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Topping out on the Big Island

Can one father, one son and one SUV conquer two mountains—Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—in a single day?


Sea level be damned. sometimes a guy needs a little altitude.

The Mauna Loa Access road climbs 17 miles to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather observatory, with Mauna Kea looming to the north. The white line doesn't divide the narrow road but is instead a guide for fogbound drivers.

But as a certifiable couch tuber, I’ve had it with mountaineers going in harm’s way to scale the world’s great peaks. Accounts of twentysomething hard bodies hanging off cliffs or Himalayan climbers losing body parts—or their lives—to frostbite don’t cut it any more, at least with many aging boomers.

Yet adventure travel thrives, fueled by curiosity, ennui, affluence and the media. Increasing numbers seem willing to spend tons of money looking for discomfort in remote and dangerous places. The wisdom of this ramped-up desire for adventure is certainly open to question. Witness the recent Everest tragedy, when a dozen bad Samaritans ignored a dying colleague so that they could reach the summit. Nonetheless, I enjoy an adrenaline rush as much as the next guy. There are simply limits to the risks I’m willing to take.

So, in the spirit of faux adventure, I recently resolved to conquer the world’s highest and biggest mountains in record time—one day.

Everest and K-2? No, I’m talking about objectives a lot closer to home: the Big Island’s Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes.

From base to peak, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa are both at least 33,000 feet tall, almost a mile higher than Everest. Counting the depression in Earth’s crust at what’s called the Mohorovicic discontinuity, Mauna Loa, hands down the most voluminous mountain on Earth at more than 19,000 cubic miles, might measure out at an incredible 56,000 feet.

Above sea level, Mauna Kea measures 13,796 feet and Mauna Loa 13,677, but just because I’m forced to take a head start doesn’t mean these aren’t monsters.

Depending on who you consult, the Big Island, youngest in the Hawaiian chain, was formed by two or five volcanoes, beginning some 70 million years ago. Mauna Kea and the younger Mauna Loa are the largest. Some consider Kohala, Hualalai, and Kilauea parts of their larger sisters. Kilauea, Mauna Loa and Hualalai are still active.

Up so high in the environment that the air is almost pollution-free, Mauna Kea is also home to the world’s most sophisticated astronomical observatories. Whether these symbols of Western science, and the traffic they bring, can continue to coexist with Hawaiian values remains to be seen.

I enjoy a good hike. Not this time, though. This was my adventure, and I got to make the rules—which meant I was going to summit by car. The quickest way up would have to suffice. In the spirit of filial camaraderie, or perhaps to ensure his old man didn’t do anything too foolish, my son Alex agreed to join me in Hilo for my mountain adventure.

The sun’s last rays bathe the summit of Mauna Kea, topped by a U.S. Geological Survey marker and a Hawaiian religious altar.

Renting a car presented the first obstacle. No major company allows its cars on the Saddle Road, much less anywhere near Mauna Kea or Mauna Loa. Only one, Harper’s, provides four-wheel drive vehicles and an invitation to ascend Mauna Kea. We accepted.

The evening we got to Hilo we decided right away to race the sun to the top of Mauna Kea, driving westward toward the mountains, past Hilo’s suburbs, scrawny ohi‘a forests and, eventually, between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, across a flat plain interlaced with old lava flows.

Starting at sea level, we made one of the steepest vehicular ascents anywhere—more altitude gain than from the Everest base camp to the summit. The massive footprints of these volcanoes mask their heights, however, disguising them as distant ridgelines seemingly far less precipitous than O‘ahu’s Ko‘olau Range, which they outreach by two miles.

After 28 miles, climbing 6,000 feet, we hit the Mauna Kea Access Road. Cattle grazed on grassy lower slopes. We might have been in Montana, except for the occasional cinder cone.

Then the grade got serious. When we got to the Onizuka Visitor Information Center at the 6.4 mile marker, we were at 9,200 feet.

Our SUV did the work for our legs, but altitude sickness is nothing to take lightly. Signs at the center counsel a 30-minute stop to acclimate; at the summit there’s barely half the oxygen as at sea level. It’s good advice, yet one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is impaired reasoning and we were tempted to jet right past, especially in a race with the setting sun.

Temptation resisted, we explored the center, which dispenses information about the mountain and the observatories, as well as souvenirs, books, maps, food and even cold-weather gear for the unprepared.

It was a quick eight-mile climb to the cluster of observatories near the summit, gaining another mile in altitude. The paving soon gave way to five miles of dusty gravel switchbacks. There wasn’t much downhill traffic, minimizing dust and the dangers of hairpin turns, but we crept carefully in low until the pavement reappeared.

Along the observatory road a crowd watched the sun sink toward the cloudbank to the west. I knew, however, that the road didn’t reach the summit, a few hundred yards to the east. By the time we located the faint path in the shadows, the summit lay illuminated by the day’s last light.

Could we walk the unstable cinder trail, which dipped and then rose steeply several hundred feet, and be able to find our way back after the sunset? It was going to be close, but there was no way we were getting this near without trying.

