Mauna Kea via Saddle Road-M.K. Road-Main Trail

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      [Ed: Imported from Americas Roof ‘Summit Trip Reports’ forum]
      [By: markv on January 5 2005 at 3:43 AM]

      I was going to write a trip report, but frankly i can’t write anything any more dramatic than my friend Eric already did, so here is the link to his report and pictures.

      I’ll copy (text only) below, since the blog link may end up being temporary.

      Climbing Mauna Kea
      With this post, I am going to try and relate our climbing of Mauna Kea from my own perspective. It was an unbelievable trip, for me especially as it was my first time going anywhere near that high. I had previously been atop Haleakala on Maui at 10,023 ft., but I drove there. The elevation gain for this trip was about 8,600 ft. with about 13 miles traveled when it was all said and done. Some of the elevations I provide are educated guesses, based on recorded landmarks as well as specific elevations provided by Mark Votapek who had a GPS system with him. I remember specific readings at 10,500 ft., 11,600 ft., and 12,600 ft. I think all of my estimates are quite accurate, as I also have time stamps on the photos.

      Mark Votapek joined the Honolulu Symphony this season as the new Principal Cellist. In addition to being a world-class cellist, he is an accomplished climber, having now reached the summits of 26 of the United States’ highest points (this was my first that I knew of). Mark Butin is an old friend from Northwestern University where we were roommates for one year as we were completing our masters’ degrees. He is now the orchestra’s Principal Violist and a pilot. Mark is an experienced climber with, I believe, dozens of climbs above 14,000 ft. in Colorado. I consider myself an experienced hiker, but this was my first significant climb at elevation. I felt good about my conditioning but had no idea how my body was going to react to the high altitude; that part made me a bit nervous, but overall I felt confident and was very excited!

      We were joined by Greg Decillus, a friend and flight student of Butin’s, and now a new friend of mine. He was a welcome last-minute addition who wanted to come along, but did not want to make the climb. He drove us to the drop-off point and then drove away so that we had no choice but to actually climb the mountain (up to that point I thought this was all an elaborate joke). We made plans for him to meet us the next day at the summit to drive us back to Hilo. There was a possibility we would have to go back down on foot if a storm hit and the roads were closed. As it turned out, it was a gorgeous day by any reckoning.

      I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to climb Mauna Kea until I started hiking with Votapek in September. I have had a passion for hiking ever since arriving in Hawaii in 1996, and have since discovered that I also want to get to the top of wherever it is I happen to be, but I had never really thought much about this kind of trip or goal. When Votapek mentioned it, I immediately got excited and realized that I desperately wanted to do this.

      In addition to being the highest point in Hawaii, the dormant volcano Mauna Kea (on the Big Island) could be considered the tallest mountain in the world. If you measure it from its base in the Hawaiian Trough (3,280 fathoms deep) to its summit of 13,796 ft., it reaches a height of 33,476 ft. By comparison, Mount Everest (which sits on the continental crust) reaches 29,035 ft. above sea level.

      Mauna Kea is the home of the Hawaiian snow goddess, Poliahu. She is the enemy of Pele, the goddess of fire, who lives on Mauna Loa and in Kilauea, two of the world’s most active volcanos. Poliahu thwarts Pele’s attempts to take over Mauna Kea by keeping it covered in ice and snow. Mauna Kea is Hawaiian for “white mountain” while Mauna Loa is translated appropriately as “long mountain.” Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on the planet. Its volume of 80,000 cubic km (19,000 cubic miles) is so great that 3,200 Mount St. Helens could be housed within it.

      One of Votapek’s requirements for attaining his State highpoints is that he must climb more than half of the peaks prominence. Most people who summit Mauna Kea start at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, located at 9,100 ft. After a hearty meal at Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo, we drove to the intersection of the Saddle and Summit Roads (please don’t tell the rental car company), at approximately 6,200 ft. above sea level. We set out walking at 10:07 p.m. on December 26th, 2004 with a slight mist in the air to go along with the spots that were apparently on the lens of my camera. It was the first night of the full moon and even with a layer of clouds to cover it, we were provided with plenty of light; there was no need for our flashlights or headlamps the entire trip. It was a beautiful and peaceful way to begin our adventure.

