Mauna Loa Adventure (3 of 5)

Hikers: Bill Melemai and Dayle Turner

Day 3--June 9, 1997, Monday:

I roll out of my bunk in the Red Hill cabin at 5:00am to prepare for today's summit assault. The plan is to leave a stash of food and other things not needed for this leg (we'll be back the next day), pack up, head out, hike for three hours or so, and eat breakfast on the trail. Within minutes, Bill, Bozo, and Potsy are also stirring and prepping for the day's labors.

I take a peep outside the cabin window and see clear skies. Good news.

By 5:45, we're on the trail, summit-bound. As I will do all day, I lead and set the pace. I tell the others that I will hike at a slow but steady pace for 25 minutes and rest for 5, with a 10- minute break every other segment. We'll go like this until 9:30 when I'll look for a place to hunker down and eat breakfast. Throughout the day, if we can average a mile per hour, we will reach the summit cabin in 11.5 hours, surely an attainable goal and one that will put us there well before sundown at 7:15.

Using as a reference Lisa Peterson's "Mauna Loa Trail Guide" (copies are available at several public libraries in the Islands as well as the VNP headquarters), I make note of prominent landmarks along the way and announce the mileage and time as we go by them.

Bench mark (.4 miles)--17 minutes
Bench mark (.9 miles)--43 minutes
Dewey Cone sign (4.0 miles)--3 hours, 10 minutes
The climbing isn't steep or dangerous. In fact, the going seems relatively easy, that is, if this were sea level. But at sea level we are not, and as the morning passes the increasing elevation begins to wear at our energy level and resolve. I fight my desire to hike fast, knowing that the great mountain has a way of crushing those who try. I've been told that thinking in terms of beating Mauna Loa is foolhardy. One can hope for a draw at best.

Gentle blue skies are overhead as we hike, and a steady 15-20 mph breeze pummels us from the south. Temperatures, with wind chill factored in, is probably in the low 50s to upper 40s.

And there is lava everywhere. Black, gray, red, gold, silver, purple, orange, green. This is the domain of Pele, the goddess of the volcano. And we are inconspicuous mortals here. That is clear. We trudge on.

At 9:30, we have traveled just past Dewey Cone, covering 4.5 miles from Red Hill. I recommend that we stop and eat breakfast. Everyone agrees to plop down at a bivouac spot someone had constructed with lava rock (what else?) to the left of the trail. Here we have fairly good protection from the wind. I fire up a propane stove and heat up water to add to a mixture of oatmeal, brown sugar, cocoa, and gorp. Bill eats some ramen while Bozo and Potsy don't want to go to the trouble of breaking out their stove and eat candy bars and some gorp of their own.

Midway through our breakfast break, a lone hiker coming from the summit stops for a chat. He confirms that water is available at the summit cabin. Appearing energetic and in good spirits, he bids us well and is off.

By 10:15, we are on the trail again, reaching Steaming Cone (5.2 miles) at 11:00. Resting there on a gravel-covered slope is the father and son who reached the summit from Red Hill the day before and are in midst of the long descent leg to Red Hill and ultimately to the trailhead at Strip Road (19.1 miles in all). They seem tired but obviously relieved that they are headed down and not up like us.

"Is anyone having fun yet?" belows the father.

With a half-smile plastered on my face, I only grunt. Similar responses eminate from my companions. I make a mental note not to make the same query to anyone we see heading up when we're heading down.

Upward and onward we head. Bill is laboring in the ever-thinning air and falls far behind us during most of our 25 minute segments. Bill is strong and probably in better condition than Bozo, Potsy and I but it seems he may be more prone than most to suffer from the effects of high altitude. I encourage him to move as steadily as he can, keeping an eye on my watch and calculating our pace to make sure we'll have enough daylight to reach the top. Although our MPH tempo has slowed, we still are on target to make the summit cabin before nightfall.

Potsy and Bozo expect panoramic views as we proceed higher up the mountain but I tell them that eventually, because of our lofty elevation and the curvature of the earth, all we'll see are endless lava fields, the top of Mauna Kea in the distance, and the blue sky. Hearing this, Potsy utters an expletive. Bozo counters with an idiotic remark about wanting his money back. I regret giving them the okay to tag along and restrain myself from braining both of them with a lava rock.

