Thursday, June 3, 2010

Backpacking Mauna Loa

A week or so before Thanksgiving 1994, I received an email message from Guy Kaulukukui, a good friend and like me, a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools,  a private K-12 institution for children of Hawaiian ancestry. Always one to seek out challenges of some kind, Guy had a new one he wanted me to consider: a hike to the top of Mauna Loa on the Big Island. To help spark my interest, Guy said that he'd send me a couple of pieces he read about the hike via snail mail.

After receiving and reading these pieces--"Cairns," a chapter from Peter Adler's  Beyond Paradise, and "Ten Views of Mauna Loa," a chapter from The Burning Island by Pamela Frierson--I knew reaching the ML summit was something I wanted to do. We set a tentative hike date for early August.

In the next several months, we went about gathering as much information as we could about the hike. Guy, at the time in the midst of completing his PH.D dissertation (economics) at the University of Kansas, obtained info about the weather conditions, about the permits we'd need, and about altitude sickness. 

Fortunately, our work proved fruitful, for we netted helpful information that made the hike more manageable. Kennan Ferguson, Joe Dellinger, Gerard Fryer, Kevin Herring, and Lisa Peterson responded to my plea for info about hiking Mauna Loa and were especially helpful, providing us with answers to our questions and recanting their journeys up the "Long Mountain."

In addition to info-gathering, Guy and I began preparing ourselves for the tough physical challenge Mauna Loa would present. Accordingly, I made adjustments to my diet, cutting out a large percentage of fat in it, and embarked on a rigorous routine of hiking, walking, and jogging. I also asked my girlfriend Jacque if she were interested in joining us. She said she was. So it would be the three of us.

In June, Guy returned to Oahu after successfully completing and defending his dissertation. At that point, we had decided on July 30th as the date to begin our hike and a tentative itinerary for the journey. We also enlisted the help of another Kamehameha grad, Alapaki Nahale-a, who agreed to drive us to the trailhead and to pick us up after the completion of our hike. In addition, Guy's aunt, Eleanor Kenney, was kind enough to offer us the use of her Nissan pickup as our transport vehicle and her home in Hilo as a place to rest and spend the night after we had completed the hike.

In the weeks preceding our departure for the Big Island, Guy contacted the rangers at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, who told him that we had to pick up our trail permits no earlier than 24 hours before we were to begin our hike [trail permits insure one a bunk in the Red Hill and Summit cabins].

Although assured by the rangers that we should have no problem obtaining permits for our intended departure date, Guy decided that we shouldn't risk a snafu and decided to leave on the early-bird flight from Honolulu to Hilo on Saturday 7/29 and head directly to the HVNP visitor center before it opened at 7:45 a.m. We also received some news that concerned us. The rangers informed us that while a limited amount of water was available at the summit cabin, no H2O could be found at the Red Hill cabin because of a breakdown in the catchment system. The result: we'd haul a bunch of water, which at eight pounds a gallon would increase the weight of our packs considerably.

As planned, Guy left early on the 29th, and he and his aunt drove the 25 miles to HVNP Visitor's Center and obtained our trail permits with no problem. Meanwhile, Jacque and I left Oahu at around noon and arrived in Hilo after a 40-minute flight. Guy met us at the airport and after eating lunch, we picked up some odds and ends, including canisters of propane that the airlines would not allow in our luggage, and tested out the cellular phone I had brought along. All went well.

We left Hilo for Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and thanks to Guy's aunt, who made the arrangements for us, spent the night in a comfortable cabin at Kilauea Military Camp. Alapaki, who'd drive us to the trailhead the next morning, arrived with his wife Shelby at around 7:30 Saturday night. 

Guy, Jacque, and I--what with the task we were about to undertake--were noticeably nervous that night. I probably slept no more than four hours, awakening every so often and questioning my ability to endure the hours tramping through the rough terrain. Guy and Jacque also reported being restless and not getting much sleep.

By 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 30, we were all up and about and readying our gear and ourselves for the departure. By 6 a.m. we had dressed, stuffed our backpacks in the most orderly fashion possible [my pack--filled with three gallons of water--probably weighed between 50 and 60 pounds], and eaten what little breakfast our apprehensive insides would allow.

After a winding 10-mile drive up Mauna Loa Strip road that ends at the 6,662 foot elevation level, we unloaded our gear, shouldered our packs, tested the cellular phone (it worked!!), took some pre-hike photos, bid Alapaki farewell, and were off on the first phase of our hike to the summit of Mauna Loa (elev. 13,667 ft.). Our objective that day was to reach Red Hill cabin, 7.5 miles distant and 3,500 feet in elevation higher than our starting point.

The first hour of hiking took us through ancient lava flows now populated by thickets of 'ohelo, 'ohia and a host of other plants. To help us keep track of where we were and how quickly or slowly we were proceeding, we referred to Lisa Peterson's "Mauna Loa Trail Guide", an informative 20-page booklet available at most public libraries.

