OHE May 11, 1999 (Ainapo--Pt. 3)

Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 15:08:54 -1000
From: Patrick Rorie (prorie@mailhost.k12.hi.us>
Subject: The Ainapo Challenge - Part 3

Part 3 - "The Tough Climb to the Summit Cabin"

On Sunday, May 2, at 6 a.m. Gene and I awoke to a new day inside the Halewai Shelter (45 degrees fahrenheit inside that morning). Upon traipsing outside, we discovered a gorgeous sight - the nearly full moon on the western horizon and the rising sun on the opposite. A beautiful arrangement of high clouds partially obscured the sun, and other than the high clouds to the east, entirely blue sky overhead.

After breakfast (including another half pill of diamox) and packing up, the two of us departed the shelter (elev. 7,750 ft) at 7:28 a.m. bound for the Mauna Loa Summit Cabin (elev. 13,250 ft). Initially, not much discussion took place as Gene led the way up the Ainapo Trail above Halewai. It was THE BIG DAY (the most difficult leg of our trip) and like warriors entering the coliseum to do battle, we had our game faces on, both of us focused on the task at hand. With plenty of time to get to the Summit Cabin, Gene laid out a simple plan - hike 1,000 feet per hour then take a brief rest to avoid any symptoms of altitude sickness.

Beyond the first quarter of a mile where the pahoehoe and most of the native forest abruptly end, I turned around while Gene took a GPS reading and spotted Kilauea Caldera downslope in the distance, steam rising out of her vent. A thick band of clouds also existed hanging slightly above the caldera stretching from north to south around the mountain as far as the eye could see. Gene and I methodically plodded along the vast dark brown 'a'a field (large ahu marking the route) climbing steadily and recognized the stark beauty of the region (a different kind of beauty), a gentle sea breeze at our backs.

At 8:43 a.m. (elev. 8,760 ft according to Gene's altimeter) we took a break. Before sitting I noticed rain coming down on the green prairie far below and clouds slowly approaching us (Kilauea Caldera now completely obscured by the thick cloud bank). I became concerned because the trail would be more difficult to follow with precipitation and/or white out. Gene's GPS told us that we were approx. 1 mile from the start of the long 'a'a section as the crow flies.

Fifteen minutes later the two of us continued our pilgrimage. With no route description available for reference (Ball's BACKPACKER'S GUIDE only contains the Mauna Loa Trail), I began to record the outstanding topographical features of the area in a notebook for future reference.

Three prominent hills appeared one hundred yards to the right (facing mauka) of the footpath, and Gene and I crossed a lava tube bridge at 8,850 ft, a collapsed section of the tube revealing a cave for possible emergency bivouac. We traversed a very short stretch of pahoehoe then returned to 'a'a. Heat rising from the lava fields was clearly visible (not due to volcanic activity) and Gene brought to my attention the existence of goat scat on the trail. Encountered another brief pahoehoe segment passing through a narrow defile between walls of pahoehoe. The footpath alternated between the two types of lava reminiscent of the way the KST switches back and forth from leeward (difficult) to windward (easier) then shifted to pahoehoe above the tree line (no more trees or other vegetation visible upslope) at 9,000 ft.

Gene and I paused briefly at 9:43 a.m. (9,310 ft) to check out a large opening in the ceiling of a lava tube, a beam of sun light partially illuminating the cave floor twenty feet below. Pressing on, the two of us ascended gradually learning to appreciate the pahoehoe and watching our steps on the 'a'a, "baked patotoes" and ahu marking the route. The abundance of blue sky and unobstructed sun made spotting the aluminum foil fairly easy.

At 10:19 a.m. and 9,760 feet we took another snack/water break. Gene consumed a balance bar and some gatoraid while I had a bagel and tang. During the recess I applied more sun screen and Gene took another GPS reading. Meanwhile, the clouds that were approaching from Ka'u appeared to dissipate as they gained altitude and I breathed a sigh of relief.

By 10:40 a.m. we were back on the trail trudging along at a steady pace, and at 9,900 ft the ahu all but disappeared. As we entered "No Man's Land", Gene and I spotted "baked potatoes" about thirty yards to the right of the footpath on nearby pahoehoe. Gene concluded that someone (DLNR?) had attempted to establish an easier route. The only problem is that the original path (also marked with "potatoes") still exists over sunken piles of 'a'a paralleling the new one and in white out conditions often leads to confusion (ambiguity).