We reach the 12,000 foot sign (6.2 miles) at 11:55 and a colorful, square-topped cinder cone called Pohaku Hanalei (6.9 miles) forty minutes later. We take a lunch break from 2:30 to 3:00, each of us spending it sprawled out napping on the trail (it's amazing how comfortable lava feels when one is dead tired). After some rugged and grueling climbing, we reach the 13,000 foot sign at the edge of North Pit (9.5 miles) at 3:20.

The summit cabin still is two miles away and we make the mistake of thinking the worst is past when in reality the most hellish part of the day lay ahead. The first half mile walk across the smooth floor of North Pit is relatively easy but the last 1.5 miles, mostly uphill over rough terrain, seems more like 3 miles, and torturous miles at that. The coup de grace is the terminal half mile, with the summit cabin tauntingly in view all the while. Recall those dreams where you're being chased by some bad guy and feel like you're running in slow motion? We'll that's the sensation of the final stretch.

At this point, my energy level is bottoming out and my enthusiasm near nil. Somewhere, somehow I muster some reserve from my system and ignore the dull ache in my temples, the throbbing in my feet and legs, and the cold wind whipping across the lava fields at 13K feet. Potsy trails behind me by a few yards and he too is in a semi-daze and mercifully too zapped to swear or utter a peep. A couple hundreds back is Bozo. And Bill, suffering more than any of us, is even further back but still moving along, albeit very slowly.

As I approach the cabin, a 12-bunk, no-frills shelter, I see someone sitting on a chair in front of it. This someone is a mid-20ish haole woman who is reading the cabin's logbook in the afternoon sun. She greets me with a wave and a smile as I stiff-leggedly stumble past her and into the cabin's main door. It is 5:30pm--11.5 hours after we left Red Hill.

Inside, wrapped up in his sleeping bag, is the woman's male companion. He looks whipped, probably because of a rapid ascent via the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory (aprox. 11,000 feet) earlier that day.

I ask about the water and the woman confirms that the tank has some. After unshouldering my pack and sitting for a few minutes to settle myself, I decide to fill my water bottles before darkness hits and the temperature, easily in the 40s at the time, drops any further. I limp around to the water tank at the back of the cabin, which faces east, away from the setting (and warming) sun, and nearly freeze my hands off while filling my bottles. A 15-20 mph wind makes me feel colder than I've felt in a looooong time. Brrrrrr.

I return inside the cabin and find that Bill has still not arrived yet at 5:45. Since there is still 1.5 hours of daylight remaining, I'm not overly concerned. If he's not here by 6:30, I will head out to look for him.

As it turns out, the front door of the cabin swings open at 6pm, and in shuffles Bill, with a what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here? look on his face. We exchange high-fives, a tradition whenever we achieve a hiking milestone, and he plops down, exhausted. Meanwhile, I start feeling chilled and have a strong urge to consume something warm, so I set head to the kitchen area to boil some water for ramen. Before doing that, I tell Bill to fill up his water bottles before the temps plummet even further and before he shifts into zombie-mode.

After boiling water and fixing my ramen, I eat ravenously. The warm meal only makes me feel nauseous and heightens my desire to bundle up in my sleeping bag to escape the chill that penetrates the cabin. Bill, after topping off his water bottles, reports that he has no appetite. Potsy and Bozo fix some concoction for supper and after consuming it, hit their bunks. Ditto for the haole couple.

By 7:40, not long after the sun has dipped below the far rim of Mokuaweoweo, all six of us are lying down, feeling the nauseating effects of trying to exist at 13,250 feet.

The night passes slowly, and on occasion I roll over in my bunk to gaze out one of the windows at the front of the cabin. I see stars glistening in the black sky but I'm too tired to even consider getting up to go outside for the ultimate view. Sleep comes with great difficulty, and I probably doze off for maybe two hours, if that, of the ten I lie there. I dream--halucinate may be a better word to describe the feeling--of getting down off the mountain I had worked so hard to climb.

It's also bitterly cold, and I'm relieved that I brought my 20 degree sleeping bag instead of trying to save a pound and a bit of bulk by bringing my 40 degree bag. And then my bladder feels like it's ready to explode. But the pit toilet is situated a good 60-80 yards away at the edge of the great summit crater, Mokuaweoweo. And the wind is howling. But I have to go, so I reluctantly slip out of my warm cocoon, stumble into the kitchen, close the kitchen door behind me, and open an exit door just enough so I can recycle some water to relieve my bladder pressure. That done, I limp back to my bunk, slither into my bag, and lay there in a daze.

I pray for morning to come--and soon.

Next: Day 4--Back to Red Hill or How do you spell R-e-l-i-e-f?


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