Puu Wekiu, Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 13,796
We climbed Mauna Kea on March 25, 2001.
It sure didn't feel like I had climbed
any highpoint on the planet.
With a billion dollars worth star
gazing telescopes and a host of red cinder cones ("puu's"), it looks more
Indeed Mauna Kea has more world-class
claims than any other state highpoint -- including Alaska's McKinley:
Mauna Kea is a very deceptive mountain.
It's hard to believe that something so large could rise up so high so close
to ocean without some sort of dramatic jigs and jags. From a distance
-- even within a few miles -- it resembles a pancake with a little roughed
It is the highest in the Pacific (more
than 1,000 feet higher than Mount Fuji).
It is the world's highest mountain from
base to summit (it rises more than 33,000 feet from the ocean floor --
Everest's height is 29,000 feet).
It -- along with the rest of Hawaiian
islands -- are the most remote places on earth -- nearly 2,500 miles from
the closest continent.
The telescopes on its summit are among
the most sophisticated in the world. The space exploration phase
were underscored by the fact that a Challenger astronaut was from here
and astronauts trained here in preparation for the lunar landing.
The mountain which on one side climbs
up a desert and other a jungle it encompasses most of the planet's ecosystems
-- from plains to arctic tundra.
Even though it's a dormant volcano
that last erupted 4,000 years ago and which is likely to erupt again, there
is no great inverted "V" shape along the lines of other coastal volcanoes
such as Rainier and Mount Fuji.
Mauna Kea -- like neighboring Mauna
Loa -- developed in a sort cow pie pattern. Lava just poured out
layer upon layer for millions of years. This is known as a "shield
volcano." It doesn't explode it just spews in relatively controlled
manner (in contrast to Fuji and Rainier and Mt. St. Helens -- known as
"composite" volcanoes -- which explode when they erupt.
Mauna Kea actually is entering a "post
shield" phase in which it will become more explosive. This is evidenced
by the numerous cinder cones that mark its summit (which lacks an easily
identifiable crater). With eruptions now thousands of years apart
-- just a blink in geological time -- astronomers don't mind spending billions
of dollars to put telescopes on the summit of the mountain with one of
the clearest nighttime skies on the planet. With sensitivities on
these telescrope set in microns, there will be plenty of warning when Mauna
Kea starts rumbling again.
Mauna Kea has an incredibly unique
weather pattern. On one flank is Hilo which is the "rainiest city
in the United States." Yet, there's virtually no electrical storms
on this mountain (the Big Island is not big enough to generate the power
for such storms).
Clouds will build up on the mountain
and even cover the observatories in the middle of the day (as they did
when we visited). It can rain and snow (the name "Mauna Kea" means
"White Mountain") But as the Island cools at night, the clouds clear.
Mauna Kea's snow is all the more dramatic
as it contrasts the Big Island's basic stone color of black lava.
Postcards show snowmen and pineapples
on the summit. All art shops have paintings of a snow covered mountain.
The visitor center sells "Ski Hawaii" sweatshirts. There can even
be skiing and snowboarding exhibitions.
However, for the most part the snow
is not extreme enough to close the summit extensively during season (December
to March). The University of Hawaii (which holds the lease on the
summit) is very cautious and it will close the summit road even if a snowstorm
is dropping only an inch of snow (this practice is similar to other drive
up peaks such as Pikes Peak or Mount Washington). However once the
storm passes the summit road is quicky re-opened.
You need to call ahead to check conditions.
There are many tales of week-long storms and instances where the summit
could be accessed with a Snow Cat. And there are some pretty dramatic
photos of its snows.
When we visited, Hawaii was experiencing
one of the worst droughts in history. The biggest storm of the season
was a 5 inch version. There were several other smaller storms.
It was cold and windy enough on the summit that we wore our winter coats.
Pillow sized clumps snow were in the cracks.
Snow is not the only weather hazard.
Signs at the visitor center warn you to avoid hitting the "invisible cows."
These are feral black cows that roam the mountain. When the fog rolls
in and your lights are on mandatory "low" these cows can be hard to see.
