What You Didn’t Know About Climbing Mauna Kea

What You Didn’t Know About Climbing Mauna Kea

The Big Island of Hawaii is home to the world’s tallest mountain-Mauna Kea. Yes, you heard me right! What about Mt. Everest? You wonder. Come; roam with me for a minute. Allow me to enlighten you. Generally, the height of a mountain is measured from the sea level. Therefore, Mt. Everest standing at 8,848m takes home the gold medal. It is king! Mauna Kea is only 4,207m above sea level but when measured from the ocean floor it beats Mt. Everest by a whopping 1,355m! How astonishing! Mauna Kea measured from the base to the peak has a height of 10203m, making it the highest island mountain in the world. It is a dormant volcano located 300km from Honolulu which lies in Oahu Island, Hawaii County, United States. Due to its stable airflow and high elevation, this mountain hosts the largest astronomical observatory in the world. Currently, research teams operate 13 large telescopes near Mauna Kea’s summit. These include the infrared telescope, the sub millimeter and the optical telescopes which are the world’s largest. The astronomers operating these telescopes come from 11 different countries. However, the construction of such a facility has caused an uproar because native Hawaiians consider it a sacred mountain. In fact, no one was allowed to access the summit apart from chiefs and high priests in the ancient days.

Geology and Eruption

Mauna Kea has much-rugged appearance when compared to other volcanoes near it. Instead of a single peak, its surface is undefined with a series of black and red volcanic cinder cones. Despite its location in tropical, a temperature drop of even one degree would result in the formation of snow at its peak. It’s the only volcano in Hawaii with distinct glacial evidence.
Lake Waiau, Mauna Kea
Lake Waiau, Mauna Kea, Hawaii Photo By Karl Magnacca
It is a dormant volcano created when the Pacific Tectonic Plate overlapped the Hawaiian Hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. Mauna Kea hosts Lake Wai’au which is the single alpine lake in Hawaii. It is quite small and shallow with a depth of about 3m. It is probably as a result of melting permafrost but you can’t ignore the possibility of it being spring fed. You wouldn’t think of disturbing the cute lake because Hawaiians used to apparently dip their babies’ umbilical cords with the belief that they will receive strength and prosperity from the mountain’s goddess. Absurd? I’ll let you be the judge. Mauna Kea last erupted about 4000 years ago. However, geologically speaking, it is likely to erupt again despite its dormant state. Although not in the near future, its eruption would result in a massive damage to infrastructure. The telescopes on the summit would detect any such activity and will ensure timely warning for evacuation hence life loss may be minimal.

Mauna Kea Climate

Mauna Kea’s summit experiences an Alpine Climate. It more or else “manufactures its own weather”. It will not be surprising to find thick fog, snow, hail and strong winds during the months of summer. The summit skies are normally dry and devoid of atmospheric pollutants. This is because of an inversion layer which sits beneath the summit that separates the upper atmosphere from the moist air at the lower altitudes. The general climate surrounding Mauna Kea is classified as the Marine West Coast Climate. The winter tends to have mild temperatures while the summer has moderate temperatures. The average annual temperature is 13.9°C. July is the warmest month with an average temperature of 15.6°C. January is the coldest month with an average temperature of 11.7°C. 28.9°C was the highest recorded temperature in August, while the lowest (-4.4°C) was recorded in January. Mauna Kea has an annual precipitation averaging 14.5”. January experiences the most precipitation-2.0", while June experiences the lowest amount of precipitation-0.5" Mauna Kea commands the winds because of its size and positioning. These winds have attained hurricane velocity several times, and anyone flying through Hawaii can attest to violent turbulence. On higher altitudes, snow cover is usually present in the months of December through to February.

Climbing Mauna Kea

So you want to tackle the world’s tallest climb? The high elevation that easily causes Altitude Sickness, the steep gradient and extreme weather should be your greatest challenge and/or concern. This means it is no easy task. Mauna Kea is the only place you can cover 14,000 feet from sea level within a period of 2hours while driving. So Altitude Sickness can be a real threat. The road that was constructed in 1984 makes the summit accessible to a large number of people. The Mauna Kea Access Road is tarmacked up to the Onizuka Visitor Centre. From here there is a partially paved road all the way nearing the summit just 100feet shy.
Onizuka memorial at Mauna Kea
Onizuka memorial at Mauna Kea photo by Vipahman
The good or bad news is that you can opt to take a hike or just drive to the summit. But where’s the fun in that, huh? If you have chosen to take the hiking challenge option, here are a few tips for you!

