The Climb

The climb to the Mauna Kea summit at night, with a full moon was, physically, the most challenging thing I ever did. Michael and I left our home in Hilo around 8:30pm on July 31st, 2015 – a full moon/blue moon night. As we were pulling off the driveway it started to rain – a steady, persistent rain. About a mile into our drive the low-pressure tire sensor lit on the dashboard, not a big deal I told myself, as it almost always happens during rapid changes in temperature or air pressure, but still….

I was driving in the rain, on the Saddle Road, then turned into the Mauna Kea Access Road and immediately went into the clouds. The road is windy and with the cloud cover the visibility was low, especially at night. In my mind I was going through all the reasons why we should not do this – two people hiking for over seven hours at night, to reach a 4000m+ summit – crazy! We drove on. We reached the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station at around 9:30pm, cars were going in and out. The visitor center, normally open until 10pm, was closed indefinitely because of ongoing protests related to the construction of a new telescope on Mauna Kea. Our plan was to acclimatize for the high altitude at the visitor center for about an hour before staring out hike. As we were taking our time and getting ready, a truck drives by, stops near our car, and the driver says: ‘be careful, the police may come around after 10pm’. Great! I was thinking it would be something to get arrested even before we start out climb. I read a few days ago about police arrests at the visitor center of protesters who were camping in undesignated areas. I was hoping we are safe since we were not camping; in the end we did not get arrested :).

Mauna Kea is, allegedly, the highest mountain in the Pacific Rim area, and with an elevation of 4205m (13,796ft) is the highest peak in the state of Hawai’i. When measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 m (33,000 ft) tall—significantly taller than Everest. It is a shield volcano, with gentle slopes made of countless basaltic lava flows, its shape resembling the shield of a warrior resting on the ground. Geologically, the volcano that produced the mountain is over 500,000 years old.

We prepared for our climb for several days in advance – rain and wind gear, layers of clothing, sturdy hiking boots, lots of water, serious gloves and hats appropriate for sub-freezing temperature, rain and heavy winds. I did this climb during the day about three years ago, so I know what to expect.

Starting the ascent to the summit.

We started our ascent around 10:30pm, the blue moon was fantastic, the clouds below us, the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa in the distance. There was no need for the headlamps or flashlights we brought, as the path laid clear ahead, lit by the moonlight. It was peaceful and beautiful, the worries of the rain, the low tire pressure, the clouds, the police arrests, the protesters, and everything else, all left behind. From that point on it was just us and the mountain, in a gentle, uneven embrace.

We hiked up for five hours straight and reached the 4000m altitude mark at around 3:40am. It was getting cold and we could definitely
feel the effects of the altitude: I felt very nauseous and Michael was light-headed and with a headache.

Besides climbing the mountain at night the other goal was to watch the sunrise from the summit. Since we got near the summit at 3:40, we had more that two hours to wait around until the sunrise. With all the high altitude symptoms both of us were experiencing, it was becoming unsafe to wait until the sunrise. We turned around and hiked down to our car for about two hours. It would have been spectacular to see the sun rising over the Pacific from Mauna Kea, but sometimes safety takes priority. This way it can be a ‘next time’. As we got to the car at the visitor center, ready to get back home, the sun was rising from the east as the moon was setting to the west – different from what would have been at the summit, but still beautiful.
It was difficult and beautiful, challenging and fulfilling, and perhaps the first crazy thing Michael and I did together. A great experience to have, two weeks before he is off to college.

Read the narrative of my first Mauna Kea climb here.