Mauna Loa trek en route to Palau; December 16-21, 2011

Looking for a bleak, arctic-style adventure on your way to a tropical vacation in Micronesia? Try Hawaii! Photo 1 is taken at the crater rim of Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Big Island. The elevation is about 13,200', and we're a two-day hike from the trailhead.

It's been said that nobody does the Mauna Loa summit hike twice, but Alex & Jennifer broke that rule, having hiked it in 1994, not long before Tim & Emily came on the scene. The 3-4 day trek is surprisingly challenging, for a few reasons: Foremost is the altitude -- there's simply no opportunity to acclimatize. We spent the night before the trek in Volcano Village (4000' elevation), the first night on the trail at the 10,080' Red Hill cabin (photo 2), and the second night at the 13,250' Summit cabin. The second challenge is the footing -- the hike is entirely over rough lava of varying types (photos 3-5), which requires watching one's feet on every step. Last is the monotony -- with only subtle changes in the landscape as one makes one's way up the gentle but relentless slope, one definitely needs to get into a Volcano-Zen frame of mind. On the good side, it's one of the rare places in Hawaii that's truly untouristed, the views across the Big Island and beyond are excellent (that's Mauna Kea in photo 6; Maui's Haleakala was also in view), and of course there's the sense of accomplishment when it's over.

Our hike this time was even more epic than in 1994, due to the bit of winter weather that came in. We had reasonable conditions for the two days it took to reach the Summit cabin, but that night the wind started howling, and we awoke in the morning to continuing winds, bitter cold, and a few inches of fresh snow. ("Before and after" photos 7 and 8 show the Summit cabin in the evening and the next morning.) Due to the conditions, we forewent the 5-mile detour to bag the undistinguished 13,676' true high point, on the opposite side of the enormous summit caldera from the cabin. As we made our way back down to the Red Hill cabin, the precipitation intensified, the snow became rain, and we arrived absolutely soaked. Fortunately the rain let up briefly on day 4 for the return to the trailhead. Did we have fun? Sure, some of the time. Was it an epic adventure that we're glad we undertook? Of course!

The cabins are simple affairs with 8-12 bare bunks (photo 9), but certainly more welcome than tents on a hike like this. We had a pair of cabin-mates each night: The first night a French Canadian couple; the guy was a competitive extreme athlete, but he succumbed to altitude sickness and they turned around at 12,500'. At the Summit cabin we shared the snowstorm with an enlisted army guy stationed in Honolulu and his dental hygienist wife -- a friendly couple who had come up via the rarely used observatory route and were likewise struggling with the altitude. On our last night we were joined by a career navy doctor and his son, who were on their way up but had to abort due to the weather. (We would have had the same fate had we started a day later.)

Just below the Red Hill cabin on our way down we came across an eerie sight: a sleeping bag that had been dragged along the trail for about a quarter mile leaking its stuffing, a backpack containing mostly food plus two pairs of soaked gloves, and a pair of trekking poles. No person in sight. We had cell phone reception so we immediately called the ranger station to report our findings and the GPS coordinates, then worried most of the way down. We spoke with rangers several times the next day, providing as many details as we could. We certainly hope the situation resolved itself happily. Most likely the guy (or gal) was coming up in the afternoon storm, turned around, used the sleeping bag for warmth, and finally abandoned his (or her) gear to hike out as fast as possible. We were told it's not uncommon for hikers to abandon gear on the Mauna Loa trail and head down, due to its unexpected difficulty.

Once out ourselves, we enjoyed well-earned showers, real food, and a short drive around some of the main sites in Volcanoes National Park -- hampered a bit by rain, by road closures due to an ongoing eruption, and by a few too many tourists for our taste.

The next morning we stopped at the friendly FedEx office near the Hilo airport to ship our backpacking gear home (more accurately, to our ever-present support staff on the home front, a.k.a. Hector Garcia-Molina). Having five large duffels of scuba gear, we had no desire to drag the backpacks along too. With some time to spare before our flight, we took the rental car to a large parking lot and let both Tim and Emily drive it around a bit. (We're trying to entice already 16-year-old Tim to get his license.) That activity turned out to be almost as exciting as the Mauna Loa climb!

Next: Fly Hilo to Honolulu to Guam to Palau, Micronesia, our primary destination for the trip. Palau is no secret; it's widely considered one of world's best scuba destinations, and this is a return trip for Alex & Jennifer. We've chartered a small liveaboard dive boat, Safari, for a week of diving among Palau's stunningly beautiful Rock Islands. After New Year's Eve on Palau we'll have a one-night layover for a quick look at Tokyo, arriving home in time for the start of school on January 3.

Back to Aiken/Widom Family Travel List