Last week some friends and I did a VERY HIGH backpacking trip. We backpacked up on the rim of Mauna Loa caldera on the Big Island. I have been wanting to get there ever since I first moved to Kona. Finally, I was able to arrange a time with my two best hiking buddies to make it happen.

Our trip began Friday night by driving to the Mauna Loa Weather Observatory. This facility is at the end of a long one-lane road off the Saddle Road between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. The observatory is quite an amazing place all in itself, but this trip was about something bigger.

The observatory is at about 11,500 feet elevation. When I stepped out of my car, the elevation immediately hit me. The oxygen at this elevation is only about 2/3’s of what it is at sea level. I immediately felt dizzy. After a few moments, the feeling went away, but when I began walking around, once again, I felt short of breath.

The solution to the decreased oxygen, as climbers know, is to stay overnight at that elevation and do short walks to begin to acclimatize my lungs to the thin air. That evening we watched the sunset from well above cloud level. Once darkness set in, the brilliance of the night sky shown above with the stars shining brightly.

 

 

In the morning, I began hiking from the observatory along the old crushed lava roadway for about a quarter-mile to the trailhead. Now, what is a “Trail” in Hawaii may not pass as one on the Mainland. Here a really good trail is over Pahoehoe Lava which is flatter and more easily “walkable” than the A’a type of Lava. 

The beginning of the trail was pretty easy…except the thin air. I was having trouble getting enough air into my lungs to keep up a very fast pace. I found that a slower pace and frequent short rest stops were the best way for me to keep going. Also, the first part of the trail is the steepest. I knew that if I got to the rim, the last few miles would be easier so I just had to plod on. 

Since the “trail” is over lava, it is not easy to find your way. There are no dirt paths to follow. But the solution is as simple as rocks. Ever since ancient times and through modern times, people have stacked up rocks as guideposts to define the route. On the Mainland, they are called Cairns. In Hawaii, they are called Ahu. Following the Ahu is easy…as long as there isn’t fog or low clouds to obscure your view ahead.

 

Once I reached the National Park Boundary, the terrain changed. The trail went from Pahoehoe to a very weird grey-green cinder. It was like going to another planet. You just never knew what would be coming next. Cinder is a fairly easy surface to walk on and a fairly well-compacted path is what develops as hikers use the trail.

After a long sweaty heart stretching walk uphill, the trail finally led me to what is called The North Pit. It is truly an amazing sight. A huge crater stretched out before me. It is mostly smooth in contrast to almost everything else I saw around me that is rough and rougher. Everything is sharp and jagged. Touch it and you may come away with scratches at best and if you fall down, it could be much more serious. I guarantee you it will hurt as I can speak from experience.

A short way ahead something totally unexpected came into view. A man-made pit about 6′ deep with beautiful stone stairs down into the base created a beautiful rest area. I have no idea who built this structure, but it was really a great place to get out of the wind and rest. After a short rest, I moved on into the North Pit.

The base of the caldera is amazing. It is mostly flat with some cracks where different layers of previously molten rock moved around and cooled creating interesting patterns. To think that I am now over 13,000′ in elevation is quite remarkable. Breathing is a little easier for me now, but mostly because of the more level ground. I know I am feeling some altitude sickness because my stomach is feeling somewhat nauseous. I have experienced this several other times at elevation so I recognize the symptoms. But I am here now and I must move on. There is no turning back now.

Shortly thereafter I came across another otherworldly structure. There were weird cones of multicolored rocks as though a small opening in the base rock opened up and small squirts of lava erupted from below. As the squirts shot out of the ground, they layered up in what is called splatter and cooled. The resulting structure is tall and not very wide like a small rock Christmas tree or possibly a snowman.

Not far beyond is another amazing structure of splatter on a larger scale with the most amazing colors imaginable. The solidified lava in yellow, orange, red, green, brown and black still looks like it is flowing and dripping. Layer upon layer building up and although thickened as it cooled, it seems to have been still flowing. How cool would it have been to be here and to see how this formation was created.

After a while, I came upon another crater within the North Pit but of a much smaller scale. It is only about 400-500′ across. Inside I saw how a large piece of a side wall might have been undercut by molten lava underneath the wall causing it to collapse into the crater where it floated until the substrate solidified leaving it at a strange angle within the crater.

 

The remaining distance to the Summit Cabin seems more of a blur to me. I am tired from the hiking and by the lack of oxygen. All I can think of is getting there and resting. I am hopeful nausea will subside and I want to re-hydrate. 

Finally, the cabin comes into view. The last few yards seem so long. When I finally get to the cabin, I found there was a large group of search and rescue teams already there. They are not from the Big Island, but Oahu that came over to enjoy a different kind of adventure. There are no mountains of exposed lava on Oahu like what is common on the Big Island. They are a great bunch full of fun and enthusiasm. We had a great conversation about all sorts of subjects but mostly backpacking.

 

The area at the cabin is fairly flat. There is a composting toilet, rainfall water catchment tank, a pit toilet, and fantastic views into the main crater. The crater is huge with sidewalls of up to 150′ high. Looking back to where we came from you can see the summit of Mauna Kea maybe 25 miles away. I still can’t believe I am at about 13,250′ elevation. There is so much land around this place which is relatively flat I could see myself at any elevation…until I find myself suddenly needing to stop and take several very deep breaths to get enough oxygen back into my body. Several times during the night I awoke from a restless sleep gulping in the air almost in a panic mode feeling like I was suffocating. I assume I might have had a bit of sleep apnea and awoke suddenly needing air.

The plan for this trip is to stay at the Summit cabin 2 nights and then descend by another route to Red Hill Cabin.  Day 2 at the summit is to be a day hike back around the other side of the caldera to the true summit of Mauna Loa. That is about a 9 mile round trip to the West side of the mountain. When I awoke on day 2, I was still nauseous and didn’t feel I was up to the 9-mile hike. My two buddies were feeling strong so they set off to get to the summit while I decided to take a different route traversing along the East side of the crater down to the South. I found the hiking to be more difficult going than the previous day as there was no trail and much of my route was over A’a lava which is jagged sharp broken balls of razor-sharp lava. I took my time and moved very cautiously because to slip and fall meant sure injury and I was alone.

At the South end of the main central crater is an opening or gap in the crater walls. As I approached the Gap, I could see it opened up into yet another crater. It is big, but a bit smaller than the middle or main crater.

Along the rim where I was walking, the ground surface became the same green cinder I encountered at the Park Boundary on the first day. It is so strange to see this cinder covering most of the ground with only the bigger rocks exposed looking like islands in a green sea. I walked along through the “Sea” wondering how and where all this cinder came from. Then a thought came to mind. What if this cinder was covering a big hole in the lava beneath. Sure enough, shortly later I took a step and my foot sank through the cinder into a hole. How terrifying is that! I could imagine falling into a hole being covered in loose cinder and never being found. I might be just another sacrifice to the Hawaiian god, Pele. Well, after that, I was much more cautious.

The next day we awoke to heavy rain and wind. Things can change here very quickly. The previous 2 days had been sunny and warm. Today was cold windy and wet. Since today’s hike was to be the longest distance at over 11 miles and we would be going directly into the wind and rain, the decision was made to leave the mountain by the same route we came in and cut short the trip. Sometimes you just need to make smart choices even though you may really want to complete a route established earlier. 

The hike out was pretty much uneventful. Each of us was cold and wet at the end and I think we all were sure we made the best decision to cut it short. I don’t know if I will ever go up to the summit cabin again or finish the route we originally planned, but I am very happy to have been able to see this wonderful amazing place.

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