Accomplished a short, but steep ascent to 10,360 ft where I noticed stakes pounded into lava bordering the trail, and fifty yards on the left at 10,500 ft I recognized the existance of a weather station. Because of its continuous uphill nature, Ainapo is certainly an honest trail.

Several "potatoes" were sighted on pahoehoe to the left with a lone ahu placed twenty five yards off the original route as a guide to the improved section. Two "potatoes" side by side on the original trail marked the junction. An easier footpath, no doubt, but more likely to cause confusion.

Identified another stake in lava at the end of a tough, steep ascent over loose 'a'a. Further ahead, I counted atleast a dozen "potatoes" in a line spaced about twenty yards apart marking the footpath. Observed yet another stake protruding slightly above the surface of the lava followed by a stretch of pahoehoe.

At 11:57 a.m. (10,870 ft and 1.16 miles from our previous break spot) Gene and I sat down on pahoehoe to rest again at a desolate place (nothing but acres and acres of lava surrounging us in all directions). Saddled up and continued our journey about half an hour later. The trail returned to 'a'a for a short stretch then switched back to pahoehoe. A few ahu helped distinquish the trail from the rest of the lava field and a mild, cooling breeze at our backs accompanied the now gradual climb.

Enjoyed a lengthy segment of pahoehoe marked by intermittent ahu on our way to an old abandoned CCC camp (windbreak, elev. 11,350 ft) made out of large pieces of lava with sea rations inside. Adjacent to the windbreak was an entrance to a lava tube, old rusty cans and glass bottles located five feet down littered the floor of the cave. We also ascertained a campsite ideal for a tent above the cave entrance. Large pieces of lava made up three quarters of the perimeter and a hill blocked the wind on the other side. Gene brought to my attention the remains of old sea biskets each originally the size of a hockey puck. He also suggested that the area would make a great local for an intermediate cabin on the way to the summit cabin.

Departed the pahoehoe for more 'a'a , our feet shifting with every step. Lovely white cumulous clouds appeared upslope in the distance a few hundred feet above the horizon and were not taken as a threat.

The trail alternated again between 'a'a and pahoehoe and eventually the two of us entered "The Easter Egg Hunt" region (elev. 11,670 ft), a poorly marked, confusing section of the Ainpo Trail. Small "potatoes" spread out (hidden?) among the rolling hills ("dunes") of the broad pahoehoe flow hindered upward progress and the trail seemed to meander for no rhyme or reason. However, due to excellent visibility (unobstructed sun, mostly clear blue sky), Gene and I experienced, at most, short delays in identifying the ensuing "potatoes". We even took the time to rebuild fallen ahu blown over by high winds and make new ones as well as relocate a few of the small "potatoes" to improve the section. Gene commented that the dudes who designed this stretch of the footpath must have been smoking pakalolo!

At 1:59 p.m. (elev. 11,930 ft) the two of us took another break sitting down on pahoehoe. The surrounding "dunes" made it feel like we were on Mars. I ate an apple, drank half a liter of tang (the beverage of choice for the apollo astronauts and one thirsty backpacker on "Mars") and Gene recorded another GPS reading. Twenty four minutes later it was back to the grind.

Noticed more stakes pounded into the lava positioned along the footpath at 100 foot intervals. We endured steep climbing and I felt fatiqued but not dizzy. At 12,340 feet elevation I spotted a grey Dept. of Interior geological survey marker then, further ahead, Gene and I got side tracked briefly when we couldn't find the next "potato". Instead, we ended up hiking to what appeared to be an ahu.

The final steep ascent concluded (yee ha!) at 3:21 p.m. when we arrived at a dark red, wooden sign with "Entering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Mauna Loa Cabin 2.9 Miles" carved into it on the ocean facing side (elev. 12,500 ft). On the opposite side the sign read "Entering Kapapala Forest Reserve Ainapo Trail Shelter 4.6 Miles", a bogus figure in Gene's opinion.

Ahu reemerged as guide posts beyond the sign toward the Mauna Loa Cabin and we were also led by more "potatoes". I noticed an increase in the wind blowing from the Ka'u direction, a chill in the air.

At 3:45 p.m. (elev. 12,770 ft) the two of us reached a rain gauge and an eveready lantern battery dump (former weather station?). A few of the rusting batteries were located inside the compartment at the top of a short white wooden structure which resembled a lifeguard stand. A pile of batteries in the shape of an ahu existed twenty yards from the stand.

