OHE August 11, 1998

Date: Mon, 10 Aug 1998 21:06:23 -1000
From: "Dayle K. Turner" (turner@hawaii.edu>
Subject: A Trip Up Mauna Loa (long)

What's the appeal of Mauna Loa? From afar, it appears as an unobtrusive, low-lying brown mass and not the 13,677-foot giant it is. In its higher reaches, vegetation ceases to exist, transforming the landscape into a stark, moon-like milieu. And there is the wind and cold, with temperatures often plummeting into the 30s at night, even lower if ka makani is bellowing with even minute intensity. Gale force winds and blizzard conditions are possible there, making for inhospitable and even downright life-threatening situations. Yet people hike Mauna Loa (lit. "Long Mountain") all the time, including my friend Pat Rorie and I in early August 1998.

Our trek began on Sunday morning, August 2. We flew to the Big Island on the early-bird flight, rented a compact car, picked up a few last-minute items at Walmart in Hilo (propane, duct tape), grabbed some kaukau at McDonald's, and made the half-hour drive to Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center to register for a hiking permit. The ranger checking us in, Kupono McDaniel, seemed pleased I had hiked Mauna Loa a couple times prior, that we had all the vital gear and that we'd be carrying enough water.

Water, by the way, is a critical factor on Mauna Loa. It is available via roof catchment at Pu'u Ulaula Cabin, more often called Red Hill Cabin (10,035 ft elev.), and at the Mauna Loa Cabin at 13,250. Along the 19-mile trail to the top, there are a couple water holes, more accurately cracks or lava tubes, where one's supply can be restocked. But all these sources are subject to the prevailing conditions, and Ranger McDaniel said because of the recent drought, the only reliable water source on the mountain was at Red Hill. So if we intended to head to the summit, we'd have to lug enough H20 to get us to the top and back.

After checking in, we were off for the trailhead at the end of Mauna Loa Strip Road, a 13.5-mile, single-lane "strip" of pavement that winds through a lovely koa and ohia forest before terminating at a turnaround area at the 6,660-foot level.

The day was a fine one, with a light breeze and no hint of rain nor clouds upslope. After checking our gear for the last time and praying our rental car wouldn't be pillaged or taken altogether, Pat and I set off at just past 9:30, bound for Pu'u Ulaula Cabin 7.5 miles away.

Pat is a much fast hiker, but he kept his pace down so that I was in sight all the time. Using Lisa Peterson's "Mauna Loa Trail Guide," I made note of significant landmarks, their distance from the trailhead, and elevation, so we could gage our progress. Among the landmarks were a gate at .4 miles, the 7,000-foot elevation sign at 1 mile, the 8,000 foot sign at 2.7 miles, the last ohia tree at 3 miles, a benchmark at 4.1 miles, and the 9,000-foot sign at 5.2 miles.

In the first hour, we chatted with a teenager from Alaska, his teen-aged sister, and their parents, all heading back down after a few days on the mountain. We asked them about the water situation, and they confirmed water was plentiful at Red Hill, virtually nil at the summit cabin, and available in the form of ice from a crack just beyond the summit cabin. I couldn't help but note how relaxed they all looked, a result, no doubt, of being so close to the end where a short car ride would have them enjoying a warm shower, a delicious meal, and a comfortable bed. My hiking partner and I would be in a similar relaxed state on our way down, but we had the lengthy haul up the mountain to contend with first.

Just beyond the 8,000-foot marker, the last ohia tree is distinct, seemingly inviting hikers to stop and rest. And resting there is a good idea because that tree, a charismatic 10-footer that straddles a five-foot mound of lava, is one of the last places where shade can be had on the mountain. What's more, the view downslope is excellent, with the massive Kilauea crater appearing as a small hole in the ground with puffs of steam wafting from it.

The temps during the trek to Red Hill were probably in the 70s, with a cooling northerly breeze accompanying us most of the way. It was warm enough so that I was able to wear shorts. Plus I donned my camo boonie hat, a good pair of socks, cleated Nike Landshark shoes fitted with top-notch insoles (my feet were happy), and a quick-drying red t-shirt (non-cotton) that I had recently purchased from Campmor. Available in my pack if needed were supplex hiking pants, Polartec (fleece) pants and vest (for cold), a polypropylene sweatshirt and balaclava, wool gloves, and a rainjacket and rainpants (not goretex but decent). While I usually wear contacts, I decided to leave them at home and wear glasses (with clip-on shades) instead. All my gear was housed in a 5400-cubic inch internal frame pack.

