Mauna Kea Squared
Approximately a 60 mile run
Course: Mauna Kea Beach Hotel to Pelekane Beach 3
Pelekane to Waimea 13
Waimea to Saddle Road 6
Saddle to Mauna Kea Access Road 28
Access Road to Visitors Center 6
Trail to just below summit 4-7
(depending on who you ask and if they ran it)
To top of sub summit pu’u .50
Summit trail to summit Pu’u .25
Summary: Brutal, Intense, Dangerous, Beautiful, Truly challenging.
Recommendation: Drop the name, keep the idea, run from sea to summit from Hilo side as roads are better. It would be safer. Any extra distance wanted could be added by running up and back some of the Mauna Loa observatory road. The run would be almost as difficult, though not quite as beautiful
I’ve been trying to do this run for many months but things wouldn’t fall into place. So when David Bonnet called me last week and said he would be in town and wanted to do it I made the flight arrangements and flew to Kona. David and I did a number of aid drops in the morning, went back to his parents house in the afternoon and slept, and were ready to go by 6:30 or so. Charles and Stella, David’s parents drove us to the start as the sun set in outrageous Kona style, and we started from the front of the Mauna Kea Hotel in the last spectacular stages of the kaleidoscopic sunset. The run to Pelekane was easy. The weather was warm and I broke into a sweat quickly. The roads were crowded with people arriving for the fireworks, and parks were filled with people celebrating the 4th.
Caption: The First Mauna Kea
David Bonnet and I touched the water at the sands of Pelekane just below the Pu’uokohola Heiau. After a few brief words and thoughts we started. Within a score of yards I lost sight of David’s light and pretty much chased him blindly from the start. It was to turn out to be a major ass whoopin.
The road up to Waimea is 10 miles of windy, sometimes narrow road side. It is difficult but not dangerous in many places. It takes some finesse to work through the tougher points. At the bottom is was hot and humid and I was hot,sweaty and wet. A half mile up the hill the Fireworks went off at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and it seemed an auspicious moment. But it began to cool with every 100 feet of rise and by the time I reached 1500 feet the temp had dropped 20 degrees, and clouds were streaming down the chute spraying moisture and the wind was blowing a good 25 to 30 miles and hour directly into my face. The cold mists that Waimea is so famous for chilled me quickly and came down so heavy it might as well have been rain. Within a mile or two I was freezing and wondering about Hypothermia. No joke, it happened that fast. One minute hot, sweaty and sucking down the water, and a few miles later my core was losing heat rapidly and I was beginning to stumble. When I reached the 2000 foot marker it was worse, the colds winds were blowing steady and it was raining. I only had on a running shirt and compression shorts. I knew if I didn’t get on something else I’d have to quit. You can not go out on the Saddle Road in bad shape because that is what the Saddle Road is famous for doing to runners. Before I reached 12 miles I was ready to call it quits. I struggled on hoping to find something in Waimea to deal with the cold. It was a real blow to a run I had wanted to do for a long time. But going farther up the mountain with cold and potential hypothermia problems would have been insane.
The Beatles could have been playing ‘with a little help from my friends’ in the back ground when my old friend Charles Bonnet pulled up beside me as I stumbled through the cold, wet, windy night and asked me how I was doing. "Not Good." was my reply. "I’ll meet you in Waimea." I confirmed as he headed off to check on his son David. Suddenly I was back in the race! I could do this thing ‘with a little help from my friends.’ When I got into Waimea ( 13, 3:15, 2000 -Miles, Hours, Feet– and all approximations) I found Charles and his Wife Stella ready with aid. I needed it. I gobbled down a hamburger, and put on a fleece jacket they had with them. I ate, talked, and just felt a hell of lot better. It was a far cry from being wet, tired, freezing, and alone on the side of the dangerous road in the middle of nowhere. I thanked Charles and Stella for the 10th time and headed back up the road.
There is a six mile stretch of the Mamalahoa Highway that heads out of Waimea to the Saddle Road. I’ve run it twice before and had good memories of it. But that was at 4:30 in the morning a few years ago. This time it was about 11:00 PM on a holiday night in a much busier Kona side. It was a busy road and I often found myself running on the grass on the side of the road or what passed for it. Fast moving night traffic is hard to take when the margins are built for bikers and runners; narrow country roads are simply dangerous. Half way through the section I saw a truck pull down a farm road ahead of me. The lights went out, I heard noises, and then the truck pulled out again. I had a bad feeling and moved off onto the verge trying to make myself small. The truck raced out of the road and back on to the highway heading back toward Waimea. Waimea has been plagued by arson and when we came back by there after the run the land was charred for miles around, much of it happening that night. I believe I saw the culprits setting up another blaze. I had reason to avoid these guys. Farther down the road a patrol man stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told him what I was doing, he nodded doubtfully and said "Look that light of yours is blinding the on coming traffic you have to keep it down." Well I thought to myself, at least they are aware I’m on the margin.
