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Climbing Mauna Kea


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Climbing Facts

State Hawaii
Highest Peak Mauna Kea
Elevation 13,803 feet (4,207 metres)
First recorded ascent Goodrich 1823
Vertical Gain Visitor Information Station 4,638 feet (1,413m)
Total Distance (One-way) 6.58 miles (10.6km)  
Estimated hiking time 5hrs up : ~3hrs down
Difficulty Medium
Required Maps Oahu roadmap
Nearest town Hilo ~43miles (1.5hrs) or Waikoloa ~56m (1.5hrs)
GPS Co-Ordinates N19 49.247 W155 28.087
Date climbed March 2014


Hawaii - Mauna Kea

| About Mauna Kea|

There can't be too many mountains around the world where you can be sitting on the beach in bathers in the morning and two hours later be standing on the summit of a 13,000+ foot mountain, with snowdrifts still clinging to the mountainside of a lunar like landscape. And all this in the middle of summer.

Hawaii Island, the largest of the Hawaiian islands, is effectively two giant volcanos merged together over millions of years of volcanic eruptions. Nearby Mauna Loa at 13,250 feet (4039 metres) is just marginally lower than Mauna Kea. Mauna Loa is still active, with lava flows on the southern flanks of the island, while Mauna Kea has been dormant for several thousand years.

However both peaks dominant the landscape and are visible from virtually anywhere on the island. Making Mauna Kea even more interesting are a number of observatories and telescopes scattered around the summit. Renowned as a world class observatory, there are a couple of commercial operators who organise star gazing tours as part of a trip to the summit. Manua Kea is renowned for it's cloudless days and nights and minimal precipitation.

| Getting to Mauna Kea|

Getting to Mauna Kea is really easy. There is a road all the way to summit, leaving just a few hundred yards of walking to reach the actual summit proper.Getting to the summit base is also straight forward. The 2-4 lane Saddle Road runs straight across the centre of the island. Manua Kea Access Road on the left is pretty easy to find, about half along Saddle Road. At the turn-off is a small car park on the right (heading East-West), and the access road is marked. There is a large blue sign just as you turn right, indicating the Visitor Information Station 6 miles further on.

| Climbing to Mauna Kea|

From the Visitor Information Station, there are two routes up the mountain:

1. Drive the roughly 8 mile (12.87km) road to the summit; or

2. Walk the 6.58 miles (10.6km) trail to the summit.

We opted to take the short-cut and hike, however it's worth discussing the driving route quickly.

Driving to the Summit

Numerous guides, online forums etc recommend that only a 4WD will get to the summit. Insurance companies won't cover you etc etc etc.

However, the road to the summit is very doable in a 2WD. There must have been 15-20 cars on or around the summit area while we were up there, and at least a quarter of them were regular 2WDs. The first 5 or so miles of the road beyond the Visitor Station is dirt, and there are a few bumpy bits, however if you take it slow there really should be no problems getting to the summit.There is a short section when the road is a rough. Perhaps if it was pouring with rain or covered in snow, a 4WD is the way to go, however the road is often closed during bad weather anyway. From the 5 mile point onward, to the summit the road is good bitumen.

Visitor Information Station

We begun our ascent of Mauna Kea just before 8am from the Visitor Information Station. The station is open all year round from 9am to 10pm. There are toilets here, a few souvenirs, but most useful is a pretty good hiking map. While the map is only approximate in scale, it does give you a good overview of where you are going. We had visited the station before to check things out, hence were ready to go right on 8am.

The Visitor Station website (click here) contains additional information including the current temperature, wind speed and whether the road is open/closed. It's also worth checking out the Mauna Kea Weather Center for upcoming weather conditions.

Hiking to the Summit

At 8.05am we were off.

Temperature: 59F (15C)
Wind speed: 29mph on summit (-1.79C)
Elevation of Visitor Station: 9165 feet (2793 metres)

The first 90 minutes of walking is the steepest part of the entire hike, gaining 450 metres (to 3300m) over 2.7km. The trail climbs the back of the first mini-crater, forming one of the many which sprout up on the main volcano. There is still a reasonable amount of vegetation at this height, which will soon give away to a lunar landscape, devoid of any living plants, and instead covered in a dry dusty red dirt, and sharp volcanic rocks. It's really hard to describe the landscape, other than to say that all the movies depicting the surface of Mars could well have been filmed on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

At approximately 2 miles (3.3km) you climb over the first saddle and the trail flattens out somewhat and you begin a long and slow hike toward another mini-volcano which for the most part hides the actual summit.

The next 2.5 hours (2.6 miles or 4.3km) is pretty easy going, as you slowly climb higher and higher. You can see the summit (or at least the slope leading to the summit) most of the time during this section. Another short 500 yard (800metres) sections climbs the side of another mini-volcano. There is a glacial lake off to left, although we didn't check this out.

4.5 hours since departing the Vistor Station (5 miles or 8.2km) and we reached the road. You have two choices here. Take the left hand road which circles past most of the observatories/telecopes or take the ride hand road, which while steeper is a more direct route to the summit. We opted for the right route.

Just under an hour later (1.3m or 2.1km) and you reach the first small telescopes. From here you must leave the road for the final section to the actual summit. Just a few hundred yards/metres along the dirt trail and reach the summit proper.

Once on top, the views are pretty spectacular. Mauna Loa in one direction and the coast, in all other directions.

Getting back down

There are a few ways to get back off the summit. The most obvious and rewarding is to walk back down the path followed up. Another it walk down the road. The final (and our option) is to ask another tourist whether they would be so kind as to drive us back to our car. After contemplating another 3-4 hours walking back down, we decided to ask the first carload of tourists. They didn't hesitate and 30 minutes later we were back at our car.

Summary of our Climb

Departed: 8.05am
Summitted: 1.10pm
Hiking time: 5 hour, 10 minutes
Car ride back to Visitor Station: 30 minutes
Temperature at Visitor Station: 15C
Temperature at Summit: 7C
Total distance hiked: 6.5 miles (10.6km)
Average walking speed: 1.2 miles (2kms) per hour

A note on the Height of Mauna Kea

I'd noticed a few different official heights of Mauna Kea. The hiking map and another tourist map list the summit at 13,796 feet, whereas other sites list the summit at 13,803 feet. I'm not sure which is correct, although I foundd this site, which states that the 13,796 is based on a 1950s measurement, which has since been updated by the USGS summit database and 13,803 is correct.

Mauna Kea Profile

| The Weather |

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High -- 44° 41° 39° 49° 50° 52° 50° 50° 48° 48° 44°
Avg. Low -- 27° 25° 26° 32° 30° 30° 31° 31° 30° 29° 29°
Mean -- 37° 34° 33° 40° 40° 41° 40° 41° 39° 39° 36°
Avg. Precip. 0.8 in 0.2 in 1.1 in 0.5 in 1 in 0.1 in 0.2 in 0.8 in 0.6 in 0.5 in 1.3 in 0.4 in

(weather measured at Mauna Kea Observatory)

| GPS Coordinates |

Start of Walk (Visitor Information) N19 45.563 W155 27.358
Road N19 49.065 W155 28.453
Summit N19 49.247 W155 28.087

Click to download gdb GPS file

Click to download Google Earth KMZ file

| Watch the Climb on YouTube |

On this adventure: Roland & Tiana