Mauna Loa

Big Island route map

Tuesday, February 25 topographic map of Mauna Loa summit

ne makes an end-around the east side of Mauna Loa to get from Volcanoes National Park to the north side of the mountain. As I drove through Hilo, the large and often soggy city on the east coast of Big Island, I realized that it was nearly destroyed in 1984 by a lava flow from Mauna Loa. From Hilo I drove west on the Saddle Road that bisects Big Island.

Saddle Road is aptly named as it crosses, east-to-west, the saddle formed by Mauna Loa to the south and Mauna Kea to the north. It is a beautiful drive that climbs to perhaps six or seven thousand feet at Big Island's very center. It then descends as you drive farther west towards the Kona coastline.

At about mile marker 28 I turned left (south) onto the unmarked Observatory Road that heads uphill for eighteen miles to a weather station on the bleak north slopes of Mauna Loa. It is marginally paved and demands your driving attention - particularly since it is in general not broad enough for passing traffic.

I arrived at a small parking lot at 11:45 a.m. with the aim of a short day hike to assess my level of acclimatization for the following day's climb to the summit. Sleeping overnight would further acclimatize me to the moderately high altitude of 11,150 feet. The chill night air would be invigorating after the heat and humidity of Hilo.

I packed my rucksack as always - with sufficient clothing, extra food and headlamp, as if some emergency might force me to overnight on the mountain without a tent. Off I went at 12:10 p.m. - finding a climbing route that was marked by enormous cairns every hundred or two hundred feet. I felt wonderfully fit for the altitude and began to conceive of actually going right for the summit instead of waiting until the following morning.

snow on Mauna Loa
The snow assumes interesting shapes as it
slowly melts near the summit of Mauna Loa.
Note the overhanging patch in picture center.

Yet I realized that most people take five or six hours for this ascent, and almost an equal duration for the return, a dawn-to-dusk experience. Starting at high noon required that I carefully time my ascent and summit siesta: I decided that, should I actually reach the summit, I must turn around by 4 p.m. to ensure that I complete my descent before total darkness set in some forty-five minutes after sunset.

I really pushed myself. The climb was largely over angled slabs of pahoehoe rock - ropy blobs of lava that have long since solidified into black igneous rock. Sometimes I would find myself on the more difficult 'a'a rock with its characteristic "clinking" sound as I walked atop.

The scenery was surreal - angled fields of ropy, twisted rock formations without a hint of vegetation in sight. Azure blue skies above a sea of cumulus that buried both east and west coastlines. Had snow not entered the picture I could be forgiven for thinking this was the moon.

With snow becoming a factor about halfway up the route, I used my glacier glasses to prevent snow blindness. The snow was never really a hindrance since it occurred in patches and was not more that a few to several inches deep. It proved easier to walk on snow rather than zigzag my way through difficult 'a'a rock.

I reached the summit at 3:25 p.m. - a remarkably fast time of 3 hours 15 minutes. There had been several false summits that inevitably disappoint as you surmount them only to find a higher point farther still. The temperature was perhaps freezing with a slight wind and rare gusts to 20 or 30 miles per hour. Cold but certainly tolerable with adequate clothing.

I was tired. Given my self-imposed 4 p.m. limit, I had just thirty-five minutes for some lunch, wonderful views, and photos of the vast summit caldera. My lunch included a sweet and salty high energy bar, plus chocolate cheesecake with dried mango and macadamia nuts. I enjoy eclectic food and unusual yet tasty food combinations.

Mauna Loa summit caldera
The summit of Mauna Loa contains a vast caldera
with walls of several hundred feet in places.
View north from the highest point
on the summit rim - 13,677 feet.

The summit caldera, Mokuaweoweo, was an awesome panorama. The caldera walls were sheer with nearly vertical drops of several hundred feet along most of the perimeter. The caldera floor was filled with snow in what appeared at first to be an ordered pattern that I could not explain. Someday I would like a return visit to Mauna Loa so as to walk on the caldera floor itself. There was no time for that today.

I was down by 6:40 PM - after sunset but before total darkness - and just as planned. It had been quite an effort given the late start.

This observatory route up Mauna Loa is claimed by guide books as being "very difficult" and that you "need to be acclimatized like an Andean".

I disagree.

It was equivalent to climbing a Colorado 14er, "fourteeen thousand foot mountain", in the late spring with patches of snow above 12,500 feet. Furthermore the gigantic cairns spaced every 100-200 feet made navigation easy. With some standing five or six feet tall, I had never seen cairns anywhere as consistently large as on this route.

One danger unique to this route and other hikes in Volcanoes National Park is that a heavy person can easily break through the lava tube's surfaces and fall through several inches before stopping - but no farther - an annoyance that could lead to minor injury. I'm glad that I am so light - I never had this problem: although I heard the crackle of rock under my feet, I never actually broke through.

As I prepared to take a short nap and make supper a pair of climbers arrived in their car. We exchanged stories about this-and-that mountain, and then shared some food. Their hot, chocolate-flavored chai tea was quite welcome in the gathering evening chill. I enjoyed my Japanese soba noodles with a spicy black bean and garlic sauce - plus grated, aged parmesan cheese for added flavor and protein.

The starry night was most peaceful - a brilliant display of Milky Way, and Orion the Hunter, set against the jet black sky one only finds in lonely and distant places. Sitting on the center stripe and curled up in my parka, I watched the stars dance and shimmer.

previous page - Big Island and Volcanoes next page - South Point