March 22, 2003; around 5:00 pm
Ryan Cragun, Debi Cragun, Scott Morgan, Steve Morgan, Brent Robbins, & Rosemary Morgan
Honorable Mention : Suzy Robbins & Gary Morgan
As is probably the case for most highpointers, I had no idea when I was actually going to be able to visit Hawaii to do Mauna Kea. I figured I would do the lower 48 well before I had the opportunity to do Hawaii or Alaska. But, as it turns out, my wife’s parents, Gary and Rosemary Morgan, decided to take everyone on a family trip to Hawaii and we just happened to be going to the Big Island, which is where Mauna Kea is located. So, much to my joy and surprise I was able to visit Mauna Kea much earlier (and much less expensively – thank you, thank you, thank you Gary and Rosemary) than I ever thought possible.
Since I was not in charge of planning the trip to Hawaii, it took a bit of coordination between Rosemary and myself to work out all of the details. And, sadly, here I must admit that I was a bit ignorant about Mauna Kea – likely because I saw it as not being a possible hike for many, many years. Anyway, as we were finding out information about Mauna Kea, I learned, though I had probably heard this at some time in the past, that Mauna Kea is also the home to 11 of the best observatories in the world. And, most people visit Mauna Kea just to visit the observatories and never make the climb over to the highpoint – which is understandable if you don’t like the cold.
As it turns out, and me being a poor graduate student I was ecstatic about this, there is a free tour of the observatories (I say free, but I’ll explain the expenses shortly) on Saturdays and Sundays. So, being as frugal as possible, we decided we would visit the summit of Mauna Kea on Saturday. Okay, this is where I explain how it isn’t exactly free. First, you obviously have to pay your airfare and room and board (wow, big bucks $$$$). Then, you have to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle. Now, I should stipulate here that you don’t actually have to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle unless you are going to take the guided tour. Listen close, this gets kind of complicated. The road to the visitors center and eventually to the summit is made up of about 4 segments. The first is Highway 200 or Saddle Mountain Road. This road is paved, but not very well. What it looks like they did is paved a one-lane road fairly well then added about three or four feet on each side of it to turn it into a two-lane road. Well, they didn’t really do much to add the three or four feet on each side of it other than throw the asphalt onto the ground and then stamp it with their feet – it is rough, real rough, but drivable. So, you could take just about any car you want on this road. From Highway 200 you break off (near mile marker 28) onto the road that will take you to Mauna Kea. The first section of this road, about 5 or 6 miles, is really pretty nice and takes you up to the visitor’s center. Just past the visitor’s center, the road becomes pretty steep at places and is unpaved for about 8 miles (they told us at the visitor’s center that they have left it unpaved to prevent unwanted visitor’s). It is this stretch of road that gets pretty bad and is also why they demand that you have a four-wheel drive vehicle if you take the guided tour. About 5 miles from the summit and observatories, the unpaved road turns into one of the nicest stretches of two-lane road in the world. It is very nicely paved with rock barriers on both sides, which get lots of use. However, it is still pretty steep all the way to the top.
So, as for renting a four-wheel drive vehicle, we saw several cars driving around the summit. When I say cars, I mean, Toyota Corollas and such. They made it up there, but they probably didn’t enjoy themselves very much and though I’m not positively sure about this, I don’t think any rental companies other than Harper’s actually allow their vehicles to go to the summit. (To be completely honest, when we went to Harper’s to pick up our Isuzu Troopers – we rented two of them – the guy that did the rental vehicle evaluation with us told us that we could have taken our van to the summit and that we really didn’t need to get four-wheel drive vehicles.) So, you can avoid paying for a four-wheel drive vehicle if you just don’t tell the rental company where you are taking it, but, and this is pretty important, if you decide to go on the guided tour, you have to have a four-wheel drive vehicle. They actually will come check your vehicle to make sure that it is four-wheel drive.
So, to recap expenses, you can drive to the summit without doing the tour and not pay for a four-wheel drive vehicle. But, if you decide to do the tour (which I would recommend – it is free), you’ll have to get the four-wheel drive vehicle. Now, as for the tour. As you’ll notice on the site I linked to above, the tour starts at around 1:00 pm and it starts at the visitor’s center which is at about 9,300 feet. At that altitude, you’re above the clouds. The tour starts with a narrated video (the narrator was Johnny Carson, an amateur astronomer) that lasts about an hour. They want you to stay at the visitor’s center for about an hour to acclimate to the high altitude. They also have several other restrictions for the tour: you have to be over 16, you cannot have gone scuba diving within the previous 24 hours (we actually went about 26-28 hours before we climbed the summit and we were fine), you can’t be pregnant, and you shouldn’t have a bad heart or any of the other types of health ailments that typically prevent people from doing strenuous stuff. Anyway, the video is a history of the observatories on Mauna Kea and the visitor’s center is surprisingly small (see pictures below). Inside, they are themed toward the astronomy side though they do have one thing related to the highpoint – a nifty replica of the USGS marker. I had never seen these before, but they are pretty sweet. Apparently, the person making them is online and you can order one for most every state: https://www.mountainclimb.com/. So, you watch the video then hop in your cars and line up caravan style. It is at this point that the tour guide comes to each car in the caravan and checks to see if you meet the above-mentioned requirements. After that, you follow the guide up to the observatories.