Of course, I had enough food to see me through the trek. Based on past experience when I left the mountain with uneaten food, I brought less this time. Available for consumption were corn pasta with powdered spaghetti sauce (2), mac and cheese, chili mac w/beef (freeze dried from Sports Authority), a can of tomato paste (for corn pasta), an 8 oz. block mozarella cheese, 8 cinnamon/raisin bagels quartered, 24 mini power bars (4 = a regular-sized bar), 6 granola bars, 6 packets hot chocolate, pita bread (6), deviled ham (3 small cans), and 10 plastic tins of Crystal Light drink mix. Despite being more frugal foodwise, I still ended up with excess (altitude can make a normally big appetite abnormally less big).

I also carried water--4 liters from Strip Road to Red Hill (all consumed), and 10 liters from Red Hill to the summit cabin and back to Red Hill (consumed 9.5 liters of this). On the trail, I drank from a 100 oz. camelback system (reservoir/hose set-up), with reserve water (if any) stored in two 2.5-liter collapsible platypus bottles. I used the Crystal Light powder (ice tea & strawberry/watermelon) to flavor the H20 and iodine pills to treat any collected from the cabin tank.

The leg from Strip Road to Red Hill involves steady climbing over terrain that initially looks like what one encounters while hiking in the hills above the Makapuu Lookout on Oahu. There are no cliffs or steep climbs, but the ever-increasing altitude prevents one from attacking a slope like one might do at sea level. Plus there are sections of the trail that traverse unstable a'a or broken-up pahoehoe flows. Inattentiveness or haste along these could mean a sprained ankle (I had at least a dozen close calls during the trip) or worse.

If I recall correctly, we covered the 7.5-mile first-day leg in 5.5 hours. Of those five hours and a half, we spent 50 minutes kicking back at the last ohia tree and another 20-30 resting/drinking water along the way. The weather remained ideal all day.

The Red Hill cabin is a quaint, 8-bunk abode nestled between two pu'u. Three of the bunks were claimed by a French-speaking Swiss family (Pat and I called them the Swiss Family Robinson), who were out dayhiking to 13,000 feet when we arrived in mid-afternoon. After arriving, I collapsed on one of the lower, unoccupied bunks while Paka went out to explore the area surrounding the cabin and check out the views of Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa upslope, and downslope toward Hilo and Kilauea. The afternoon was a beautiful one, perfect for landscape ogling.

The family, a handsome couple with a healthy five-year-old daughter, arrived back at Red Hill at around 6. The husband and wife both spoke English, with mister seemingly more proficient than missus. However, French was their language of choice, and I attempted to follow what they were saying, relying on the couple years of French I had taken as a University of Hawaii undergrad. But that was 20 years ago, and with no Je parle francais (awkward phrasing, I know) since, my attempt at translation was fruitless.

They were really pleasant folks, explaining hikes they had done in their homeland. I was especially impressed by the stamina of their daughter, still bouncing with energy after having hiked 19 miles to North Pit and back. "This was not her first hike," said her dad proudly.

For dinner, using my propane stove, I boiled up some corn pasta elbows and seasoned them with powdered spaghetti sauce, powdered milk, tomato paste, and a hunk of mozarella cheese. I ate several bagel quarters for starch and washed this down with some crystal light drink and a couple cups of hot cocoa. Ono! I felt content and fueled up for the push to the summit the next day.

Instead of sleeping in the cabin with Pat and the Swiss family, I opted to move a mattress out to the porch and sleep there instead. The temps dropped into the 30s that night (Pat had purchased a small window-mounting thermometer), but a decent sleeping bag (rated to 40 degrees), polartec vest and pants, a double pair of socks, wool gloves, and a balaclava made for a peaceful, comfortable night. Diamox, a drug used mostly by people with glaucoma, also proved helpful in staving off the effects of high altitude. Mahalo nui to Dr. Gene Robinson for suggesting and prescribing Diamox to us.

I was on the trail bound for the summit by 7:15 the next morning, leaving a cache of food and unneeded gear at Red Hill for when I returned. Pat would leave Red Hill an hour later, and I wouldn't talk to him again until 10 hours later at the summit cabin.

I decided to hold off on eating until the latter morning, wanting to log some good trail time while I felt energetic and rested. So I trudged on, making my way slowly upslope through endless fields of lava. Fortunately, Lisa Peterson's trail guide (highly recommended as is Stuart Ball's *Backpackers Guide to Hawaii*) notes significant landmarks, distance covered, and elevation. I had dutifully noted a bunch of these in a 3x5 booklet for reference on the trail: benchmark E21, .9 miles; Dewey Cone, 4.0 miles, 11,320 ft; Steaming Cone, 5.2 miles, 11,690 ft; Water hole sign, 5.6 miles, 11,845 ft; 12,000 ft sign, 6.2 miles; Pohaku Hanalei, 7.0 miles, 13,000 ft sign, 9.5 miles.