      My memory of the walk up the summit road consists mostly of the twisted trees and plants that we could see silhouetted around us. Though I was incredibly excited to get to the top, I couldn’t wait to see what this all looked like in the light of day.

      The sign at 9,000 ft. made me feel as though we were on some incredibly dangerous epic adventure, though I felt confident that I was prepared for any eventuality we might face. We reached the Onizuka Center shortly thereafter at 1:00 a.m. Named for the Hawaiian astronaut who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, it sits at 9,100 ft. and would be our home for the next six hours.

      So I have heard from time to time mention of the idea of “sleeping on a cloud” and how comfortable that would be. Now that I am an expert, I can tell you that it is NOT terribly comfortable, as it is quite cold and wet. The cold was not a factor while we were moving, but as soon as we stopped, we could feel it starting to go for our bones. Votapek was snug as a bug with his winter sleeping bag which closed almost completely above his head; he snored away virtually nonstop for the next few hours. My sleeping bag is made for the tropics and kept me dry but didn’t do much for the cold, especially with the wind blowing into it; I got maybe an hour of restless sleep. Butin somehow felt a sleeping bag of any kind was unnecessary (we knew all along that tents were not allowed), so was easily worse off than any of us. He ended up rolling out his mattress on the floor of the Center’s bathroom, and figured he got about an hour of sleep. The whole idea of bivvying here was partly to acclimate to the elevation, but also to sleep under the stars. With ambient light being almost nonexistent, Mauna Kea is considered one of the most enviable locations in the world to view the stars – when there are no clouds. We were left with the aforementioned cold and wet and the incredible peace and quiet of the mountain.

      At around 5:00 a.m. I realized I would not get anymore sleep and needed to get moving to warm up my body. I went for a jog up the trail for a way, and quickly felt much better. We woke up Votapek a few minutes before 6:00 a.m. and made some tea and some Thai Spicy Chicken Noodle Somethingorother, compliments of his supply of freeze-dried meals.

      We prepared for the day’s climb and the cold we knew was going to greet us. We shed as much weight as we could, hiding it in the bushes behind the Center, and had a good laugh at Butin who easily took the prize for the most “un-cool” hiking outfit. Rust-colored shorts over green-flecked-with-purple long johns, with sneakers, gators and a purple ski tuque made for an interesting and unique ensemble. His blue and purple flannel shirt was being held in reserve as well, wrapped around his waist.

      A very friendly ranger (who didn’t bat an eye at our chosen breakfast spot, nor at Butin’s chosen bedroom) informed us that the weather could change suddenly and that there was a storm forecast for the afternoon. It was already looking to be a beautiful day and we were confident that we would be on our way down by afternoon, so we weren’t all that concerned. We hit the trail again at 7:00 a.m.

      The mind-blowing views which would accompany us the rest of the way started bombarding my senses at around 10,000 ft. when Mauna Loa came into view behind us to the south and Hualalei in the distance to the west. Several years ago I hiked around the rim of Hualalei with my friend Gary Hickling. I didn’t realize how tall it was (8,271 ft.) until this trip. It was exciting to see it from this vantage point.

      I couldn’t take my eyes off of Mauna Loa, which slowed me down substantially since it was behind us. Its sheer mass was daunting, since I knew that our destination was even higher. At one point, Votapek warned me to stop taking pictures of that mountain, for fear of making Poliahu jealous. The clouds really started rolling in at this point as well, which added considerably to the awe I was feeling.