Once up there, our guide took us to see the Keck observatory first. They do allow you to go inside and actually see the lenses that make up the Keck. Pretty cool. Then he took us to an older observatory, the University of Hawaii’s 88-inch telescope. They also let us inside that one and we got to go into the telescope room and the control room (they were using Dell computers if anyone cares, and, they had the soundtrack to Strange Brew in there to entertain them – pretty weird people these astronomers). The tour guide we had, Jonn Altonn, was well-informed and did a good job. The tour lasted until about 4:30. At that point, you can stay up by the observatories and watch the sunset or do the actual summit hike. We decided to do both.
Now, as for the actual hike… I don’t think I got a very good picture showing the whole distance from the road by the observatories to the summit, but it can’t be more than a 1/4 of a mile. However, the distance is not what makes this hike a bit strenuous. It is the combination of being at close to 14,000 feet (13,796 to be exact) along with close to 30-degree temperatures and a 30-40 mph wind that drops the temperature even lower. Of the 20-25 people who were in our tour, we were the only one’s who actually climbed to the summit (see the members of our summit party above). We knew beforehand that it was going to be cold, so we had brought jackets and warm clothes, but it was still very, very cold. I think my wife, Debi, was the most well-prepared – she had on a short-sleeved shirt, two long sleeved shirts, a cloth jacket, a thick rain jacket, and two pairs of pants. She forgot gloves, however, so I’m sure her hands were a bit cold, but she said she was fairly warm during the hike. My advice, dress very, very warm. You probably don’t need to bring arctic weather gear all the way to Hawaii just for this hike, but you should layer up a bunch of the clothes that you did bring so you stay warm. Also, our guide did mention that Mauna Kea experiences a remarkable winter. He said this year was pretty mild with the largest storm dumping only 4 feet. There were only traces of snow when we went up there, but some years it can dump up to 15 feet in a single storm. You may want to check the weather before you come to Hawaii. I don’t really know, but I’m guessing that the seasons follow those of North America and that winter in Hawaii is from November through March. If I’m wrong, someone please let me know. So, you may want to time your vacation to miss the snow on top, or you likely won’t be able to visit the summit.
As for our actual hike, it was bitter cold and the wind was quite strong. We all made it okay, though I think Debi did stumble once. And, just to let you know what is possible with this summit, Debi’s mother, who was 62 at the time, made the hike. On the summit, which is regarded as a sacred place by native Hawaiians, there was something like an altar (I’m sure there is an official name for it, but I don’t remember what it is). You aren’t supposed to touch the offerings, which we didn’t, but we did use the altar for shelter from the wind. Though I am not religious myself, I try to respect other religions and religious beliefs, so I hope I didn’t do something wrong by using the altar as a windbreak. Also, from the summit, you can see a lot of lava cones (there is probably a technical name for these also, which I don’t know or remember), but that is what they look like. They are cones with big craters in them. You can see a bunch of them and the highest point is actually part of one, it is a lip on the north side of a crater. I should also point out that the landscape of Mauna Kea is kind of how I envision Mars looking. It is desolate. From the end of the dirt road portion on there is no noticeable vegetation and I believe just some sort of fly that lives on the summit; there are probably some micro-organisms as well, but it is pretty desolate.
After the hike, we got back in our cars and positioned ourselves to watch the sunset. It was very pretty, but the clouds didn’t cooperate to make it remarkably beautiful. After the sunset, we went back down to the visitor’s center and looked through the telescopes they had set up for stargazing. They have free stargazing from 6-10 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays (I think, check their website). They also had hot chocolate and coffee and we picked up some souvenirs. Having experienced plenty for one day, we didn’t stay too long. The drive back to Kailua-Kona took about 1 1/2 hours (where we stopped for Taco Bell food before heading back to our condo – yum).
Most of us had headaches either on the summit or on the way down, which is pretty common and one member of our party, Suzy, was actually feeling pretty sick. But, the headaches and nausea are easily remedied with a good nights’ rest at sea level. Overall, the view and the observatories (along with just being in Hawaii) make this summit well worth it.