Using this info, I could gage my pace to determine whether I'd make the 11.6 miles to the summit cabin (13,250) before dark. And initial calculations at the first several landmarks pointed to a safe arrival at the top. At a few minutes before 11, I reached Steaming Cone and decided to make my first significant stop of the day there. My 1.4 miles-an-hour pace to that point would put me at the summit cabin around 3:30, so I knew I could back off some and spend more time at rest stops.

I rested nearly an hour at Steaming Cone, enjoying a comfortable seat in the sandlike olivine that composes the trail in that area. The day was splendid, with a rich blue sky overhead, sister mountain Mauna Kea in the distance to my right, and a cooling breeze flowing upslope. The coolness seemed strange, with easily visible heat waves rising from the lava expanse in all directions. If I was at sea level, I'd be frying on the trail, but at 11,000 feet, the heat was neutralized by the cool, rarified air. Brunch included deviled ham spread atop pita bread with a granola bar and a couple mini power bars for dessert. I had apportioned 5 liters of Crystal Light drink for the ascent and had gone through maybe 2 by Steaming Cone. All was going well.

After Steaming Cone, I pressed on, spotting Pat about a half mile downslope a couple of times. But he later told me he too had stopped for a long lunch break and was taking his time to enjoy the landscape. And once I passed Pohaku Hanalei, I didn't see him until he arrived at the Summit Cabin.

There are just a couple places on the trail to the summit that might qualify as steep. And compared to some of the slopes I've scaled in Oahu's Koolau Range, these places aren't steep at all. In fact, there are sections between 12- and 13-thousand feet beyond Pohaku Hanalei that are level and smooth like a shopping center parking lot. Places like these made for easy walking. In contrast, others called for foot placement diligence, for an ankle twisted on a cracked piece of pahoehoe would put one in a bad way far from any help.

Granted, I had a first aid kit to take care of basic injuries and a cell phone for more dire circumstances, but of course the hope is never have to use these. So diligence is called for, and diligence means concentrating intently, which in itself creates a kind of fatigue that dilutes one's energy.

Reaching the 13,000-foot sign at North Pit, I felt relieved. My watch read 3 p.m., plenty of time to complete the final two miles and change to the summit cabin. Some hikers make the mistake of thinking the trek to the top is over at North Pit and let their guard down only to suffer through the final segment to the cabin, which includes a grueling climb and some sections of trail with atrocious footing. I had made that miscalculation on my last trip in June '97 and knew not to celebrate too soon. This time, I took a 20-minute break, enjoying the view into North Pit, glugging plenty of Crystal Light drink, munching on a power bar, and readying myself for the home stretch.

I reached Mauna Loa cabin (13,250) at 4:45, completing the 11.6-mile ascent from Red Hill in 9.5 hours. The cabin sits on the eastern rim of the great summit caldera Moku'aweoweo which translates to "place of the 'aweoweo," a red reef fish whose color might be compared to the hue of fires from the erupting volcano. The true summit of the mountain (13,677) lay on the opposite side of Moku'aweoweo, and the tentative plan was to hike to it the next morning before heading back down to Red Hill.

About 50 yards north of the cabin is an outhouse with what has been described as the greatest view in the world. The outhouse straddles a narrow but deep crack at the edge of Moku'aweoweo. When answering nature's call, there is a million buck view into the caldera and an eye-opening whoosh up one's tail if the wind is blowing just right.

The cabin itself has more interior space than the one at Red Hill. There are four triple-decker bunks that aren't the easiest to get into or out of. But when tired, one finds a way. There is also a water tank out back fed by a roof catchment system. But true to reports, it was virtually empty although Pat was able to get a couple liters from it the next day.

Since it was still too early to hit the sack, I spent time removing gear from my pack and then bundling up for the cold night ahead. Based on past experience, I knew that when my body cooled down from the exertion of the hike, an insidious chill would take hold, so I made sure to put on all the warm clothes I had brought along. As it turned out, I was attired in a base of nylon shorts and quick-drying t-shirt, atop which was a polypropylene sweatshirt and supplex hiking pants, atop which was a polartec vest and polartec pants. On my feet were two pairs of socks, on my head a polypropylene balaclava, and on my hands wool gloves. I was ready for the cold!!

To my disappointment, the frigid conditions I anticipated never came about. The temps still dropped into the 30s but the wind that normally whips at the summit was strangely absent, perhaps as a result of a passing tropical depression that severed the flow of the normal trades.

Pat arrived before six, and we went about preparing our dinner, for me some freeze dried chili mac with beef I had picked up from Sports Authority. I was pleased that I had an appetite since food was repulsive the last time around. The diamox was doing its work.