      From 10,000-11,000 ft., the hike climbed relatively steeply over “well-behaved” scree which made each step more tiring than if the terrain had been more solid. From 11,000-12,800 ft., the trail’s incline would lessen somewhat and the dominant rock type would become the blocky a’a lava rocks. The trail was well marked with tall iron poles every 500 ft. or so.

      At around 11,000 ft., I started to really notice the effects of the altitude. I started to get quite light-headed, but short pauses for the many Kodak-moments (actually a Sony) quickly took it away. I also had occasional bouts of slight nausea, though not enough to keep me from eating. I was well-supplied with dried pineapple and banana chips, beef jerky, and several Clif bars, and ate something at least once every hour. Whether a result of the elevation, or the one hour of sleep over the previous 24 hours, or a combination of the two, at around 11,600 ft. fatigue overwhelmed me and I felt I could no longer keep my eyes open. A beautiful flat lava rock called out to me and I took a 15-minute power snooze, after which I felt a hundred times better. From that point on, I didn’t really feel any substantial effects resulting from altitude sickness.

      Votapek pushed on while Butin and I rested. I caught up to him again at 12,600 ft. where he had stopped to rest. One of the sights in these parts is Lake Waiau at 13,020 ft. Votapek didn’t think he would have the energy to make that side trip so I decided to increase my pace so that I could see the lake and then get back to the main trail in time to meet up with the Marks.

      I had a bottle of gatorade which I was holding in reserve for the final push and drank half of it at about this time. It energized me immediately and I made good time to the lake. My first views of the summit also helped to lighten my steps. Of course this is all relative, as the hum off my shirt was quite a bit stronger than my legs by this time.

      Lake Waiau sits at 13,020 ft. and is fed by a melting layer of permafrost. In a pinch it could have been a source of drinking water for us with no need to filter it, but I had plenty left in my pack. The lake was an incredible sight and I ran down into the small depression to get a closer look and to get my first view and feel of snow; this was as close as I will likely ever to come to having a white Christmas here in Hawaii.

      I ran back to the main trail to be sure that I met up with the other guys, but couldn’t see any sign of them. I began to think that they were ahead of me while drinking the rest of my gatorade. Votapek then appeared on the trail and informed me that Butin had cut across to the Summit Road to (he thought) hitch a ride. His foot had begun hurting along the way, and I think favoring that initial pain caused it to extend to his hamstring and knee. He was not feeling good at all. I was familiar with his incredible determination is so I knew it was serious. I was sorry he would not be with us the rest of the way and hoped he was ok; he had shed his pack along the trail soon after leaving the Onizuka Center, so was low on food and water.

      Votapek made the short trip to the crest overlooking Lake Waiau. We could at that point see some traffic along the Summit Road and Votapek thought he had even seen a car that could have been Greg on his way up to meet us, so the two of us continued on along the trail, feeling that Butin would be ok but upset that he was no longer with us. Our first views of the telescope arrays greeted us soon after.

      At the same point, I saw the first snow that was suitable for making snowballs and waited for my victim to approach along the trail. Votapek did not want to participate in my snowball fight, so I opted to kill some lava rocks instead. Apparently high altitude affects your aim and my throws were pretty pathetic. It was easy to hit a rock, just maybe not precisely the one I was aiming for. In hindsight, Votapek would have had nothing to worry about.

      Our trail intersected the Summit Road at about 13,200 ft. We were directly below the telescopes and almost at our goal! At this point, our path took us along the final switchbacks of the Summit Road. To my complete and utter dismay, I looked down and realized that I could have driven the whole way up on a perfectly good road!

      I finally reached Pu’u Kea where Greg greeted me with a big hug. He later let me know that he had immediately regretted it (my aforementioned shirt). I had a few minutes to sightsee before Votapek arrived, so took in the unbelievable views that stretched out in every direction. I couldn’t resist getting my picture taken with the telescope shared by Canada, France, and Hawaii on Pu’u Kea. (“Pu’u” is the Hawaiian word for “peak.” Pu’u Kea is the peak upon which sit the telescopes. The actual highpoint of Mauna Kea is a 1/4-mile hike from there on Pu’u Wekiu, 96 ft. higher than Pu’u Kea.).

