In September, Miss Fortune was on my side and I had the pleasure of spending 23 warm, beautiful days in the Kona and Waikoloa areas of The Big Island, Hawaii. It was great, the beach was only a 5 minute walk from the hotel so I went swimming nearly every day. I went freediving and snorkeling for the first time and even got to swim next to a sea turtle!
Since I love hiking, I began researching trails right away and two hikes caught my attention – the Waipio Valley and Mauna Kea.
Why Mauna Kea?
Because, it is Hawaii’s tallest mountain at 13,796 feet tall.
Although this wouldn’t be the longest hike, nor the most elevation gain, it would be the highest summit I have attempted. I’m used to gaining thousands of feet of elevation on steep trails, it’s what I love to do!
But I overlooked some important points which in retrospect seem ridiculously obvious.
Hiking Mauna Kea
It is recommended that you hang out for at least 30 minutes at the VIS to adjust to the altitude. Be sure to fill out the hiker registration card, it’s not mandatory but if you get lost or injured it will help them gauge when to send help and who to call (family/friend). You can also pick up snacks and souvenirs.
The first part of the trail is a simple gravel and dirt road, then you follow the trail signs. As you get higher up, whole sections become chunky lava rock. The entire trail is exposed, so be sure you have sun protection – hat, sunscreen, chapstick. Also, don’t rely on your cell phone because coverage is extremely spotty the whole way and non-existent in some places.
I hiked the trail in my Vibram Five Fingers Spyridon LS but the VIS recommends boots with good ankle support.
What Went Wrong
- Started too late in the day. I was tired from working an early morning schedule during the week, plus the hike at Waipio Valley the day before. So, I slept through my 5:00 AM alarm and didn’t step foot on the trail until 11:02 AM.
- Underestimated food and water requirements. I didn’t eat much of a breakfast and only had a small snack on the way to the VIS. By the time I reached the point where the trail meets the road, after hours of hiking, I was out of food and nearly out of water.
- Underestimated my hiking fitness. I have been working out and losing weight. But I haven’t been able to consistently hike and I’ve been at low elevations since last December. Snorkeling for several hours on Monday, hiking Waipio Valley on Tuesday and then attempting Mauna Kea on Wednesday was not smart. I’m not invincible nor infallible.
- Showed signs of altitude sickness. My voice started to get rough and thick sounding, my head started to hurt a bit and my hands swelled up a little. I only pushed a little further to reach the intersection with the road. Altitude sickness can become serious quickly, so other than exhaustion that’s the primary thing that kept me from going the final leg to the summit.
- Caught out in the dark. Shortly after making it to the road and starting down hill, the sun set and I had to walk in the dark. The road had no street lights because the whole island follows strict light restrictions so the city glow doesn’t interfere with the observatories. The moon and stars were the only light I had other than the occasional passing vehicle. The battery on my phone was too low to use as a flashlight, I was conserving it in case I had to make an emergency call.
From where I started, the road down to the VIS was about 6 miles long. Only a few drinks of water remained in my big water bottle and my CamelBak was drained. Luckily, a Ranger pulled over to chat with me and see if I was OK. He gave me a small bottle of water which was much appreciated! (In the unlikely event you’re reading this – Thank you, sir!) He said he had to do his rounds up on the summit but when he drove down he’d keep an eye out for me.
Shortly after that is when it got dark. I was so dead tired with painfully sore legs, I had to stop and rest going down hill. It was sad.
After a couple hours walking down in the dark, a small tour bus of Japanese tourists pulled over and the driver asked me if I was OK and please get in for a ride because walking in the dark is dangerous. I was very grateful. When I stepped in everyone smiled and waved and started murmuring in Japanese. I probably looked like a big, dumb idiot and I’m sure I smelled funny too. I took a seat on the floor, with my feet on the steps near the door and chatted a bit with the driver. When he dropped me off at the VIS, I offered him a big tip which he turned down. Hopefully, I didn’t offend him. He said, “No, no, no…this is doing good.” I thanked him a bunch and slowly, painfully walked to my car for the hour long drive home. (If you’re reading this – Domo arigato gozaimasu!)
Hiking Mauna Kea was an interesting experience. Definitely not how I wanted things to turn out but it is a good lesson in how not to do it.
Visit Mauna Kea Visitor’s Information Station to learn more about hiking Humu’ula Trail to the summit of Mauna Kea. If you have no interest in hiking Mauna Kea but you enjoy astronomy or just star gazing, the VIS is a great place to visit. You can even take tours of the giant telescopes at the summit.