Since I didn't want to turn in too early, I spent time reading the entries in the summit log, the most recent penned by the family from Alaska we had chatted with on the way to Red Hill. Another entry, from a park ranger, implored hikers to pack out litter and to avoid doing one's business in the lava fields. "Toilet paper is not biodegradable," advised Ranger Magno. Yet another entry described a gung-ho individual's day hike up the Ainapo Trail and continuation past Red Hill to Strip Road. His wife was expecting him at 9 p.m. Wow. Reading the log made for an interesting way to pass time, and I added an entry to the several dozen already there.

By 9, I was ready to hit the sack, and into my sleeping bag I slid, wearing just about every bit of clothing I had brought along and bolstered by a couple of wool army blankets for good measure. But as I mentioned, the bitter cold didn't materialize and I began to overheat. After some experimenting, I found that by shedding the army blankets and unzipping my sleeping bag and using it as a blanket, I was comfortable and plenty warm.

The night passed reasonably quickly, and I got up a few times, once to take some aspirin and another time to watch Pat creep out the front door around 3 a.m. to go check out the magnificently clear night sky.

I was up and about at 6 the next morning, in no particular rush to get going. I made use of the outhouse with the great view and then began the task of readying my gear for the return trek to Red Hill. Feeling fatigued and concerned about water (I had about 3 liters left of the 10 I had brought from Red Hill), I told Pat I'd pass on the 5-mile sidetrip to the true summit and head straight down to Red Hill. More energetic, Pat said he'd hike to the summit before heading down.

By 8, I was on my way for Red Hill, bidding Pat farewell and safe hike. The trip down was enjoyable and the miles passed quickly. The weather looked threatening at the 12,000-foot level and further down, and I donned rain gear just in case. As things turned out, I was in and out of the rain clothes a couple of times when misty conditions materialized and then dissipated. Near Steaming Cone, I chatted briefly with a German guy headed for the summit. He looked tired, understandably so, and I wondered if I looked the same (or worse) the day before.

By 2:30, I was back at Red Hill, where I was greeted by Kevin, a doctor from Kona, his wife, Cathy, their three daughters and two nieces. The Kona seven made for good company, and I welcomed the chatter of human voices after tramping through the lava fields with only my thoughts, the occasional squeak of my pack, and the sound of shoes crunching on a'a.

Kevin and ohana had arrived at Red Hill the day before in the late afternoon and had spent most of the current day lounging in the cabin because of misty, cold conditions. When I explained my intent to sleep on the porch, Cathy insisted that the porch would be too cold and hence that option unthinkable. But I insisted that the porch was where I preferred to bed down, and after assuring Cathy I'd be fine, she agreed.

Pat rolled in around 6:30, reporting he had made it to the true summit (13,677) followed by a leisurely descent back to Red Hill. He had several rolls of film and had snapped several dozen photos during the past couple days. I had also brought along a camera but mistakenly thought it was broken. Actually, the roll of film in the camera was defective and not the camera. My loss.

By the time Pat arrived, I had already eaten (corn pasta with cheese sauce), and I spent time talking story with Kevin and just kicking back to enjoy the last evening on the mountain.

I slept well that last night, peacefully bundled up on the porch of the cabin. I arose before six the next morning, climbing the pu'u in the back of the cabin to watch the sunrise. The way the early morning light illuminated the surrounding mountainside was magical with the an array of oranges, reds, browns, blacks, and greys highlighting the lava fields upslope and down. A stone monument sits on the pu'u, with a metal plate atop it pointing to various reference points, including Mauna Loa, Kilauea, Hilo, Mauna Kea, Pu'u O'o, Kulani Cone, and Haleakala.

By 8:00, I was trailhead bound, with Pat and the Kona family setting off after I had departed. Like the trip from the summit the day before, I enjoyed the final leg to the trailhead, moving steadily downslope at a quick, comfortable pace. I stopped to rest at the last ohia tree just before the 8,000-foot sign, smiling at the great summit bulk where I had been only a day earlier. In an hour I'd be at Strip Road, but I rested for 30 minutes at this noble tree, relishing the parting embrace of the mountain and thinking of the warm shower, tasty meal, and comfortable bed that awaited me when I returned home.

Striding the final yards before the trailhead, I felt a tug at my pack as if a hand were grabbing it, urging me not to leave. Was it Madame Pele, the oft referred to goddess of the volcano? Not hardly. A low-hanging branch from a koa tree it was, but the final gesture from the mountain prompted me to wonder if I'd ever consider coming back again. Despite the hardships that Mauna Loa can present, I most certainly will--for the exercise, for the time spent outdoors, and for the love of the mysteriously appealing Long Mountain.


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