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After my small debacle the previous day, I was still smarting from the $650 it had cost me. A full night's sleep did wonders to my physical and mental well-being, and I was ready for another day. Because the best conditions are early in the day and the drive was another two hours to Mauna Loa this morning, I was up before 5a and at the end of the miles-long single lane road by 7a. The only rough part of the road was the first several hundred yards from where it starts off Saddle Road, just east of the Mauna Kea Summit Rd. The Mauna Loa road has been paved nicely in the last few years and though it is windy and single lane the entire way, it was a breeze.
The night before I had looked up the 13ers on Mauna Loa, finding only two besides the highpoint. Unfortunately these were called 1949 Cone and 1940 Cone, the latter located in the caldera. These seemed impossible as I recalled visions from childhood of the eruptions and lava flows coming from Mauna Loa, still considered very active. The road ends at a set of observatories (poor specimens compared to the high-tech stuff atop Mauna Kea), where there is a small public parking area around 11,000ft for the Observatory Trail to the summit of Mauna Loa. A TH kiosk mentions that the last eruption of Mauna Loa was in 1984, 30yrs earlier. Hmmm, perhaps the lava had cooled in that time and I could hike in the caldera. I was optimistic as I set off on the 6mi trail to the summit.
The Observatory Trail travels its entire length through lava fields. For the most part, nothing grows anywhere along its length (a few pieces of mushrooms I found along the trail hardly counted, and why did folks feel the need to pull them up?). The route follows a rough jeep road for half a mile before turning uphill for miles of lava wandering. Large cairns are everywhere, and though not really necessary on a fine morning like I had, I can easily imagine that those returning in a fog layer might think there's hardly enough cairns. A few clowns felt the need to use paint to brighten up the scene, painting arrows as though the cairns weren't obvious enough. Ugh. It reminded me of the mindless bullseyes that were painted on the Longs Peak route in Colorado.
From the beginning, one notices there are two distinct types of lava (with many more sub-genres), the rough, crumbly stuff and the smooth flowing kind. The latter is generally hard and easy to walk on at a quick pace. The other is highly unstable, razor sharp, and a pain in the ass. It is evident that the trail builders did a fine job of keeping the route through the smooth type of lava as much as possible. Where it went through the crumbly stuff (the type of lava found in the Eastern Sierra) there was a crushed path through it, making it easier. The colors range from black to gray to brown, occasionally dark red. Some of the rock is glassy and irridescent and other looks speckled in gold. Lava tubes are evident everywhere in the smoother lava fields, some only a few inches across, others more than a yard. One could spend hours playing around in the lava and it was part of the reason I was not so quick on the ascent.
It took about 3.5hrs to reach the summit. I missed a turn somewhere, taking another rough road to its terminus at some old instruments, then cross-country up to find the Summit Trail. I missed the summit cabin found along the trail, used for overnight stays. I also missed most of the caldera views on the ascent, not realizing it was so close above the trail with such spectacular views. But all was not lost - I would get a chance to see plenty of the caldera. I found an ammo box holding a couple of register books at the highpoint. At a glance, I'd guess it sees about 2-3 parties each week. The summit is perched at the edge of the caldera, with a 200-300ft, near-vertical drop to bottom. The bottom is filled with smooth, black lava looking very flat from high above. It reminded me of looking down on an immense glacier like those I had seen in Canada and Alaska. The 1940 cone was obvious at the west end of the caldera, the 1949 cone located along the rim about 1.5mi west of the highpoint. I was feeling pretty good and decided to pay the two cones a visit.
The trail ends at Mauna Loa's summit, so beyond that was all cross-country. Some was the awful, rough, crumbly stuff, but some was the easier smooth style. I used the latter as much as I could, carefully going through the crappy stuff where I had too. A pair of heavy leather gloves that I had brought with me kept my fingers from getting chewed up on the sharp lava edges. As I neared the 1949 Cone, I could see what looked like smooth, short green grass fields leading to its base. It wasn't grass and up close it looked more dark yellow than green, but it was a rough sandy field, ejecta from the cone most likely. It wasn't like walking on ordinary sand, but felt more like softened, consolidated snow that would sink in 3-4" periodically, giving me an uneasy feeling of being in quicksand.
