Published: March 16th 2009March 16th 2009
all set and raring to go
Surreal doesn't even BEGIN to describe the awesomeness of trekking to the top of the world's largest active volcano - a 40 mile (64 kilometres to the Canucks) round-trip to over 13 000 feet and back again. Add in all of the factors contributing to its awesomeness - altitude sickness, total isolation (the only people within at least a 30 mile radius), the silence so deafening your ears ring, 2-3 feet of snow, severe winter weather warnings, climbing on hardened rivers of lava, and the only other people to attempt the climb when we did being rescued by a Search-and-Rescue helicopter.... and you can tell it was quite the trek!!
Not only can we now brag that we've climbed to the top of the world's largest active volcano, but also the world's single largest mountain... but only if you get technical about it would you realize that about 16 000 feet of this monster is below sea level... (bigger than Everest!! ha!)
One of the main reasons we came to the state of Hawaii, and definitely the main reason we came to the 'Big Island' of Hawaii, was to trek up Mauna Loa. It all started when we found
just picture it oozing down the side of the volcano
a book - 'Hawaii's Best Hiking Trails' (circa 1991) in our favourite library in Hitchcock, Texas, for a dime. We realized that the one thing we were really missing during our bike journey was being able to go on back-country hikes, and the rest is history!
We arrived in Hilo on Sunday, met with 8 inches of rain that day, and it didn't stop for the next 3! Our plan was to have a day to get everything ready (find fuel, pack bags, etc.) and then begin the hike on Tuesday, but we were a bit concerned with what weather we might face at 13000 feet, when it was so wet and cold at 0. The park rangers really didn't alleviate our worries - the first time we phoned them, they literally laughed at us when we mentioned the hike! At this point, we were getting a little bummed out. But, we weren't giving up that easily, so we decided to go to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Visitor Center and talk directly with the rangers. They, however, seemed to echo what we already heard - there's a severe storm coming in, winds at 45mph, there's a lot of
snow at the summit - perhaps covering the trail markers, and they wouldn't go themselves. Call us stubborn, but we really wanted a taste of the mountain, so we set a compromise that we would go to the first cabin, spend a few nights, and at least get to say that we trekked half-way up the world's largest active volcano!
On Wednesday morning we arrived again at the visitor's center, looking for permits. There was a different ranger - more of a laid back surfer type - and he didn't really seem to think the incoming storm or the already present snow mattered much. Plus, the rain had finally stopped, which put us in quite a 'why not' mood. We've been constantly trying to find a balance between lazy worry-warting and stubborn mule-ish persistence, and as we were being driven to the trailhead, we both were worrying if we had shifted too much to the latter...
At 1015AM on Wednesday morning, at 6662ft, we began the trail. The clouds were way above our heads, native birds could be heard (but rarely seen) singing in the trees, and we were feeling warm in our t-shirt and shorts. The trail
at this point was pretty obvious, and other than a few built-up steps, was easy to walk on. As we trudged on, the vegetation began to thin, and the last birds were heard around 8000ft. From this point on, the only sound was that of our boots crunching lava, the wind, or only our heartbeats and breathing when we stopped. Either the first few miles of the trail were deliberately built-up for birdwatchers, or the trail makers were too over-ambitious when they began - for the 'path' soon became unmodified lava with stacks of lava-chunks set up to guide our way. Around 9000ft we reached the clouds, and dew began to condense, soaking our hair. We were feeling good though - the humidity may have been 100%, but at least it wasn't raining! Time seemed to fly (despite having to use the "Marco Polo" method of getting from trail-marker to trail-marker - one person waits at the last stone pile while the other ventures out into the clouds looking for the enxt), and 10000ft came around at 315pm, bringing us the first cabin (Red Hill Cabin), and the end of our first day. The cloud level was just below us
at this altitude, and right after we reached the cabin, the clouds seemed to disappear, exposing the peaks of Mauna Kea to the northeast, and the summit of Mauna Loa to the northwest.
After a few pictures and time to sit and breathe it all in, we set up camp in the cabin - literally (don't go thinking this is a cute little cabin with a roaring fireplace... no electricity or heat - just 4 walls and 8 bunks). Noone else was there, and we figured noone else was coming, so we pitched the tent in the middle, with mattresses stacked underneath of it. The rest of the daylight was spent boiling water from the rain catchment tanks and cooking food for supper and next day's lunch. Night came fast, and with it, a harsh cold and a beautiful starry sky. I sat on the porch, gazing and taking in the silence, when all of the sudden the silence was broken. From the attic I could hear strange scratching noises, and the occasional loud 'thump!' Now picture this - you are in a place where life, other than microorganisms and the odd fly, should cease to exist, in a
condensation on the beard
just like morning dew on spring flowers....
cabin which could be the setting of any typical horror movie, and something (or someone...) is moving around in the attic! Perhaps I was just going crazy... but Sharon heard it, too! The mood abruptly changed up on Red Hill... voices were lowered, nerves were on end, and neither of the mighty hikers were feeling too mighty. I examined the door to the attic, which seemed to be securely locked, giving me a small sense of security. However, Sharon didn't notice this, and spent all night checking to make sure the ladders stored under the attic door hadn't been... re-positioned. We hid in our tent with me armed with a 'Operation Enduring Freedom Certified' knife, and Sharon still wearing her boots (in case a quick getaway was necessary), and slept quite lightly - eyes wide open every time the scratching began again. Sharon's theory was all that kept us sane - that Lance Armstrong was up there doing high altitude training. How ecstatic we were when morning finally came, and we could leave that fearful place, where our imaginations were more dangerous than the putative bat in the attic!