Before the climb:

  • There is no form of transportation on the mountain. Don’t assume that you can always hitch a ride back to the Visitors Information Station (VIS). So be prepared in case you get tired or lost.
  • There is no water provided on the trail. Ensure that you keep yourself hydrated by carrying your own supply of water.
  • Confirm the weather conditions at the Mauna Kea Weather Center before you begin the trek. There are certain periods when the weather is not suitable.
  • Make sure you’re back at the VIS before sunset after you complete your summit. Darkness is real here.
  • Ensure you have appropriate clothing for both weather extremes. It can be extremely hot and you will need your sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen unless you want to get seriously scorched. Prepare for rain, wind or fog by having the appropriate mountaineering boots, long-sleeved shirt, a warm fleece, gloves and long pants.
  • Carry a compass to enable you to find the east road in case of severe weather.
  • A dust mask may come in handy in the early morning hours to reduce lung burn that is caused by the dry air.
  • Kindly register at the VIS before you hike. The forms are placed in a box next to the VIS entrance. Fill it out with all the details required and upon return, ensure you check in with the staff at VIS.
  • I would advise you to take a break of at least 45min at the Visitor Center before proceeding to the summit. Actually, it is mandatory. The effects of high altitude are not to be taken lightly. Interestingly, you will not be twiddling your thumbs drowning in boredom. The Centre normally has videos showcasing the geology, history, and culture of the monumental volcano. So you’ll barely notice the time wheezing past!
  • There is no food provided on the mountain, so carry with your belly or backpack.
  • Remember to use the restrooms provided at the Visitor Centre.

On the trail:

  • Make sure you stay on the trail. Don’t go cross-country!
  • Don’t disturb the landscape. Also no littering and no starting fires.
  • Ensure you dispose well of any garbage. Next, to HokukeaTelesscope on top of the mountain, you will be provided with porta-potties.

Can anyone climb Mauna Kea?

Unfortunately, not everyone is allowed or is fit to attempt to summit Mauna Kea. Pregnant women, children below the age of 16 years, individuals with extreme overweight conditions, people with health problems like high blood pressure, individuals with cardiac or pulmonary conditions are advised not to go past the Visitor Information Station which is situated at 9,200 ft.

How long does it take to climb Mauna Kea?

If you choose to hike, the trail is about 10km long, which means it will take you about 6-10 hours for the average round-trip considering its steep gradient.

When is the best time to climb Mauna Kea?

Summer time is the best period to attempt the summit. The weather is generally mild and friendly. Winter can get extremely windy and stormy so avoid the months of January and February.

Any permits, passes or reservations needed?

There are no permits or fees required to access Mauna Kea. The higher altitude zone is owned by the University of Hawaii and they use the approach of not-for-profit. However, a group of more than 10 people will need to acquire a Special Use Permit. People who intend to film or take photographs for the purposes of TV production or for sale must acquire a permit from the State of Hawaii Film Office. Military groups are also required to request permission and must adhere to specific rules. A permit will also be required in the case of conducting a research. These can be obtained from the Office of Mauna Kea Management (OMKM).

Accommodation on Mauna Kea

Camping on Mauna Kea

Camping on the mountain is prohibited. But you can choose to camp at Mauna Kea State Recreation Area. It is located a few miles west of Summit Road, about 7 miles to be precise.

Mountain climbing routes

The hiking trail to Mauna Kea’s summit begins at the Onizuka Visitor Centre at 9,200feet. It is about 10km long with 1400m of altitude difference to cover. The summit trail is named Humu’ula Trail. From here, you have two options to get to the summit; hiking on foot or using a rental car.

Getting to the summit by car

The Visitor Center is usually open every day of the year from 12pm-10pm and parking is always available. From the Visitor Centre, you will find a track that is mostly pebble but regularly maintained. It is meant to be only used by 4X4 vehicles. This 4-wheel drive should be a low range to counter brake failure or overheating. Drive straight ahead for about 10km, and then you will find a small car parking lot and a chemical toilet on the right. This marks the beginning of the trail to the summit which is not accessible by vehicle. Take roughly 20-30 minutes here to acclimatize before you start the hike. You may feel a bit lightheaded once you get out of the car but take deep and slow breaths, the feeling will disappear in about 15min or so. Put on your sunglasses as the UV rays at this juncture are quite vicious. Proceed for about 300metres and voilà! The summit! You’re on top of the world literally.