I was giddy about the prospect, leaping over the railing and practically bounding toward the hill. Normally that jog would have exhausted me, but I made it effortlessly, oblivious even to the temperature, 40 degrees and dropping as the sun began to dip into the clouds below. The summit, capped by a Hawaiian religious altar (inexplicably vandalized a few months earlier), was bathed in a deep copper glow. It wasn’t hard to see why this mountain has always been sacred to Hawaiians. Madame Pele laid out a stunning tableau, with the sun sinking into a thick sea of clouds as it painted the summit an unearthly ochre.

The Mauna Loa Access road climbs 17 miles to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather observatory, with Mauna Kea looming to the north. The white line doesn't divide the narrow road but is instead a guide for fogbound drivers.

Or perhaps my exhilaration was simply oxygen deprivation. Alex was having a much tougher time, distressed and struggling to catch his breath. This was no cakewalk after all.

And then it was dark.

We were late for a dinner reservation at Merriman’s in Kamuela, so we inched down in low gear and bolted west on the dark and nearly deserted Saddle Road. We weren’t about to miss our reward for conquering the world’s tallest mountain. And rewarded we were, with one of the best meals I’ve had anywhere. By the time we got back to Hilo via the Hamakua Coast we were sated, exhausted and darned proud of ourselves.

Halfway there.

It took fortitude—perhaps the fortitude of adventurers on a quest—plus an obscenely big breakfast from Ken’s in Hilo to get us up before dawn the next day and back on the Saddle Road to Mauna Loa.

Precise planning is a hallmark of a well-managed quest. We might have come up a little short in that department.

It’s a straight shot to Mauna Kea’s summit. The route up Mauna Loa is more daunting, in part because it’s a road less traveled. Unlike Mauna Kea, with its crown of observatories, Mauna Loa’s summit is bare, save for a hiker cabin. Its massive, barren slopes are adorned only by a collection of microwave transmitters and an NOAA weather observatory some 2,500 feet below the summit.

Starting just west of the Mauna Kea turnoff, the narrow, nominally paved Mauna Loa road meanders for 17 miles to the observatory, with an elevation gain of about a mile to 11,141 feet. This ascension is far more subtle than on Mauna Kea, almost deceptive, as the road traverses undulating fields of a‘a (rocky) and pahoehoe (smooth) lava. Spawned by a still-active volcano, these sparsely vegetated flanks seem primordial and are much younger than those on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

We took our time, spotting a handful of cars all morning. At times we lost sight of the rim, winding up and down over gently rolling hills. Only the view of Mauna Kea to the north across the lava plains gave us an altitude fix.

The observatory, with its public outhouse, marks the end of the paved road. An unpaved track extends up to the rim and within hailing distance of the summit. My optimistic plan was to ride that track all the way. Reality intruded.

First, the SUV’s rental contract specifically nixed all unpaved roads except the Mauna Kea Access Road. Alex sagely asked what they could do about it if we brought it back undamaged. Not much, but that was a big if.

Our observations, and a short test foray, confirmed that this would be a rugged test of our SUV, one likely to cause noticeable damage. Moreover, the shifting cinder base was loose enough to mire even a four-wheel drive vehicle, and, given the isolation of the area, we weren’t eager to get stuck. No drive to the top.

The summit trail sign announced that it was three miles to the rim, which wasn’t even visible from the observatory, and another three to the summit, a 12-mile roundtrip hike.

It was afternoon. We weren’t going to make it.

A sight that can take your breath away: Watching from Mauna Kea’s observatory drive as the sun sets into the clouds below.

Alex and I strolled a quarter mile along the road to the trail cutoff, marveling at the long views to the north. It was a gloriously sunny day, with temperatures in the 70s. Mauna Kea shined in the distance, the intense sunlight glinting off the observatory domes. To the east and west, well below our vantage point, great cloudbanks crept up the mountain slopes, smothering everything except the 8,271 foot Pu‘u Wa‘awa‘a cone on Hualalai Volcano.

It was one of those stunning moments that never desert memory, even as details fade. And we had it to ourselves.

When I halfheartedly suggested it, Alex was reluctant to try for the rim, chastened by last evening’s altitude reaction. He thought I should go up a ways, though.

There isn’t much of trail, only a series of cairns marking the direction up and across the lava flows, but they were easy enough to follow, at least on a clear day. Feeling pretty spry, I bounded up the slope for an hour or so, covering a mile or two, until I finally caught sight of the rim in the distance. It was a good place to quit.

We compensated for our failure with a drive to Kilauea and the ocean beyond, watching fresh lava steaming into the water from the Pu‘u O‘o vent. We might not have reached the top, but we could at least see how the bottom was made.

Twelve miles? I can do 12 miles. We just have to start out earlier. It may not be Everest, but next time we’ll go all the way.

Frequent contributor James Dannenberg is a retired District Court judge who lives in Kailua.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2017
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