The further along the trek we proceeded, the sparser the vegetation became. At around the 8,300 elevation level, one of the last ohia trees stands majestically from a lava outcropping. Perhaps only ten feet high, the tree is distinct nevertheless and from a distance resembles a Japanese bonsai plant. Ahead of us lay mile after mile of lava fields and dominating the horizon was the imposing summit mound of Mauna Loa bathed in yellowish brown by the steadily climbing sun.

We settled into a routine that had us hiking for 25 minutes, and resting 5. At that pace, we were progressing at about a mile and a quarter per hour, which was a reasonable rate considering the increasing elevation and the debilitating weight of our packs. As we were to discover, we were lugging way too much water, for the reports of zero water at Red Hill proved to be false.

The hike to Pu'u Ulaula (Red Hill) was a rugged one, and Jacque--all 4'11, 115-pounds of her--suffered the most because she was hauling a pack about a third of her weight. I, too, hurt and my shoulders ached from the weight of my pack digging into my trapezius muscles. As the day progressed, the temperatures rose, and the elevation increased, our rest breaks became longer and more frequent.

During our climb, we passed seven hikers heading back to Strip Road: a father and daughter who had overnighted at Red Hill, three mid-20-ish Canadians chaps who had gone to the summit, and two other haole hiking buddies who had departed from that summit that morning. All were tired, in good spirits, and reported good weather upslope. Seeing and chatting with them encouraged us.

At around 2:00 p.m., we were about half a mile from the our first day's objective. Unfortunately, the final ascent up Red Hill to the Cabin is a brutal one and we painfully trudged upward at a dreadfully slow pace I referred to as the Mauna Loa Shuffle. Suddenly, we were confronted with the sign "PUU ULAULA REST HOUSE elevation 10,035 feet." A hundred feet away was the cabin itself. (Pic of Jacque at left). Constructed in 1915 by a company of predominantly Black soldiers, the cabin is an eight-bunk abode complete with a front porch, picnic table, kitchen area, water tank (empty), a two-hole pit toilet, and a magnificent panoramic view of most of the Big Island.

A single hiker, a 20-something haole chap conducting scientific experiments for the State, was at the cabin when we arrived; however, he was just taking a short break there after descending from the summit. He told us about spending a night hunkered down in Jagger's cave at the 13,000 foot level. After 30 minutes of chitchat, he was off to the trailhead at the end of Strip Road.

And so it was just the three of us. Jacque staggered into one of the bunks and wrapped herself in her sleeping bag and napped for a couple of hours. After some initial exploring, Guy and I followed suit.

At around six, we prepared dinner--Jacque and I sharing a surprisingly delicious add-hot-water-to-cook beef stroganoff dish and some bagels. Guy wolfed down a Rice-A-Roni meal. After dinner, I ran another test of the cellular phone and was able to reach numbers in Hilo and even my mom several hundred miles away in Kaneohe on Oahu. This was good news, for we were uncertain whether the phone would work from such a high elevation.

At around 7 p.m., the sun disappeared behind Mauna Loa's massive crest and the temperature dropped to the 50s. Soon thereafter, Mars appeared on horizon and stars began to emerge. By 8 p.m. the afterglow of the sun in the western sky had disappeared and the Milky Way was spread across the heavens. Guy said that the Big Dipper never had appeared so prominently to him before that night. The three of us, energized by our naps, our meals, and our euphoria about arriving at our first stepping-stone, stood bundled up outside the cabin mesmerized by the awesome heavenly display.

By 8:30 we decided to bunk down, and we all looked forward to a restful night since we had planned to layover the next day at Red Hill to acclimate. However, something completely unexpected happened at a few minutes after nine: two hikers, a husband and wife from England, burst through the cabin door in the pitch black. Apparently, they had departed from Strip Road at around two that afternoon but had been slowed because the wife had developed altitude sickness. As a consequence, they had spent the last two hours hiking through the treacherous lava fields with just flashlights!! Amazing. After unloading their packs and preparing a quick meal, the two new cabin mates slid into two of the five remaining bunks and settled down for the night. 

The next morning, Guy and I arose at around 5 and ascended the hill behind the cabin to get some photos of the sunrise. Even that early, the sun was beginning to light up the eastern sky and the cloud tops were tinted with a warm orangish hue. Below the cotton-textured clouds and many miles away from us, the lights of Hilo twinkled invitingly and the vents of Kilauea puffed clouds of steam skyward in the nippy 40 degree morning air.

Just before six, the sun peaked over the clouds and the lava fields upslope began taking form and color. Across the wide saddle to the north stood Mauna Loa's sister mountain, Mauna Kea, adorned by the mushroom-like observatories at its crest and an array of cinder cones on its flank. To the southwest was the powerful presence of the Mauna Loa summit, which we would attempt to reach the next day. 

