Friday, April 22, 2011

Highpoint: Hawaii. Mauna Kea (13796 ft). April 20, 2011

Disclaimer: I write of my family's experience ascending Mauna Kea, but this does NOT mean I suggest or advocate anyone else bringing their children past the Visitor's Center. Your actions are your responsibility. This is a trip report -- NOT an encouragement to follow suit. In other words, don't sue me if you fail to heed the warning posted at Mauna Kea's Visitor's Center and your child suffers from altitude sickness or worse.

Hawaii. Great state to have to visit in order to secure a highpoint. We've spent the last couple of weeks snorkeling, visiting various beaches, and enjoying waterfalls, gardens, and lava flows. Not a bad way to spend early spring.

Mauna Kea was our first highpoint above 10,000 feet. It was both difficult and easy; easy, because it was mostly a drive-up, and difficult, because there was no time to acclimatize.

We drove to Mauna Kea on a typical bright and sunny Hawaiian mid-morning. Here's Mauna Kea from Saddle Road (which was under construction, but still easy to navigate).

The Mauna Kea Access Road is found close to the 28 mile marker (coming from Hilo).

The access road to the Visitor's Center was steep and windy at times, but I never felt like I was in danger of panicking (which I sometimes do on auto roads and gondolas).

We spent the suggested hour at the Visitor's Center before ascending...this hour is supposed to help mitigate the possibility of altitude sickness. It probably does help, but not as much as, say, camping at 10,000 feet for a few days. Mauna Kea is difficult in this regard; one goes from sea level to near 14,000 feet in a few hours, and even experienced mountaineers can feel lightheaded and nauseous from the quick rise in altitude.

View of the road going to the summit from the Visitor's Center...

There's a large sign at the Visitor's Center listing the hazards...note the warning about kids below the age of 16. I point this out as a warning to others (again, I am not liable for other people's actions...parents, don't mistake this blog for an instruction manual).

Another warning, this time about the possible presence of invisible cows...

Now came the most frightening part of the trip (at least, for me). The eight mile drive to the summit from the Visitor's Center is harrowing and nerve-wracking for someone who does not appreciate sharp drop-offs and an unhealthy lack of guard rails. I felt as secure as I possibly could in our Harper's 4WD (the only kind of rental that is allowed on the summit road), but I spent most of my time driving in the center and hoping I wouldn't pass out.

The first five miles are unpaved and constitute the worst part of the ascent.

The latter three miles are paved and there aren't so many drop-offs.

The summit road brought us to the telescopes (Mauna Kea is one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation)....

...but not to the summit itself. The true summit lies a quarter of a mile or so away; the trail begins a few dozen yards below the parking area.

Mauna Kea's summit...

Sage was not affected by the high altitude; she danced, hopped, skipped, and sang her way to the summit. I had to fuss at her to take it easy, I was worried she'd accidentally overdo it.

Alex, on the other hand, had a slight headache and felt a bit dizzy whenever she moved faster than a casual walk. Hugh stayed by her side and monitored her constantly; we were both prepared to grab the car and head down if we felt the need. Her headache never increased, however, and as long as she didn't skip, hop or jump (as Sage was doing), she was fine. Hugh and I both felt completely normal.

Sage ditched me about thirty feet from the summit and ran ahead. She was the first to reach the highpoint.

I arrived next and busied myself with photography.

Hugh and Alex arrived about five minutes behind me.

Alex felt much better after some rest and a bar of chocolate.

Still, I thought it best she stay behind with me while Hugh took Sage on a brief excursion to a nearby cairn.

The four of us lounged about for half an hour or so, enjoying the scenery and the fact that we had the summit to ourselves. Eventually, we saw a line of people heading our way from the parking lot, so we decided to descend.

Hugh played the celebrity on the way down...

The descent was uneventful, thanks to the magic of 4WD Low.

The girls enjoyed themselves, but Alex worried about getting a headache this fall while climbing peaks out west. I assured her that a) we would spend a lot more time acclimatizing out there before heading up and b) I would turn us around if she or Sage felt any symptoms whatsoever. I'm not comfortable continuing a long hike if there are any symptoms of altitude sickness. Hugh and I were willing to continue on Mauna Kea since we had the car for a fast descent, and Alex's symptoms never progressed past a slight headache (which went away when she slowed her pace). On the long hikes this fall, if there are any symptoms whatsoever, we'll turn around.

Next stops: New York and Maine, summer 2011.


Don Eidam said...

Fascinating. Thank you always for all three blogs. You guys are so much fun to follow. In Peru in '08 we flew from Lima on the coast to Cusco (11.2K). Chewing coca leaves prevented altitude sickness. Guess you can't get them in Hawaii.
Was wondering when you were going to do Katahdin; did it a lot in the early 1960s and liked it best in the early spring because of the "interesting" brook crossings.
Keep those posts coming!

Patricia Ellis Herr, Alexandra Herr, and Sage Herr said...

Hi Don,

Cocoa leaves...the girls would have loved that, wish I'd known! We'll get Katahdin in August (we hope). By the end of the year, we will also (hopefully) get the highpoints of NY, NM, TX and AZ.

Thanks for your kind comments!