Cattle are part and parcel of Mauna
Kea lore. The mountain including the summit was originally part of
the legendary Parker Ranch -- the largest privately owned ranch in the
U.S. (the King Ranch, et al, are owned by corporations). John Parker,
the founder of the ranch first caught the eye of Kamehameha (the Hawaiian
king from the Big Island who consolidated the islands under one rule) by
offering to bring the cattle under control. He was fairly successful
at age 19 and further enhanced his favoritism with the King by marrying
Seemingly everything on the Big Island
has some connection to the King and his name is everywhere. There
are mythic stones he's said to have lifted, hiding places for his bones
and sacred petroglyphs attributed to him.
Most people visiting Mauna Kea land
at the Kona airport. Although Hilo is nearly twice the size of Kona,
Kona is the up and coming city because it is dry and is thus the fastest
growing area in all of Hawaii.
The observatories look quite inviting
as they loom above the clouds as you approach. But as you land, you
may have second thoughts about the paradise that awaits you. The
airport carved out of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa lava flows looks like its
in the middle of giant tar wasteland.
Getting used to this metaphor takes
a lot of getting used to -- and quite frankly most tourists will most likely
find the Hawaii of their dreams on Maui or Kauai rather than Big Island.
There have been spectacular attempts
to breath life into this wasteland. Hapuna Beach just north of the airport
is considered one the most beautiful beaches in the world. Lavish
resorts particularly the *** Hilton which showed off the excesses of the
1980's with its canals and art walks. Some of the best golfing in
the world is to be found.
But the Big Island by law has been
All street lights are the Island are
dulled down to shades of yellow to protect the observatories.
As we walked the streets of Kona --
a kind of half-hearted attempt to mimic the port of call Caribbean tourist
villages -- at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night looking for dinner we found most
restaurants closed. The only life seemed to be the folks selling
time shares under the deceptive ruse of giving you "Volcano Information."
Locals joke that the town should be called "Kailua Koma." Meanwhile
they scoff that rainy Hilo is even worse as the best that side can muster
is a "mildew festival."
However, we got a big time bounding
by visiting the Wai'po Valley on the northeast coast.
It is hands down the most beautiful
place I ever seen in my life.
Most people will say the few of the
verdant green cliffs is "nice." There's an unremarkable picnic shelter
there. However if you descend the road (a paved road with an 18%
grade that is prohibited on the maps provided by most car rental agencies),
you descend into a verdant paradise with ponds, taro fields and wild horses.
The big payoff is a black sand beach
with perfect body surfing waves and the payoff of payoffs a waterfall
that flows into the ocean.
If you explore a little further you
will see the most waterfalls anywhere on the islands (these are the picture
postcard views that the helicopter tour companies push). A trail
zig zags up the next cliff and on into the Waimo Valley. Much of
this private property but you can camp by making reservations two weeks
Sadly, the most beautiful place on
earth also has a big downside which has resulted in its undisturbed nature
-- it's prone to deadly tsunamis which arrive unannounced and provide no
route of escape.
Our round trip drive up Mauna Kea
took most of the day.
Most people will visit the Mauna Kea
at sunset (in contrast to Maui's Haleakala where folks watch the sunrise).
As the sunsets on Mauna Kea, the already reddish-orange cinder landscape
takes on an even strong "Martian tone." Then the big show are the
stars -- unencumbered by light haze like no place else.
Rangers pull out telescopes for visitors
There are stargazing groups that take you to the summit.
We instead drove in the middle of
The highway between Mauna Kea and
Mauna Loa know as Route 200 or "Saddle Road" is the shortest distance between
Kona and Hilo. However most car rental companies give out maps saying
that is considered "off road" and thus voids the car rental contract.
At first this may not seem logical.
It's a paved road and never really steep enough to even make you car sputter
as you climb from sea level up to its 6,000 foot level.
However, the road is considered Hawaii's
"most dangerous." The center part of the road is smooth while the
edges are rough. Drivers tend to hug the middle and drive too fast
resulting in lots of head on collisions.