As I reached the summit of the 1949 Cone, I had a close-up view of ground zero inside the caldera at it's western edge. Wisps of smoke drifted up out cracks in the other-wordly scene below me. About 3/4 mile distance across this scene was the 1940 Cone. As I stood there upon the 1949 Cone, I had three visions of my destruction in the caldera. The first was being poisoned by the gasses being emitted. In Mammoth Lakes there are places where carbon dioxide (or was in monoxide?) killed the trees and threatens visitors on calm days. Who knew what was coming out of Mauna Loa? Secondly I might collapse a lava tube and fall in, not unlike falling into a hidden crevasse on a glacier. And thirdly, I imagined the soles of my shoes melting off as I wandered into a hot spot and then the terror of wondering how to extract myself and in which direction to turn? There were no signs that I had seen warning folks of these dangers, but then I don't think it was expected that people would wander into the caldera. What to do? I put my ungloved hand to the ground and found it warm. Not a good start. How warm would it be when I dropped into the caldera? 30yrs is a long time - I decided to cautiously give it a go.
Getting to the caldera is easy from the trail going around the east side, but I was on the far west side and there were cliffs north and south. Luckily that odd, gravely sand led steeply down to the caldera from the 1949 Cone. It was easy to descend in long strides (checking the temperature of the ground every 30sec or so), though I knew it would be a bear to have to climb back up, worse than the cinder cones I had complained about the previous day. I worried less about being poisoned as I found the wind blowing at the rim was also blowing down below. On a hunch I checked the temperature of ground in a shady spot - cold to the touch. What I had thought was heating from below, was the work of the sun from above. I worried less about my shoes melting after this, but I still kept checking the ground. The lava fields I walked across were bizarre. It was so fresh that it had had little time to weather the rough edges. Much of it was shiny and irridescent. Some of it crumbled as I walked over it, but there were no huge lava tube collapses. I learned by the look and color very quickly which types of lava were best to walk over and which would break up and make me nervous.
The 1940 Cone proved more difficult than it had looked from a distance. I climbed it from the west side where the slopes were steep and frightfully loose. Crappy class 3, I'd give it. Once atop it, I found the insides dropped even more steeply to a hole whose bottom I could not see. The wall surrounding the pit was breached on the east side and I found the easier exit off this side (the better side to climb it from, too). There was faint steam coming from fissures in the cone as I walked along it. All was not quiet down below. I felt the temperature with my hand - not scalding, but then I didn't put my hand directly in the vents. Still, it was pretty hot. Better not to linger.
After descending the cone, I headed east directly across the caldera, almost three miles, all told. The further I got from the 1940 cone, the more settled the lava seemed, the wisps of steam growing far less frequent. Still, there were a few deep fissures to watch out for, and it wasn't until I had crossed the last of these that I partly relaxed. I didn't completely relax until I had transited the caldera and reached the trail on the eastern edge. For the most part the travel along the caldera was not difficult, actually fairly enjoyable. Though it looked flat from the crater rim, the floor was undulating and convoluted, a jumble of lava flowing in various directions. It was impossible to tell inside the caldera which direction the lava actually flowed, though I believe it was west->east. Though the soles were much warn by the miles of lava travel, they were not singed or melted in any fashion. I survived the caldera and lived to tell about it - an awesome adventure! Plus, I had nabbed the 13ers on Mauna Loa, getting all 10 of the Hawaii 13ers in two days - I'm still years from finishing the same in California.
I saw a couple heading up on my return, passing them just after noon following a brief chat. The only others on the trail this day I met at the TH upon my return. They were getting a late start, but planned to spend the night in the summit cabin. Not having actually seen it either coming or going, I couldn't offer any info to them about it.
Just before I returned to the highway at Saddle Rd, I stopped for a visit to the Puuhuluhulu Forest Reserve at the junction of Mauna Loa and Saddle Rds. This small island of surprisingly lush trees and greens was one of the few survivors when the lava flowed down these slopes over the last century. It is laced with a network of trails, some regular, some use, that were a fun diversion after so many miles of lava and more lava. I think I'm done with the lava for a while now. Time to get into the jungle...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mauna Loa
This page last updated: Thu Jun 12 14:35:24 2014
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