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Advice For Hiking the Summit of Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s Highest Peak
Climbing to the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island is becoming increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. The attraction is understandable, at 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. With its base at 19,000 feet below sea level, its height from base to summit is 33,000 feet, making it the highest mountain on Earth. The views from the summit are indescribably beautiful, the idea of being in an alpine setting in the tropics is unique enough, and quite simply, one of my favorite places on earth.
Mauna Kea began to form on the ocean floor about a million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in Hawaiian, and it is heavily snowcapped in winter, with the summit covered in permafrost 35 feet deep. During the Ice Age, the summit of Mauna Kea was glaciated 3 times, beginning about 200,000 years ago and ending just over 11,000 years ago. One can see U-shaped valleys and cirques, striated bedrock, glaciers covering the summit area, and remnants of ice-covered lava flows from that era. There are also remnants of an extinct glacier near the summit.
The visitor center and summit are reached by a road that turns off the saddle road at about 6600 feet near the 28 mile mark and stumbles up the south side of Mauna Kea to the Visitor Information Station at about 9300 feet. Although the road is steep, it is clear up to the visitor center. Above that, the road is graded dirt for about 5 miles, returning to asphalt pavement for the final run to the edge of the summit crater. Road conditions for Summit Road are available at 808.935.6263.
The Visitor Center is open 365 days a year from 9 am to 10 pm. Informative multimedia presentations, souvenirs and some food are available here, as well as clean toilets and drinking water. The center allows visitors to stargaze through several telescopes after dark each evening, and informative talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Saturday and Sunday center staff lead escorted summit field trips, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that visitors to the summit wait at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour before proceeding to the summit so that they can acclimatise.
There is no public accommodation, no water or food, and no gasoline service above the Visitor Information Center; Observatory buildings are closed to the public and are usually locked. There are no public telephones or restrooms, only port-a-potties. There is an emergency phone at the U entrance of the H 2.2 m telescope building.
Getting to the very top of Mauna Kea isn’t as dangerous as the car rental companies would have you believe, or as casual as many Big Island residents will tell you. True, the summit road is unpaved most of the way, steep and winding with limited sight planes; The road is extremely dangerous when wet or icy, which is often, and is frequently subject to thick clouds, snow, rain and fog that obscure all vision. Also, summer conditions can turn into deadly winter fury in minutes with little or no warning.
However, the road is generously wide, regularly graded and presents no danger to the careful driver. A safe driver can expect to reach the summit within half an hour of leaving the Visitor Information Center. Remember, the roughness of the road will not hinder your car; They will starve for oxygen. To be safe, take the same amount of time going back down the hill as you did coming up, using the lowest gear to save wear on the brakes. Check your car rental agreement – many prohibit you from driving on these roads. If you go anyway, your insurance is worthless, and you do so at great financial risk. Remember, people do pothole their cars on occasion.
If the weather becomes appalling, head down immediately. Relax, keep calm and drive carefully; You can be sure that you’ll be down to the safety of the Visitor Center in just under 40 minutes, even if you have to slow down 10 miles per hour between spots.
The summit of Mauna Kea is truly an amazing place, hosting the largest assembly of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world; The enchanting juxtaposition of snowy heights through steamy tropical forests; Old altars of sacred Hawaiian gods with buildings of the most modern science; of cold landscapes carved by ancient ice ages alongside fiery volcanic landforms; All wrapped around a fabulous journey with rumors of danger, just for spice! Beautiful, breathtaking, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island including the islands of Maui, Kahoolawe and Lanai. The glow from Kilauea volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures in summer can peak in the 60s, it is generally cool to cool, frequently wet, and very windy at the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.
The summit area is culturally and religiously important to the Native Hawaiians, containing several religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry, and many other archaeological sites. Remember this landscape, and the archaeological sites on it, are sacred; Take nothing but photographs, not even footprints.
Parking is limited, but the trailhead to the actual summit is a must for those who have hiked this far and are in good shape. A stone altar and USGS survey point mark the mountain’s true summit, about a 15-minute trail ride up the road. The trail around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes to trek and goes through some very wild country with amazing views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate frequently to prevent altitude sickness. Don’t leave the safety of the parking lot if you feel ill or the weather is just plain unappealing – in fact, when deteriorating or in bad weather or discomfort, one should immediately leave the summit and descend.
Alternatively, for those in excellent physical condition, the summit can be accessed from the visitor centre. Featuring incredible views, wild landscapes, archeological sites, and more, the hike is about 6 miles in length, has an elevation gain of about 4500 feet, and takes 6 to 10 hours to hike, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the visitor center, so grab enough to get up and go back down. To be fair, many people choose to descend the mountain after climbing. In fact, for people who are short on time or for whom the main goal is to conquer the scenery and summit, the summit and descent is a great option and takes only 3 1/2 hours.
Another amazing hike in the summit area, accessible to almost anyone in reasonable conditions, is Lake Waiau. Park either at 12000 feet, near the 5 mile marker, or in the lot near the 7 mile marker at about 13000 feet. Needless to say, one is uphill and the other is uphill; But both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper trail as the view of the summit astronomical complex while hiking out is fantastic. A perfect jewel of an alpine tarn at 13,020 feet, Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world…sealed between the permafrost lake bed of loose tephra and the glaciers on which it sits. Is it around 300? By 150? 8 feet deep and yes, I can personally vouch for having snorkeled it. Not much to see there.
There are some health concerns about visiting the summit of Mauna Kea. In short: Children under 16, pregnant women and people with respiratory, cardiac or severely overweight are advised not to go beyond the Visitor Information Centre. Scuba divers should wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before ascending.
Acute mountain sickness, caused by exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and impaired judgment. Aspirin and plenty of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is immediate and rapid descent. Sufferers will experience almost complete resolution of symptoms upon regaining The Saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life-threatening, and can lead to the rapid onset of a comatose state or even death unexpectedly quickly.
Finally, there is a risk of skin irritation and eye damage from severe sunlight, especially when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); Wear a sunscreen rated at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce sunburn sensitivity.
Most visits to the summit of Mauna Kea are very pleasant experiences, including easy adventures that can be enjoyed by the thrill of light altitude, fantastic views, and the relief of reaching the public restrooms and paved road at the Visitor Information Center after leaving the summit.
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