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Advice For Hiking the Summit of Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s Highest Peak
Hiking to the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii has become increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. Its attraction is understandable, at 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the State of Hawaii. Since its base is 19,000 feet below sea level, it has a base to summit height of 33,000 feet, making it the highest mountain on earth. The views from the top are indescribably beautiful, the notion of being in an alpine environment in the tropics is quite unique and quite simply, it is also one of my favorite places on earth.
Mauna Kea began to form on the sea floor about a million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is snowy most of the winter, and the top is covered with permafrost 35 meters deep. During the ice age, the top of Mauna Kea was glaciated 3 times, starting about 200,000 years ago and ending only 11,000 years ago. You can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, the striated rock, the glacial tills that cover the summit area and the remains of lava flows damaged by the ice of those times. There are also the remains of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.
The Visitor Center and summit are reached via a road that departs from Saddle Road at about 6,600 feet of elevation near the 28 mile marker and twists and turns up the south side of Mauna Kea at the Information Station of the Visitor at about 9300 feet. The road, although steep, is paved at the Visitor Center. Above this, the route was graded on the ground for about 5 kilometers, returning to asphalt for the final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit route are available at 808.935.6263.
The visitor center is open from 9 am to 10 pm 365 days a year. Informative multimedia presentations, souvenirs, and some food items are available here, as well as clean bathrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark, the center allows visitors to stargaze through several telescopes and informative talks by visiting scientists are occasionally scheduled. Saturday and Sunday center staff lead field trips to the summit, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for information. It is suggested that visitors to the top stop at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour before going to the top to be able to acclimatize.
Above the Visitor Information Station there is no public accommodation, no water or food or petrol service; observatory buildings are closed to the public and usually closed. There are no pay phones or toilets, only port-a-potties. An emergency phone is located at the entrance to the U of H 2.2 meter telescope.
Driving the road to the summit of Mauna Kea is neither as dangerous as the rental car companies would have you believe, nor as casual as many Big Island residents will tell you. True, the road to the top is not paved most of the way, it is steep and winding with limited views; the road is extremely dangerous when it is wet or icy, which is often, and is subject to frequent dense clouds, snow, rain and fog that obscure all vision. Additionally, summertime conditions can turn into lethal wintertime conditions in minutes with little or no warning.
However, the road is generously wide, regularly graded and poses no real threat to the cautious driver. The safe driver can expect to reach the summit in about ½ an hour after leaving the Visitor Information Station. Remember, it is not the roughness of the road that hinders your car; it is the elevation that hunger for oxygen. To be safe, take the time to go back up the hill as fast as you took it, using the lowest gear to save wear on the brakes. Check your rental car agreement – many prohibit you from driving this route. If you go anyway, your insurance is void, and you do so at considerable financial risk. Remember, people DO crater their cars on occasion.
If the weather turns scary, just leave immediately. Relax, be calm and drive carefully; you can be sure that, even if you have to slow down to 10 kilometers per hour in places, you will be down to the safety of the Visitor Center in just 40 minutes or more.
The summit of Mauna Kea, which houses the largest assembly of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is truly an amazing place; an alluring juxtaposition of icy heights rising from steaming tropical jungle; the centuries-old altars of the sacred gods of Hawaii alongside the buildings of the most modern science; of frigid landscapes carved during ancient ice ages alongside fiery volcanic formations; all wrapped around a fabulous journey with a little hint of danger, just for spice! Beautiful, impressive, 360 degree views of the entire Big Island including the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on clear days. The glow of the Kilauea volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures during the summer can peak in the 60s, it is generally cold to cold, often humid and very windy on the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.
The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to the native Hawai’ians, hosting many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry and numerous other archaeological sites. Remember this landscape, and the archaeological sites on them, are sacred; take nothing but pictures, leave no footprints.
Parking is limited, but the hike from the trailhead to the actual summit is a must for anyone who has ventured this far and is in good shape. A stone altar and USGS survey point mark the current summit of the mountain, about a 15-minute walk down a cinder track from the trailhead. A path that leads around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes to walk and crosses a very wild country with wonderful views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate often to help prevent altitude sickness. Do not leave the security of the car park if you feel sick or the weather is in any case – in fact, in the deterioration or in bad weather, or at the beginning of quiasiness, one must immediately leave the top and go down.
Alternatively, for those who are in excellent physical condition, you can walk to the top from the Visitor’s Center. Featuring unparalleled views, wild landscapes, archeological sites and more, the hike is about 6 miles long, gains about 4,500 feet in elevation and takes 6 to 10 hours to hike, depending on the hiker. There is no water available anywhere above the Visitor’s Center, so grab enough to get up, and head back. Frankly, many people opt to hitchhike down the mountain after the hike. In fact, for people with little time, or for whom the scenery and not the conquest of the summit are the main objectives, catching a pass to the summit and walking is a great alternative, and it only takes about 3 1/2 hours
Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit area, one that is accessible to almost everyone in reasonable conditions, is to Lake Wai’au. They park at the lot at about 12000 feet, near the 5 kilometer marker, or the lot at about 13000 feet, near the 7 kilometer marker. Needless to say, one hike is uphill and the other is downhill; but both are less than a kilometer long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper path because the view of the astronomical complex from the top on the hike is phenomenal. An absolute gem of an alpine tarn in its own right, at 13,020 feet Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world…permafrost seals the lake bed in molten tephra and drift glacier on which it is located. Is it about 300? at 150? from 8 feet deep and, yes, I can personally confirm that it was snorkeled. Not much to see here, though.
There are also a few health concerns for visiting the summit of Mauna Kea. In short: children under 16, pregnant women, and people with respiratory conditions, heart or severe overweight are advised not to go higher than the Visitor Information Station. Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before traveling to the top.
Acute mountain sickness, resulting from exposure to high altitude, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath and impaired judgment. Aspirin and lots of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is immediate and quick. Patients will notice an almost complete cessation of symptoms after recovering from the Sella. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even life-threatening, and the rapid onset of the comatose condition, or even death, can be unexpectedly rapid.
Finally, there is a severe risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, particularly 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 sunscreen rated at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce susceptibility to the sun.
Most visits to the summit of Mauna Kea are very pleasant experiences, which include easy adventures that can be mild altitude euphoria, fabulous views and a great sense of relief to reach the paved road and public bathrooms in the Visitor Information Station after leaving the summit.
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