Getting to the summit by foot

From the visitor Centre, after taking about an hour to acclimatize, head towards the Humu’ula Trail. It begins with a gradual incline, you’ll most probably find it easy but you will start feeling the altitude change. The incline gets steeper as you progress and in case you start experiencing any symptoms of altitude sickness, I suggest you turn around and call it a day. Celebrate the accomplishment either way. If you’re still in good physical condition and committed to the summit, continue straight on. You will encounter a few level sections in which your body will highly appreciate. The summit trail is quite obvious plus there are sign posts along the road to guide you. It will get rocky as you proceed. At an altitude of about 11,000 feet, you can choose to rest and acclimatize as you are treated to a spectacular view of the second highest mountain in Hawaii-Mauna Loa. It will also be a perfect time to grab a snack, sip some water and capture some amazing shots! At about 13,000 feet you will come to a small fork, turn left to maintain the summit trail. A few meters after that first fork, you will find another one. Take a right to proceed to the time. If you want to see Lake Wai’au, then make a left turn. You will hike along the road until you reach the observatory structures. Catch your breath for a few minutes then pace yourself for the final 300meteres to the summit.

Emergency/Information Center

  • You will probably be alone all the way. If you get lost or altitude sickness gets the best of you, quickly find your way to the Mauna Kea Access Road and seek assistance.
  • In case of an emergency call 911
  • You can also call the Visitor Information Station: 934-4550
  • For winter conditions call: 935-6268

Flora and Fauna on Mauna Kea

At lower elevations, you will find native vegetation ofMamane trees and patches of grass scattered on bare soil. There are two types of native grasses; alpine hairgrass and Piliuka. and Native fern species include Kalamaoho, Iwa’iwa, and Ma’ohi’ohi too. Mint vines are also common here. Towards the summit, the Hawaiian Strawberry, numerous species of lichens and mosses tend to dominate. Considering Mauna Kea experiences alpine and subalpine conditions, very few species of animals can survive. You will find birds, insects, spiders, moths centipedes, bugs, beetles, and bats.
Amakihi split
Amakihi split Photo by Byron Chin
The native bird species include ‘Amakihi, ‘ Elepaio, ‘I’iwi, Palila and ‘Ua’u.

Hiking with Kids

Children below 16 years are not allowed to summit Mauna Kea. The farthest they can go is up to the Visitor Centre where they can learn a lot and get to participate in stargazing too.

Things to do

  • Skiing

Yes! You can go skiing on Mauna Kea. In the months of January and February, there is adequate snow cover for you to board or ski. However, there are no lifts or ski resorts. I would recommend Ski Guides Hawaii. They provide equipment, transport to the mountain and after each run, they offer a ride back to the top. You can reach them on (808) 885-4188 Website: www.skihawaii.com
  • Visit Lake Wai’au

Once at the summit, you cannot dare descend without having a glance at the highest alpine lake in the world. Lake Wai’au is blue-green in color and approximately 1.4km from the parking lot. Don’t disturb the lake or even worse, attempt to drink the water for reasons I had clearly stated above. Once at the fork just turn left. It is not a long hike but it’s a hilly one for sure!
  • Enjoy the summit sunset

Mauna Kea’s summit is essentially above the clouds because it is so high. You will enjoy unobstructed views of Mauna Loa and Maui’s summit-Haleakala. Because of its closeness to the equator, sunsets don’t last long. Ensure you get information on sunset times prior to the hike to guarantee this breathtaking phenomenon of watching a sunset from the world’s topmost spot!
  • Watch the Stars

The Visitor Centre offers a Star Gazing Program between the staff, enthusiasts and the public. It is also open to everyone and is available from 6pm-10pm every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.
Star gazing program
Star gazing program photo by Casey Bisson
Come and enjoy the constellations, nearby galaxies and other celestial bodies. You will be stunned.

Get a feel of the Subaru Telescope

It is one of the largest observatory structures from Japan. The tours are normally guided and available in Japanese and English. I suggest you register early online because it fills up so fast. Although the tour doesn’t include looking through the large optical mirror, the fascinating interior is worth every minute of your time.