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Advice For Hiking the Summit of Mauna Kea – Hawaii’s Highest Peak

The hike to the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii is becoming increasingly popular with visitors to Hawaii. Its attraction is understandable, at 13,796 feet above sea level, the summit of Mauna Kea is the highest point in the state of Hawaii. As its base is 19,000 feet below sea level, its height from base to summit is 33,000 feet, making it the tallest mountain in the world. The views from the top are indescribably beautiful, the idea of ​​being in an alpine setting in the tropics is unique enough, and quite simply, it’s also one of my most favorite places on earth.

Mauna Kea began to form at the bottom of the sea about a million years ago. Its name means “White Mountain” in the Hawaiian language and it is snow-capped for much of the winter, and the summit is covered in permafrost 35 feet deep. During ice ages, Mauna Kea’s summit was glaciated 3 times, beginning about 200,000 years ago and ending only 11,000 years ago. One can see the U-shaped valleys and cirques, the striated bedrock, the glacial tills covering the summit area and the remnants of ice-cursed lava flows from that era. There are even remnants of extinct rock glaciers near the summit.

The visitor center and summit are accessible by a road that leaves Saddle Road at approximately 6600 feet elevation near the 28 mile marker and stumbles torturously up the south side of Mauna Kea to the tourist information station at approximately 9300 feet. The road, although steep, is paved to the visitor center. Above this the road is dirt for about 8km, returning to asphalt for the final sprint to the rim of the summit crater. Road conditions for the summit route are available at 808.935.6263.

The Visitor Center is open from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. 365 days a year. Informative multimedia displays, souvenirs and some food items are available here, as well as clean restrooms and drinking water. Every evening after dark, the center allows visitors to observe the stars through several telescopes, and briefing lectures by visiting scientists are sometimes scheduled. Center staff on Saturday and Sunday run escorted field trips to the summit, but visitors must provide their own vehicle. Call 808.961.2180 for more information. It is suggested that visitors to the summit stop at the Visitor Center for at least half an hour before heading to the summit so they can acclimatize.

Above the tourist information post, there is no public accommodation, no water or food, and no gas service; the observatory buildings are closed to the public and generally locked. There are no payphones or restrooms, only port-a-potties. An emergency telephone is located at the entrance to the U of H 2.2 meter telescope building.

Driving the Summit Road to the top of Mauna Kea is neither as dangerous as rental car companies want you to believe, nor as relaxed as many Big Islanders will tell you. Admittedly, the summit route is unpaved most of the way, steep and winding with limited view shots; the road is extremely dangerous when wet or icy, which is often the case, and subject to frequent dense clouds, snow, rain and fog obscuring all vision. Plus, mild summer conditions can turn into deadly winter rages in minutes with little or no warning.

However, the road is generously wide, regularly graded and poses no real threat to the careful driver. The careful driver can expect to reach the summit in about ½ hour after leaving the tourist information station. Remember that it is not the roughness of the road that will hinder your car; it is the elevation that will deprive it of oxygen. To be on the safe side, take as much time coming back down the mountain as you took going up, using the lowest gear to save brake wear. Check your car rental agreement – many prohibit you from driving on this road. If you go anyway, your insurance is void and you run a considerable financial risk. Don’t forget that people crater their cars on occasion.

If the weather gets awful, get off immediately. Relax, be calm and drive carefully; you can be sure that even if you have to slow down to 10 miles per hour in places, you’ll be safe at the visitor center in just about 40 minutes.

The summit of Mauna Kea, home to the largest assemblage of astronomical instruments and telescopes in the world, is truly an amazing place; a seductive juxtaposition of icy heights rising from the steaming tropical jungle; centuries-old altars of sacred Hawaiian gods sit side by side with the most modern science buildings; icy landscapes sculpted during ancient ice ages alongside fiery volcanic landforms; all around a fabulous trip with a little rumor of danger, just to spice it up! Beautiful awe-inspiring 360 degree views of the entire Big Island also include the islands of Maui, Kaho’olawe and Lana’i on a clear day. The glow of Kilauea Volcano can be seen on clear nights. Although daytime temperatures during the summer can peak in the 60s, it is generally cold to freezing, often wet and very windy at the summit. Plan and dress accordingly.

The summit area is also culturally and religiously important to native Hawaiians, home to many religious Heiau, an obsidian adze quarry, and many other archaeological sites. Remember that this landscape and the archaeological sites within it are sacred; only take pictures, don’t even leave fingerprints.

Parking is limited, but the hike from the top of the road to the actual summit is a must for anyone who has ventured this far and is in good shape. A stone altar and USGS survey point mark the actual summit of the mountain, about a 15 minute walk down an ash trail from the top of the road. A trail leading around the summit crater takes about 30 minutes to walk through very wild country with stunning views. Be sure to bring plenty of drinking water and hydrate frequently to avoid altitude sickness. Do not leave the security of the parking lot if you feel unwell or if the weather is uncertain – indeed, in bad or bad weather, or if you feel unwell, you must leave the summit immediately and descend.

Alternatively, for those in excellent physical condition, one can walk to the top from the visitor center. With unparalleled views, rugged landscapes, archaeological sites and more, the hike is approximately 6 miles long, gains approximately 4,500 feet in elevation, and takes 6-10 hours to get up, depending on the hiker. There is no water available above the visitor center so take enough to get up and down. Frankly, many people choose to hitchhike down the mountain after hiking. In fact, for people short on time, or for whom the scenery and not conquering the summit is their main objective, a hike to the top and down is a great alternative and only takes about 3.5 hours.

Another absolutely stunning hike in the summit region, accessible to almost anyone under reasonable conditions, is Wai’au Lake. Park either in the field at about 12,000 feet near the 5 mile marker or in the field at about 13,000 feet near the 7 mile marker. Needless to say, one hike is uphill and the other is uphill; but both are less than a mile long and have similar elevation changes. I prefer the upper trail because the view of the astronomical complex from the summit while hiking is phenomenal. An absolute gem of an alpine tarn in its own right, at 13,020ft Lake Wai’au is one of the highest permanent lakes in the world…permafrost seals the lake bed in loose tephra and glacial drift on which it rests. It’s about 300? by 150? by 8 feet deep and, yes, I can personally guarantee it was snorkeled. Not much to see there, though.

Visiting the summit of Mauna Kea also poses some health concerns. In short: children under the age of 16, pregnant women and people with respiratory or cardiac problems or who are severely overweight are advised not to climb higher than the visitor information post. Divers should wait at least 24 hours after their last dive before heading to the top.

Acute mountain sickness, resulting from exposure to high altitudes, includes nausea, headache, drowsiness, shortness of breath, and poor judgment. Aspirin and plenty of water are palliatives for altitude sickness, but the cure is an immediate and rapid descent. Sufferers will notice an almost complete cessation of symptoms upon resuming The Saddle. Altitude sickness can be dangerous, even fatal, and the rapid onset of a comatose state, or even death, can be surprisingly fast.

Finally, there is a significant risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, especially when there is snow on the ground. Be sure to wear sunglasses rated for at least 90% IR and 100% UV (both UVA and UVB); wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Long sleeves and pants help reduce susceptibility to sunburn.

Most tours to the summit of Mauna Kea are extremely enjoyable experiences, encompassing easy adventures that can present a mild euphoria at altitude, fabulous views, and a great sense of relief upon reaching the paved road and public restrooms at the checkpoint. visitor information after leaving the summit.

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