would be impossible to find it if the tall cairns were not in place.
In Hawaiian, Mauna Loa means “Long Mountain”, and boy is that ever true! This volcano is a “shield volcano”, or basaltic volcano. Unlike the Cascade volcanoes (andesitic volcanoes) shield volcanoes are rarely explosive and mostly just oose. Basalt is a type of lava that is very fluid when erupted. Therefore these volcanoes are not steep (you can’t pile up a fluid that easily runs downhill), and are shaped just like a shield laid on the ground. Rod says the he will never climb a shield volcano again. It is the longest, boringest, walk; it feels like we are walking almost on flat ground (and we have to get up to 13,501ft, so you do the math). Then to add to it, we are walking on rugged lava rock the whole way, getting rained and sleeted on, and often find earth cracks, or break through thin crusts, or have to climb over lava tubes. It is slow going, to say the least.
In the afternoon, we arrive at the Red Hill cabin (10,035ft). It is hard to believe that this is only 7.5 miles from the trailhead. It is surprisingly cold up here, the humidity and elevation are not a good combo. We shiver our way through dinner (the rigged stove is working), drink a lot of hot tea, and climb into our chilly sleeping bags. I sleep in all the clothes I brought.
We wake up early to a freezing cabin and freezing rain splattering the windows. After breakfast and lots of hot tea, we bundle up and continue up the endless lava field. By mid morning we have reached the snow level. By lunch time, we are trudging through a blizzard, thanking each tall cairn marking our way. We finally reach the trail junction on the low rim of the large summit crater, 9.5 miles from the Red Hill cabin.
From this point it is 2.6 miles to the actual mountain summit on the right (but only about 600ft higher elevation), and 2.1 miles to the Mauna Loa Summit Cabin on the left (200ft elevation gain). We set out for the summit, dreading the reality of 2.6 there, 2.6 back, and then 2.1 to dinner. We walk for about one hour, and reach a point practically level with the farther away summit, but on the rim overlooking the crater. We stop here.
The summit of Mauna Loa is where the goddess Pele found refuge. Hawaiian legends say that volcano goddess Pele was driven from her home by her angry older sister, Na-maka-o-kaha'i because Pele had seduced her husband. Every time Pele would thrust her digging stick into the earth to dig a pit for a new home, Na-maka-o-kaha'i, goddess of water and the sea, would flood the pits. Pele eventually landed on the Big Island, where she made Mauna Loa her new home. Mauna Loa was so tall that even Pele's sister could not send the ocean's waves high enough to drown Pele's fires. So Pele established her home on its slopes.
We pay our respects to Pele, then turn around and head back to the trail junction. From there we suffer our way along the last 2.1 miles to the Summit cabin (13,250ft). I swear, these were the longest two miles of my life! 2.1 has just got to be a miscalculation. Rod and I stumble into the cabin as the sun is setting. In a blank stupor, we heat up some water for tea and get dinner started. After eating a bit we feel better and start to plan out our descent. Could we do it in one day? If we can, then we can eat all our food now, and wouldn’t that be nice! Yeah, lets walk all the 19+ miles down to the car tomorrow. That sounds sensible. Proof that altitude affects judgment?
The next morning, we wake before dawn, in order to make it to the car before dark. When I walk out to the water tank, I find that the tap has frozen solid. We use the water in our bottles (we filled everything up last night) for breakfast, put on our down and gore-tex and head out with headlamps lighting our way. The sunrise over the snowy slopes and ocean is gorgeous. We even get a great view of Mauna Kea before the days worth of blizzard hits us. We try to make good time down through the blizzard, it wouldn’t be possible with out those great tall cairns. Our clothes were covered with a layer of ice… We are in Hawaii, right?!
We struggle to get to the Red Hill cabin for lunch. We are hungry and out of water. The cabin is so warm and nice compared to what we have been walking through all day. We make and drink endless cups of tea, eat a casual lunch, and just lounge around for too long a time. Continuing the walk to the car does not sound fun, but we don’t have dinner for tonight, so we better be on our way. Whose crazy idea was this; doing it all in one day?!
Our knees and feet are killing us, the elevation markers seem dreadfully far apart, we groan with each big step down. As the sun begins to set, finding the trail becomes more difficult. Things become tense as we try, unsuccessfully, to beat the spinning of Earth to our car. With headlamps out, we eventually make it. Wordlessly, we throw our packs in the trunk, peel off our boots and socks, preferring thong shoes, and collapse into the car. We drive back to the yellow B&B. When we get out of the car, neither of us can walk, our legs have just seized up completely. We gimp into our room, then make it just in time for the last dinner seating.
It is so pleasant to be exhausted and eating good food and drinking good wine with a fire and a Christmas tree and Christmas music. Our time in Hawaii is the perfect buffer between all the places we have been, and coming back to California... just loosely easing us in. Thanks to Pele for a safe journey on her mountain,