There is always talk of bring the
road "up to spec."
We saw no road signs pointing it as
the way between Hilo and Kona. There wasn't even a sign pointing
to the turn off for Mauna Kea or the observatories. It was
however the only big paved road going to the north off the highway.
The only signs we saw were ones warning
you that artillery could be fired over your head as you pass through the
Pokahuloa army base. We were in fact to the artillery although the
visitors center assured us "we haven't lost anybody yet." A tank
road parallels part of the road.
As we turned off on the road to the
visitor center, our Jeep 4WD sputtered along at less than 10 mph (as did
other cars we encountered). We attributed this to the carburetor
not being set properly for high altitude. However, when I dropped
it into "4WD Low" it did quite nicely.
The visitors center was not quite
as fancy as I was expecting. There were some telescopes, coffee and
modest displays in the two room building. A display about the palila
bird on the mountain.
They played a tape about Mauna Kea's
"headline" observatory -- the Keck telescopes (which structurally are smaller
than some of the telescopes). It was cool enough that I had to put
on long pants. The foggy clouds drifted up the mountain.
You could buy a topo map (the hiking
trail begins on the uphill side of the center and goes up the mountain
just on the left of the jeep road).
The rule of thumb is that you should
spend at least half an hour at the 9,000 foot center to acclimate.
The official line is that virtually all children will probably get sick
on the summit. I personally have known several people who have gotten
altitude sickness on this mountain. When the Highpointers Convention
was held here in 2000, even they had to administer oxygen.
Signs also warn that you are prohibited
from climbing the mountain if you have been skindiving in the past 24 hours.
Happily we were not having problems.
We could accompany a ranger to the
observatory provided we could drive up on our own.
We passed the "Ice Age" area (Mauna
Kea was once under a glacier -- Mauna Loa was also under a glacier but
lava has since covered its glacier). Turnoffs to Lake Waiau (unsigned)
were blocked off and signs warned "no off road driving"). Lake Waiau
is said to be the second highest lake in the U.S. They now have strict
rules prohibiting access (according to legend natives were supposed to
throw umbilical cords of their children into lake to gain strength).
There was another turnoff which was
apparently where the lunar lander did its tests.
The gravel road gave way to an immaculately
kept paved road about a quarter of a mile from the summit.
At a fork, we bore to the right (if
we had gone left we would have gone down to the Keck Observatories).
We parked at the obvious highest point
on the road -- by the University of Hawaii 2.2 meter observatory.
A sign said you could visit it during the week in the middle of the day.
We were visiting it on a Sunday and nobody was there (we were to see only
one car the entire time we were in the vicinity of the highpoint).
There were no clear signs indicating
that this was the place to hike. There was only the small sign in
the door of the observatory. There were no signs indicating that
this was the parking area. Rather we just made the assumption based
on the gravel lot.
Across from the observatory was a
trail leading about a thousand feet to a rock cairn on an adjoining hill.
No signs pointed out it was the summit. We climbed over a guard rail
passing a sign warning you that it was against the law to move or stack
We ascended the cinder hill to the
summit. A USGS marker was in a pipe in the ground. Despite
the admonition about moving rocks, the cairn had been supplemented with
a bamboo altar on which people had deposited fruit and some folks had even
left their rental car contracts.
The view was indeed as if we had been
to Mars. The cinder cones surrounded us. The wind flapped.
I discovered I was missing one of the cameras. So we got to go back
and repeat the climb.
Weiku is Hawaiian for "highest."
The summit area's main claim to exotic wildlife is the Weiku beetle which
hails from a family that normally eats fruit but up here it eats the carcasses
of bugs blown up here.
The only other peak that might look
higher is a puu Poliahu to the northeast of the summit. It has a
jeep road running up it and by law no observatories can be built on it
because it is said to be the home of the goddess Poliahu. According
to legend she was always quarreling with the god of Mauna Kea. Whenever
he started the lava flowing she would cover it with snow.
And this is place where highpointers
come to get married.