      Votapek soon joined us and we headed for Pu’u Wekiu, joined now by Greg. I was so excited and ran as much as my fatigue would allow. We finally reached the summit of Mauna Kea together at 1:08 p.m. on December 27th, 2004. I can’t recall ever feeling such a huge sense of accomplishment. It is traditional to leave an offering for Poliahu. I had been planning on leaving some pineapple but for the last couple of hours had been thinking that I really didn’t want to part with any of my remaining food. I left her my puka shell necklace instead. Votapek left her some chocolate, hoping she wouldn’t have a problem with the wrappers. We later learned that offerings are to be limited to fruits, flowers, and other “greenery.” We hoped we hadn’t offended Poliahu or the ali’i, but we did mean well. After all, what woman wouldn’t be happy with chocolate and jewelry?

      The temperature read 0 deg. C (32 deg. F), but the wind chill was quite severe. We didn’t dally because we had to get down to Butin, who we knew would likely be cold and dehydrated (and as it turned out, quite angry/upset/belligerent – we almost thought we had stopped for the wrong guy).

      It goes without saying that this adventure was one of the highlights of my life, made even more special by perfect companions. The only disappointment was that Mark Butin wasn’t able to summit with us. Insult was added to injury, as we learned that he had kept walking along the Summit Road without hitchhiking, but fell (not literally) short of the summit by about 700 feet. Had I been in his place, I know I would have felt better had I stopped about 1,000 feet lower; to be so close had to have been incredibly frustrating for him. We will do this again though, and maybe take on Mauna Loa at the same time. I am not ready for Everest (I would insert “yet” here except that I do not want to upset my mother), but this trek has definitely ignited my desire to reach more of the world’s heights.

      That evening we ate a ton of food (and a few beverages) in Hilo, first at Shooters and then at Uncle Billy’s Steak House, and then slept soundly for about twelve hours. We hit Ken’s House of Pancakes again for breakfast the next day and headed off for a quick tour of Kilauea at Volcanos National Park. What an awesome sight! It’s hard to believe that anything could hold back the power of Pele as demonstrated at Kilauea, but Poliahu seems to be doing a good job of it.

      We headed back to Honolulu that afternoon, ably captained by Mark Butin and co-piloted by Greg. Beautiful views of the Islands accompanied us the whole way back. I have to say that my perspective of, and connection to the mountains and landscape around me has completely changed now that I have been on top of my world here in Hawaii nei.

      December 30, 2004 in Outside | Permalink

      Happy New Year Eric. Very dramatic coverage of our hike, i must say. I was too whipped during the whole hike to have been aware of half of what you recall, so reading this account is like being there for the first time! If you’ll allow me 2 minor corrections…

      1) I’m so NOT an accomplished climber! I’ve done a handful of real climbs like Rainier, Hood, Borah, and some other adventurous winter peaks, but many of the 26 state highpoints i’ve done have been simple hikes…a few have been within sight of the car even. Maybe i’ll get closer to being an accomplished hiker when i finally can remember how to put on a climbing harness.

      2) I’m not climbing half the elevation of each mountain. (That would require hiking across the entire state of Kansas, and then some.) I’m climbing half the _prominence_, which in short is how far a mountain sticks up from its key saddle. This saddle can sometimes be hundreds of miles away, but it’s a difference that basically means i climb up real mountains but don’t have to walk that far to reach highpoints like Nebraska’s Panaroma Point and Iowa’s Hawkeye Point. It just so happens that with Mauna Kea, its saddle is the ocean, so the prominence and elevation are the same.

      I’ll be posting my much more staid account of the hike in the next few days at If you’re interested in reading about other states’ highpoints, that’s also THE place to go.

      Cheers, and thanks for (seemingly?) not minding that i hike so slowly.

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