After nine highpoints ranging from Massachusetts to Florida, we had climbed a total of 20,715 feet from sea level. That’s an average of 2,301 feet and eight inches per peak. Now, considering that two of the high points, Rhode Island and Florida, are literally along the sides of roads, and weather forced us to drive to the summits of two other summits, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, we had actually climbed far less than those 20,715 feet suggest. Three of our highpoints have topped out at less than 1,000 feet, Rhode Island, Florida and Delaware, and we’ve done sixty percent of the sub-1,000-foot highpoints to get warmed up. Logistically, we hadn’t taken on anything challenging, though some serious winter weather made for an unforgettable summit of Mt. Greylock last December, and a burly bike ride to the highest point in Delaware proved to be far more taxing than any highpoints to date.
With this in mind and a trip to Hawaii this summer, we realized that we had our first chance to summit a more serious mountain and one of the harder highpoints to get to since its not everyday we mainland highpointers have a shot at the lofty summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island, Hawaii. At 13,796 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is trumped by only Mt. Whitney in California, Mt. Elbert in Colorado, Washington’s Mt. Ranier, Gannet Peak in Wyoming (a whopping 8 feet higher), and, of course, McKinley in Alaska. Its elevation is a serious enough factor to dissuade many from hiking and has hospitalized numerous hikers whose bodies simply could not adapt quickly enough to the thin air and depleted oxygen.
Despite its towering peak, Mauna Kea, like most of the highpoints we have visited, can also be reached by car as it’s a favorite haunt of stargazers and astronomers thanks to its numerous observatories. Many highpointers also drive the steep roads to the summit and local Hawaiians have long revered the mountain as a sacred site, as was evident in several shrines along the mountain’s flanks.
With all this in mind, we were excited and a bit nervous as we arrived in Hawaii two weeks ago. We were looking forward to hiking a more challenging mountain, and we were especially excited to knock off a peak that many highpointers take years and years to attempt due to the travel necessary in reaching it. At the same time, we also had a bit of trepidation concerning the altitude since Hawaii isn’t like the Rockies or Andes where one can actually acclimatize before hiking at altitude.
After a warm up on Mauna Loa during the first week of the trip, we both felt confident that the altitude was manageable; sure, we’d have to keep a slower pace than we like, and we’d be hiking several hundred feet higher than we did on Mauna Loa, but our bodies felt relatively good, and neither of us experienced any of the serious warning signs that can come with high altitude. The only thing was the grade of the trail on Mauna Kea. On her smaller sister, we gained roughly 2,300 feet of elevation on solid rock trails over 5 or so miles. On Mauna Kea we would hike a bit longer, roughly six miles, but we’d be gaining over 4,500 feet.
We woke at 3 AM, drove through rain, mist, and clouds, and broke through into the clear night air at the Onizuka Visitor Center. After trying not to blind groups of Japanese stargazers with our headlamps, we began our long, slow march up the mountain, quickly detouring from the road and following a serpentine trail of loose sand, gravel, and scree up toward the summit. After hiking for half a mile or so solely by the light of the moon, we were treated to a sensational sunrise.
On one side of the mountain, the sun began lighting the sea of clouds below us in dark amber hues as the backside of the mountain glowed in a deep purple haze under the full moon atop Maun Loa. Stars twinkled and the wind howled around us as we were mesmerized by the rapidly changing sky.
The tone was set for the rest of the hike; while the sky became infinitely less awe-inspiring, the day’s light illuminated the beauty of Mauna Kea itself. Unlike the wasteland of Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea was littered with signs of vegetation, at least on its lower slopes, and the mountain was covered in magnificent volcanic cones long extinct. Whereas on Mauna Loa, one had no sense of even being on a mountain, Mauna Kea rapidly fell away from us as we climbed, so we truly felt like we were ascending into the sky with clouds and ocean stretching out thousands of feet below.
Near the top, we made a short detour to a small pond nestled in the side of the mountain. Algae and ice encrusted the pond’s banks, and a small Hawaiian shrine sat atop a pile of volcanic rocks.
From Lake Waiau, we hiked a half hour further to the summit, the last long stretch laying along the road before a final few hundred meters of wind-swept trail.
At some point we'll get tired of jumping shots... but right now they're pretty fun.
The vast island of Hawaii lay beneath us and the observatories now sat below us in the many craters and ridges that mark the top of Mauna Kea.
The trip down was relatively uneventful; we had elected to stay on the road which added a couple of extra miles but which was a bit less steep and with far more secure footing than the rocky trails. We started off, running down, and we settled into a rhythm of running and walking until Abby managed to roll her ankle on a lip of concrete in the road.
While it was bad enough to have us questioning hitching a ride to the bottom, we decided to continue on, though we bagged running and leisurely strolled down to the bottom. Nine hours after beginning, we reached the car, having fielded many inquisitive glances from the numerous cars driving to and from the summit. We hiked over 15 miles with 9,000 feet of elevation change, and our legs and knees were screaming for mercy as we jogged down a final stretch of trail, by which we avoided the last long switchback of dusty dirt road. Mauna Kea was the perfect highpoint for number 10, and it immediately became our favorite peak to date.