Originally Posted on March 24, 2016
Hillsound ambassador, Pat Malaviarchchi, completed an ascent of the highest peak in Hawaii via cycle and foot earlier this year. Mauna Kea is a volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island and is the highest point in the state. Here, Hillsound catches up with Pat to find out more about the trip.
Hillsound: Where did you hear about this trail and what inspired you to attempt it?
Pat: The idea began after some friends and I were chatting about the biggest cycling climbs in the world. Mauna Kea has the second largest elevation gain that can be tackled as a single continuous climb (13,800 ft gain). It’s also the world’s tallest mountain as measured from the ocean floor and has more topographic prominence than K2. It was an audacious goal and I was inspired to try it in a single push from sea-level.
Hillsound: Was this a solo trip?
Pat: It was a solo climb but part of a bigger family vacation to the Big Island.
Hillsound: Why did you decide to ride and hike instead of riding the whole way?
Pat: It’s possible to ride the whole way but to be honest, I didn’t think I had the bike fitness to haul myself to 13,800 ft! Also, the final 10km of road switches from pavement to gravel, which would’ve been tricky on a skinny-tired road bike, particularly with SUVs and Jeeps going by. Instead I followed a fantastic single-track hiking trail that starts near the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (MKVIS) at 9,200 ft, a perfect spot to transition from riding to hiking.
Hillsound: Can you describe the change in landscape from sea level as you ascend to the summit?
Pat: The landscape changes were definitely dramatic. I started from a beach in Hilo, a lush coastal town that’s one of the wettest cities in the world. The road snaked through a forest reserve before arriving at a large saddle between Mauna Kea and its neighbouring volcano, Mauna Loa. Vegetation became progressively sparser until it disappeared completely around 10,000 ft. From there to the top was an amazing moonscape, made even more dramatic by magic hour lighting before sunset. The trail passed several impressive cinder cones before arriving at the summit area.
The entire climb was punctuated by change: light conditions (pre-dawn darkness to start, finished at dusk), temperature swing (20oC at sea-level, 5oC at the summit), wind (calm at sea-level, howling at the summit), and oxygen levels (plenty at the beach, sufferfest at the top!). All that plus switching from road bike to running shoes made the 13 hour effort seem much shorter than it was.
Hillsound: Are the observatories at the top open to the public?
Pat: Finally spotting the summit observatories was amazing. They gave the impression of being in a science-fiction film, a feeling exacerbated by the thin air and exhaustion! The telescopes are among the world’s largest and take advantage of the summit’s cloud-free nights and lack of light pollution. They’re closed to the public but MKVIS further down the mountain provides information about astronomy and offers free stargazing programs after dark. The night sky was packed!
Hillsound: This is your second Hawaiian volcano that you’ve summited – are there any other trips in Hawaii that you have your sights on and what keeps you coming back to this beautiful State?
Pat: Hawaii is so much more than sun, sand, and surf. I’m drawn to dense bamboo forests, gnarly technical trails, and giant banyan trees. My first Hawaii volcano experience was running up Haleakala on Maui, also from sea-level. These long trips provide a great time to contemplate the fascinating geology of the islands. A future trip will include checking out the Kalalau Trail on Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. I’d also like to return to Mauna Kea one day and, with some luck, find snow near the summit and use my trail crampons in Hawaii!