Mauna Kea: Dancing on a Volcano

Let the mountain speak and it will tell you of its fiery origin in the pacific and its kinship with the natives. It will show you the window to the universe.

Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state of Hawai’i, with its peak towering at 13,803 ft. (4,207.3 m) above sea level. Its literal translation is the White Mountain because the summit, always protruding above the clouds, is often blanketed with snow. Native Hawaiians believe this place is sacred, as it is the home of Poli’ahu, the Goddess of Snow. In more recent times, the top is home to 13 telescopes piercing through the outer edges of the observable universe. In either case, it’s a marvel to look at from the coastal towns surrounding it and a daunting prospect for those who choose to summit.

In 1964, a road was built to the top of Mauna Kea, conveniently called Mauna Kea Summit Road. This provided “easier” access to the top which once took a day or more of grueling hikes to reach. Easy, I say, for the motorized vehicle with four wheel drive capability. Not so much for the human-powered two-wheeled bicycle. I was set to find out.

There was 14 miles (22km) and 7,125 ft. (2,171 m) that stood between where I had parked the rental car and the 13 telescopes sitting high above the clouds - all I had to do was pedal. It was still very early in the morning and the weather looked promising - clear skies and a cool 20 C. Just a few days prior the access road was closed due to unexpected snow above 9,000 ft (2743 m). I was hoping this wouldn’t be the case as I foolishly did not check the weather forecast the night before.

The first 6 miles (9.5 km) to the visitor center went smoothly. It was steep, but not too steep, as I was rarely out of my saddle - I often gauge the steepness of the road this way. The stop at the visitor center was mandatory. You must check in with the park ranger by filling out an identification card. Name: That’s easy. Destination: The top (of course), but that’s easier said than done. Time of arrival: 8:30 am. Estimated time to finish: To be determined depending on how my legs and lungs feel.

Four miles dirt and four miles paved-- that was all that was left to summit. This was where the ride really began for me. Because of its steepness and the moonlike surface of the next six kilometers most switch to a mountain bike to do this section. I, however, did not have the luxury of a support vehicle with an extra bicycle in tow. I was hoping that my Firefly all-road bike equipped with Rene Herse 38mm knobbies and 34t cassette would suffice for the challenge. As an extra precaution, I did wear mountain bike shoes since I was expecting to walk some sections. The dirt road was as steep and loose as I had read in numerous blogs, so I did walk a fair bit, but I didn't mind.

At this point, I had completely cleared the clouds and it was a stunning, almost surreal, vista. When the dirt section finally ended, I thought I'd be relieved to be back on smooth pavement for the final 4 miles to the summit. However, although the roads were in pristine condition, I was greeted with sustained grades of 18-20%! I was forced out of my saddle for long stretches and had to "paperboy" my way across the road to find some slight relief from the extreme gradient. Feeling tired and almost defeated, I somehow found a last wind as soon as I saw the sight of the telescopes shortly ahead. I made it!

I’ve ridden up a fair number of behemoth mountains-- ones that are even higher (15,500 ft / 4,724.4 m in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca) in fact - but I never felt like I was riding in the heavens.

I now see why Native Hawaiians regard Mauna Kea as a sacred place. It really is something special, and I feel honored to have pedaled up it.

Further riding