While we were proud to have accomplished a 3373ft gain
we're going the right way!
and 7.5mi, we were humbled by the fact that we still had 11.6mi, a 3215ft gain, to go! After a solid breakfast of oat bran and apples, we were met with a clear and sunny sky. Time seemed to crawl by, especially since our only sign of progress were elevation markers which were much less frequent today with the lesser grade! But don't think that the lesser grade meant easier hiking - the only reason that the trail could be called such was the cairns, for it was literally a massive field of different flows of lava, biting and tearing at the bottom of our boots! At 12000ft (5 hours of hiking), we were confronted what some people accuse us of running away from in the past 8 months - snow! Such a novel thing to Sharon and I, we were happy to see it, knowing that we must be high up on this tropical island to be in arctic conditions. However, once we climbed another 1000ft, the novelty seemed to wear off - we were completely surrounded by the white stuff! Sharon's knee was starting to bother her, strangely enough not the one that hurt during the bicycle journey.
Sharon's favourite scrabble word: aa - a rough, cindery lava... finally put to use in real life. Challenge that, Dad.
I can't speak as to how much pain she was actually feeling, but from the facial expressions I saw, it must have been excruciating. We trudged carefully over the winter wasteland - a beautiful juxtaposition of fresh white snow and deep black jagged and fiery red lava. Our destination - the Mauna Loa Summit Cabin on the ridge of the Moku'aweoweo Caldera (which last erupted in 1984) came into view around 445pm, but it took us nearly an hour to reach it! What a frustrating situation - freezing in sub-zero temperatures with a strong wind whipping the last remnants of warmth away, while our salvation seems to be only a mirage!
After nearly 9.5hours of hiking, we finally reached the cabin. After tossing down our packs and apologizing to our bodies (most notably our knees, shoulders, and backs), we gazed out into the 1.6mi wide Caldera, watching steam releasing, reminding us that this Mauna Loa is still very much an active volcano. Again we prepared supper and the next day's lunch, and melted snow for drinking water. The stars shone brightly immediately after sunset, but then the moon, nearly a full moon (on Friday the 13th!) rose over the
clouds, giving a surreal sight of a moonrise looking nearly like a sunset on a layer of clouds. Sharon made a glorious 'nest' for us - all of the blankets in the cabin placed in our tent - and we actually woke up too HOT during the night - a wonderful feeling neither of us minded. Sleep was decent - the wind really howled all night, but there was no boogie-men in the attic to keep us worrying!
We woke up in a pretty rough shape - my head absolutely pounding, Sharon's knee screaming in pain, and both of us feeling generally hung over! All the symptoms were there - nausea, fatigue, headache, upset stomach - and we had 11.6mi ahead of us! We pushed on, both of Sharon's knees braced with tube socks, and me singing a song in my head to try to forget the pain. As we slowly descended, the symptoms of altitude sickness began to leave, but not Sharon's sore knees. I must say that I was solidly impressed by Sharon - she really persisted on, even though her knees once brought her to rare tears - there is noone I would rather trust to
finish hiking a mountain with! Gradually, the air got warmer, sparse (very sparse) vegetation sprouted, and the familiar sight of Red Hill came into view. Again, however, the time spent between first observing the cabin and actually reaching the cabin felt like forever. When we did reach the cabin we were faced with something we hadn't seen for days - people! A couple, actually, who spent two days to get to Red Hill Cabin, on account of knee problems, with plans to have the wife helicoptered out in the morning!
Having companions in the cabin helped us forget about Lance upstairs - whom we had told all about to the couple, and of course, didn't make a peep that night! Perhaps the search-and-rescue was called just so they could get away from us...
On Saturday we woke early, knowing that our ride (Earl from Hilo Bay Hostel) would be waiting at the trailhead at 1030. Shortly after leaving the cabin, a helicopter whizzed overhead - the 'search'-and-rescue was on! Vegetation gradually increased, birds again could be heard singing, and we re-entered the clouds. All the way was spent with little 'eeps' and 'ows' emanating from behind me, whenever
volcanic cones on horizon
just past the super-white tourists
big steps and extra rough terrain existed, but we still made it to the trailhead nearly an hour early. Of course, we were happy to see Earl and descend back to sea level and the comfort of the hostel.
The utter isolation for nearly 4 days was beautiful - being able to sit, gaze, and wonder with not even a peep to interrupt; humbling - very easy to feel small and insignificant on an 80000 cubic km volcano in the middle of the Pacific; and made me realize how important things are which I take for granted - birds singing, trees swaying, insects buzzing. It was an absolutely great experience, which I still don't believe we were actually able to do, that reminded us how little we actually need to survive and thrive.
We are off to Kauai, with more hikes planned, and a 'home'-coming is looming in the distance!
There are more photos below