The English couple was up early and quietly packed their things so as not to disturb Jaque, who spent most of that morning sleeping. By 8 a.m. the couple, experienced alpine hikers who had scaled many of the mountains of Europe, were off for the 11.5 mile ascent to the summit cabin. Before leaving, the Brits told us to expect a party of twelve Boy Scouts that day. We wished them well, and from a vantage point above the cabin, followed their progress up the mountain for 30 minutes before they disappeared from view.

Monday morning was used for picture-taking, exploring, a day hike, and finding water, which we were told could be found in a catchment system set up in a small sink hole near the cabin. The cabin's water catchment set-up, a series of rain gutters on the roof, was not functioning correctly so the water tank next to the cabin was empty.

By early afternoon, our pictures and water were secured and our exploring and one-hour day hike were completed, so we settled in and waited for the arrival of the Boy Scouts, who began arriving in small groups at around 2:30 p.m.

There were actually eight Scouts--all either Iolani students or grads--and four adult leaders/chaperons. Guy, Jacque and I chuckled at the ragtag group, especially at the leaders, three of whom had to have their packs carried up to Red Hill by the teenaged scouts. While Guy and I were chagrined at the loss of tranquility, Jacque was overjoyed at the company and assumed the role of unofficial cabin hostess, helping the tired hikers with their packs and directing them to the important points of interest.

That night was a restless one for us. With twelve people sardined into an eight-bunk cabin and thoughts of the difficult climb to the summit the next day, sleep didn't come easy for Jacque, Guy and I.

We arose at 4:30 the next morning and surrendered our bunks to the scouts who had spent the night in their sleeping bags on the floor. By 6:00 we had dressed, packed and eaten breakfast and were on our way for the summit. We had anticipated progressing at about a mile an hour so we wanted to leave early to give ourselves as much daylight as possible to reach the summit cabin 11.5 miles away.

The hike to the top was surprisingly easier than the trek to Red Hill, perhaps because our packs were lighter (mine was about 20 pounds less) and we had a chance to acclimate. Easier does not mean the journey was a cupcake--far from it. The trail was long and traversing the lava-dominant terrain can wear on one's resolve. 

Our spirits ebbed and flowed. At one time, we rejoiced after finding that we were ascending at a much better clip than the mile-an-hour pace we had thought we would proceed at; at other times, we snapped at one another about the length of our breaks and how many more miles we had to traverse.

All this notwithstanding, the lava along the way was amazing. Along with the standard black pahoehoe and a'a, lava tinted with gold, silver, red, green, orange, purple hues were at our feet as we ascended Mauna Loa's massive flank. For 2/3 of the trip, Mauna Kea stood off to our right. However, as we neared the summit, our world consisted of lava fields and blue sky, for we were at such a great height that ocean and other landforms were beyond our field of sight.

After about 8.5 hours of hiking, we had covered 9.5 miles were standing at the edge of North Pit at the 13,000 foot elevation level. From that point, with the Summit Cabin two miles away, we decided to ascertain our physical conditions. While Guy and I were fine, Jacque was experiencing headaches, nausea, and swelling in her feet and hands--all signs of altitude sickness. 

Concerned about Jacque, instead of spending the night at the cabin, we opted to descend to the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory at the 11,000 foot level, a trip of about four miles. Before leaving, we used the cellular phone to contact Alapaki to pick us up at the Observatory.

In a little less than two hours, we arrived at the Observatory and waited, waited, and waited. We became concerned because as night approached, the temperatures were dropping into the 40's and Jacque, weakened by the effects of altitude sickness, was beginning to display effects of hypothermia. Fortunately, the two scientists working at the Observatory kindly consented to let Jacque into a heated trailer that serves as their lab/headquarters.

At around 8 p.m., Alapaki and his uncle, a Big Island county worker, arrived at the Observatory in a large pickup truck. They were delayed by a couple of hours because the truck they initially had left in had broken down about 10 miles up the Saddle Road.

In an hour and a half, we were in Hilo after a harrowing 19- mile ride down the narrow Observatory road and the equally nerve- wracking 20+ mile descent down Saddle Road. Back at sea level, Jacque recovered quickly although her appetite was non-existent. We spent a restful night at Guy's aunt's house in Hilo after taking long warm showers, devouring takeout Chinese food, and rehashing our adventure to whoever would listen.

I'll hike Mauna Loa again--perhaps not soon but at least once more nonetheless. We may not have made it to the cabin or to the true summit, but standing at North Pit that afternoon--all three of us--marked the realization of a dream that had been born seven months prior. Without a doubt, our lives are different now, for the ascent of Mauna Loa gives us a new perspective of who we are and what we can achieve.