I made the Saddle Road (19, 4:30, 2200) and began that long climb up to Waikii, which is near the major ridge of Mauna Kea’s long reach. It is s a beautiful section and always a pleasure to traverse. The traffic was mostly Kona movement so it was immediately quiet once I reached the cross island road. I could hear cars coming for miles and could prepare for their passing. It was fairly safe. I ran with my lights out, the moon a large half disk with a glowing white ring around it and flooded the road with enough light to see all but the smallest bumps and holes. As the road wound into the lee of Mauna Kea the winds dropped and it warmed and dried out. It was still chilly but nowhere like it had been coming up out of Kawaehae. Mauna Kea had cloaked herself in a veil of clouds for the night but Hualalai lay to the south glowing in the shimmery moonlight. It is funny, I have run the road a couple of times and I always have to stop and tell myself it’s Hualalai and not Mauna Loa I am looking at. If you are not from the Kona area you don’t realize how gigantic Hualalai is. A run along the Saddle road changes that perception. It may be the little sister but she is big none-the-less.
Looking back down on Waimea I was surprised to find the cloud cover glowing pink. The fires were burning again. Later the sky began to glow along the coast near Hualalai, and I knew another was burning there as well. From high up on the hillside it was all very pretty. The episode of chilling had taken a lot out of me and I was moving slowly, but it didn’t really matter as it is not often that one gets to enjoy the quiet beauty of upper Kona. I pushed when I had it in me and walked hard when I didn’t. I was mostly one long hard climb. But the night was to enjoy and I made myself aware of all that was around me as I ate and drank as much as I could and prepared for the real climb ahead. I came over the ridge at Waikii (26, 8:00, 6500) and the winds were blowing a good 25 miles an hour into my face and it suddenly got a bit tougher to move up the road. It stayed that way through the high sections all the way past pumohana and did not really let up until I hit Pohakuloa and got down the line of small hills that gives way to the central plain. The air chilled and a misty rain fell for a while, and I was once again running with the zipper of my fleece jacket zipped all the way to the top.
Something big died up there in the bumpy hills at the top of the Saddle Road and the smell plagued me for miles. It was a strange juxtaposition to the beauty of the night having this deep earthy stench in the air. Every time I thought I’d hustled past it it reappeared around the next bend. Pigs perhaps. The place is alive with pigs and they are everywhere along the verges of the road and hunters may have been up here just shooting them and not taking the carcases. Or a dead cow, or many cows for the level and extent of the stench. Night Marchers I thought. But they are spirits and not prone to come out in the moonlight. The night of the New moon is theirs not when a three quarter moon is aglow. Whatever it was I’m glad I didn’t come up on it.
Just before you make the Girl Scout Camp at Kilohana you come over a ridge and there is Mauna Loa. It is a surprising sight if you are not expecting it. Hard to believe that the biggest mountain in the world, by some measures, can hide from view. But that is the game she plays as you make your way up and around the outstretched ridge of Mauna Kea. Suddenly there she is broad and long, glowing in the moonlight, the wide rivers of recent lava flows brightly reflective. I took a few moments and greeted her. She would be my constant companion for the rest of the journey. Every step I took I would find her at my shoulder. Every achievement I made she would be there at my side. My goal was Mauna Kea’s summit, but one of my greatest rewards would be to look out on Mauna Loa and truly appreciate her magnificence. One can not climb one of the sisters, without being very much involved with others. They are among the greatest volcanoes in the world and side by side they are one of the most spectacular displays of volcanic power the world has given us.
I descended the road onto the plain of Pohakuloa making my way over the last of the hillocks that ripple along the edges of the great southern ridge of Mauna Kea. (30, 9:00, 4500). The winds subsided as I dropped down into the low protective bowl of the western part of the plain. It warmed and I occasionally felt a wisp of day heat emanating from the cooling roadside. The road through Pohakuloa is nasty. The only saving grace is there is a lot of room off to the side where you can flee when the crazy mad Hilo drivers blitzkrieg their way toward their jobs in Kona. Its about seven or eight miles through the military camp and another seven or eight to gain the Mauna Kea access road. The first seven is nasty. Its an ugly area with only the beauty of the mountains that dominate. There is not much that the military can do to ruin the land that nature has not already achieved on her own. Its dry and scrubby land devoid of charm and the best bet is to just pace through it.
Stomach cramps harassed me as I traversed the plain and I just made it to the Mauna Kea park at the end of the Pohakuloa road where there is a toilet. I wasn’t so lucky the next time somewhere out on the new road, a boring section of asphalt that goes on and on. After a long slow hard hike I made it to the base of the Mauna Kea Road (50,14,5000) and began the real test of the run, the steep accent of Mauna Kea’s final 9000 feet, which occurs in a distance of about 12 miles.