Pressing on, Gene and I carefully traversed a large crevice and recognized yellow dots marking the route along with the "potatoes" and ahu. With the exception of a few ups and downs, the fairly level trail gradually ascended to the Mauna Loa Cabin.

We passed through an area featuring a lava formation (cone) on the left that looked like a huge version of Madonna's French bra (not that I'm a Madonna fan but that's what it resembled), a pu'u with twin humps (breasts). A note to the reader - Gene and I may not have been suffering from altitude sickness but we were certainly having delusions!!! I proclaimed the geological peculiarity "Pu'u O'Madonna" and paused to study it while Gene took a GPS reading.

After moving away from the formation, the two of us encountered 'a'a for a distance then tramped mainly over pahoehoe. The footpath returned to 'a'a and we noticed ahu across the lava field which marked the South Pit Trail at 4:49 p.m. (elev. 13,000 ft). Fifteen minutes later Gene and I accidentally veered off the Ainapo Trail but gained our first vista of the true summit across Mokuaweoweo (the summit crater). Observed a piece of snow covered ice inside a crack and came upon a windbreak made of lava four feet deep with four foot walls on each side.

At 5:09 p.m. we reached the crater rim and spotted the summit cabin in the distance for the first time. Careful not to get too close to the 500 foot vertical drop, the two of us recognized steam rising from vents on the far side of the crater floor, the South Pit gap on the left.

We traveled for a distance along the crater rim over plates of pahoehoe. I saw another geological survey marked on the right (elev. 13,105 ft) at 5:32 p.m. and veered that way while Gene continued straight. Dr. Robinson spotted a narrow wooden sign about fifty yards to the right. As I headed for it I had to scramble over nasty 'a'a. The sign contained the words "Ainapo Trail" and I tramped north on the footpath mostly over 'a'a using ahu to stay on track.

Suddenly, the Mauna Loa Cabin came into view! Fifty yards to the left was the set of two ahu that mark the year round watersource. During the final stretch to the Mauna Loa Cabin I walked on 'a'a and pebbles, the dirt underneath sinking with every step.

Triumphantly arrived at the Mauna Loa Cabin at 5:56 p.m. (elev. 13,250 ft). Gene, having pulled in a few minutes prior, helped me remove my heavy pack inside the cabin then we exchanged high fives! Both of us reclined at the table as Gene recited a few of the entries from the log book.

Afterward, I proceeded to the toilet to relieve myself and recognized Mauna Kea in the distance completely clear of clouds, its golf ball shaped observatories scattered about the summit. Exited the latrine, strolled over to the edge of Mokuaweoweo and shouted "Yes!" (my voice echoing throughout the crater) not as an advertisement for First Hawaiian Bank, but to express the joy of accomplishing the difficult trek up the Ainapo Trail from the Halewai Shelter.

When I returned to the summit cabin, Gene went for a quick jog and I recorded an entry in my journal. At 6:36 p.m. (55 degrees fahrenheit inside the cabin) the sun disappeared below the crater rim and I began putting on just about every piece of clothing I had brought including HTM legend John Hall's red sweat pants and shirt. John, a frequent visitor to Mauna Loa in his younger years, gave them to me as a gift, a symbolic passing of the baton.

In the storage room next to the kitchen, Gene and I discovered Randy Ching's external frame backpack. According to the permit attached to the backpack, Randy had made a sojourn to the summit cabin with a friend around New Year's. I found out on Tuesday, May 11, that he developed a bad case of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) during the trip and almost croaked.

Once fully clothed I ventured outside to fetch water from the tank in back of the cabin. Cooked and consumed Mountain House beef teriyaki at the table as Gene read aloud again from the log. At 8:06 p.m. the two of us braved the cooler outdoor temperatures and marveled at the incredible star action in the night sky. We identified Leo directly overhead, Venus, Mars, Orion's Belt, The Dog constellation in front of Orion, the Orion nebula, the Milky Way, the Southern Cross, the Big Dipper, Hokulani, Spika, the North Star, and Gemini. I went back out on another occasion, perceived the amazing stillness, and witnessed two shooting stars and a nice moon rise as well!

Gene retired for the evening at 9:40 p.m. and I hit the sack about forty minutes later.

== Paka

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