Hike Journal - Mauna Loa by Mark Riley - April 2012
Hiking the "Long Mountain" (Mauna Loa) from Mauna Loa Strip Road (Mauna Loa Lookout) to Saddle Road (Weather Observatory), April 2 to April 5, 2012
This hike started around 11 in the morning on April 2 from the Mauna Loa lookout trailhead, arriving at the Red Hill Cabin around 5 that evening. Especially on account of hiking this trip solo and the accompanying dangers of high altitude sickness, I slept two nights at Red Hill to further acclimate to the altitude change before proceeding further up the trail. In the end, I do not know if this stopover made the journey overall easier, for the hike upwards to the summit area was still challenging. Regardless, the stopover did allow for greater appreciation of the mountain, to read the cabin log book entries and to further take in the weather changes and scenery of the largest active volcano in the world.
After two nights at Red Hill Cabin, I was more than anxious to get up the trail towards the summit and departed for Mauna Loa Cabin at first light. I considered leaving even earlier than dawn-to start walking effectively in the dark-but the trail's footbed appeared too uneven to make leaving earlier helpful. Overall, I wanted to complete most of the day's walk before the afternoon sun would be shining in my face (the route from Red Hill is generally westward).
The route from Red Hill to the summit area is already well described in other journal entries and online accounts. One addition to those accounts was steam rising from just beyond Dewey Cone (and no steam emanating from Steaming Cone). Suffice to say, the scenery overall was surprisingly diverse, vast, and indeed spectacular.
Somewhere in the vicinity of the 12,000 feet elevation level I began to feel the effects of the altitude mainly in way of a slight headache on the crown of my skull. This tell-tale sign subsided through a combination of actions: more frequent rest stops, slowing my pace overall, deliberately taking in deeper breaths, and moderate snacking. Focusing on filling the lungs with air with every breath was a traditional alpine mountaineer technique I had read about years ago and appeared to help the most. Nibbling on high carbohydrate snacks may have helped as well. I tried to eat some even though the altitude was noticeably suppressing my appetite.
The scene upon arrival at North Pit is so vast and immense that I must leave a more justifiable description to the more literary types among us. From here, just two miles walking remained to the Mauna Loa Cabin, and as many others attest it is a very long two miles across part of the North Pit section of the caldera. And just as warned on the National Park website, the weather can and did change abruptly. I noticed this weather pattern from Red Hill the day before. A storm had engulfed much of the summit area that afternoon, clearing two hours later. This storm pattern seemingly repeated itself with hail around one in the afternoon as I journeyed the last two miles to Mauna Loa Cabin.
Temperatures that night at Mauna Loa Cabin never fell below freezing, perhaps on account of the overcast conditions. Having a night to acclimate a 13,000 feet, I thought the next day's walk to the actual summit (four and a half miles distant, and only four hundred and fifty feet higher in elevation) would be quite easy. It was, to the contrary, rather challenging, again because of the altitude. Descending from the actual summit around noon, that same storm pattern of the previous two days appeared to be forming around the summit again. I warned some day hikers climbing from the observatory trailhead and continued on down. They were the first people I had met in four days.
The final leg of this trip, from the summit area down to the Weather Observatory at the end of Saddle Road (and my pickup point) was no less enjoyable and was a welcome alternative to reversing my route back to Red Hill Cabin and back to Mauna Loa Lookout on Mauna Loa Strip Road.
For all who look to plan multi-day trips into remote areas, to arrange ground transportation and carry the necessary equipment are indeed among crucial elements of a successful trip. Coming from outside the island of Hawaii and having no local contacts, ground transport was of first concern. I benefited immensely in this regard from a local guide service offering pick-up and drop-off from Kona Airport.
Regarding equipment, there are a few points to make, expanding upon the NPS "essential backpacking list". Acquiring cooking fuel was initially an issue. Not knowing if fuel canisters were available on Hawaii Island caused me to pack instead my multi-fuel stove, which I simply filled up with Premium at a local gas station upon arrival. It was heavier than a canister stove but a sure thing. I decided to carry a 20 degree Fahrenheit sleeping bag in lieu of a colder weather 5 degree bag, and this choice more than sufficed. Augmented with long underwear tops and bottoms and the option to also layer with my bivouac sack, thinsulate vest, and thinsulate parka made this a good fail-safe sleeping combination. Regarding footwear, sturdy footgear is essential. My traditional Norwegian welted hiking boots were most appropriate for this harshest of trail footbeds. Rain parka and pants were also critical-sunny one hour, hailstorm the next! For two people to speak of owls and then together see an owl means something.