I was feeling better after a bag of Doritos and a red bull at the drop bag, one of the few that I could find or hadn’t been raided by the pigs, and I began the 6 mile jaunt to the Visitors Center. It was a breeze. Just picture doing Concretes for six miles and you got an approximation of the grade. Or the road to Peacock flats comes to mind. It is a bit more representative. Some of the posted grades are upwards to 17%. But hills are my forte and David was still almost two hours ahead of me so I charged up that section making the Center in under 3 hours. (56, 16:45, 9000). Charles and Stella were there to greet me. The rangers were aware of our venture, and did not hassle us, though they made it clear that the road was not safe and the trail was the only real option to a hiker. Don’t get funky about talking your plans over with the rangers. It is a nasty place up-slope and it can get a lot worse very quickly. You are in snow and high wind country at anytime of year. If it gets nasty out there they will have to come get you.
I headed up the trail with about 17:00 showing on the watch. It is posted as 4.5 miles but they don’t count the detours the thing makes into sections of hell. Count them and it has to be at least 6, maybe a few hundred. The trail is up, there is no other way, a steep slope of sliding sand, gravel, and rock. It is endless, and the only method is to put one foot in front of the other. I quickly learned that one can not look up without getting dizzy, or down with out suffering mild vertigo. The only answer is to keep your eyes on your next step. It is the zen of the pace. One step at a time and not thinking about the long long slope that you know is above you. Occasionally in a pocket of less steep ground I would allow myself a moment to look around. Stunning. Mauna Loa so close you feel you can reach out and touch her. The saddle road winding tiny below you. The high slopes of Mauna Kea reaching high above you. The seemingly unending slope kaleidoscopic in its variations.
In the midst of the trail the altitude began to get to me a bit. Long sections were interspersed with periods of putting my hands on my knees and breathing hard just to catch my breath. Hallucinations became common but not endangering. I saw many people sitting in caves in the rocks, heard voices in the winds, saw a score of people wandering lost ahead of me, passed a junkyard worth of old farm and mining equipment. And there was the woman in white robes and long flowing hair who would appear on the high ridges and disappear as I finally approached. Sometimes it was so powerfully beautiful I had to stop and acknowledge it. I was tempted to crawl into one of the caves like the others and just sit there an stare out at the magnificence. And that is the problem. It is so easy to get side tracked, to wander from the trail to look at things, real or otherwise. It is easy to stop and rest, to sit and stare out at Mauna Loa, or up at the peaks of the many pu’u, cinder cones, of Mauna Kea. But I had a guardian angel with me who kept whispering in my ear. ‘Stay on the path, and don’t stop Mike.’, she said again and again. I did as I was told, and realized that the peace and calm I felt could be transitory if I lost the way or forgot the goal. Hell has many forms and this high land of stunning scenery could be one of them if you don’t heed your angels.
Hours later and totally drained of energy I managed to make the last ridge of the lava fields, pass around the steep slopes of the lesser pu’u and find the highest cones of Mauna Kea towering above me Observatories lay scattered across the landscape like giant piles of discarded soiled toilet paper. The quest for knowledge can occasionally be unclean, and the highest few hundred feet of Mauna Kea give proof to that. But they might just as well have been illusions, hallucinations that I saw. I was stumbling drunk from lack of oxygen and the long hard climb. I made the road that leads up the final few hundred feet and was happy to find Charles, Stella and David waiting for me. David had finished an half hour ahead of me and had waited to do the final few hundred feet with me.
The final switchback road was one of those walk ten paces, rest, walk ten paces. I finally realized that if I hyperventilated I could get enough oxygen into my system to keep moving. So, huffing like the little engine that could I just keep pushing up the road. Finally, my head swimming, and the world shimmering about me I made it to the final observatory where I could look out on the highest of the pu’u, the true summit of Mauna Kea. David and I stumbled down the trail and crossed over for the final climb. We reached to top together (57, 21:00, 13900) and gave thanks to the great goddess of Mauna Kea for allowing us entry into her realm. We had completed our pilgrimage from sea to summit. We had walked in the footsteps of our passed Hawaiian brethren and learned a bit more of them and ourselves.
David completed the longest run of his career and did so over some of the most brutal and intense ground I have traversed. If he can do this he can do any run, distance is no barrier. It is the first time he has beaten me in an ultra and he has my greatest respect for it. I’m proud of him and honor the incredible maturity and perseverance he displayed in reaching the summit.
This run was the most difficult I have ever completed. The weather was nasty, the traffic was insane, the roads were bad, my body gave me problems, and the climb was just devastatingly endless. I am grateful for the chance to complete this venture. For all the things that went wrong there were always Charles and Stella somewhere near by to give me a bottle of water or a hot sandwich when I really needed it. I don’t think either David or I could have made it without their help as our drop bag system failed miserably and the weather was so funky. They have my deepest thanks and appreciation for their help and support.
I doubt I will attempt this venture again from the Kona side. In the end the traffic is the most negative factor. Hilo beckons and the Lady Mauna Loa, has entranced me. Perhaps it’s a Mauna Loa squared, or another version of the sands to summit, but she calls and I am going to get ready…just as soon as I visit Death Valley, and help Don complete his greatest adventure.
Aloha , MN Muench