Mauna Kea P5K
Pu'u Kalepeamoa
Pu'u Haiwahine

Tue, Jun 3, 2014
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPXs: 1 2
Pu'u Kalepeamoa later climbed Tue, Jan 14, 2020


On my first full day in Hawaii I had overly aggressive plans to do both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. For various reasons, that didn't work out as planned, but it started well enough. I was up around 5a and made my way north and east over the Saddle Road (now an extremely easy drive on a great road with a 55mph speed limit). I turned off at the Mauna Kea Summit Rd and drove up to the Visitor Center at the end of the pavement about six miles up. It is recommended that only 4WD vehicles drive higher than this and my original plan had me doing the long hike from the Visitor Center to the summit, about 6mi one-way and 5,000ft of gain. But the rental agency hadn't the economy car I ordered when I arrived and instead gave me a Jeep Compass. Not 4WD, but high clearance. I found the non-paved road no big deal despite all the warnings. It is somewhat washboarded, but any vehicle could drive it when dry and I saw at least one low-clearance car on the way up as I was headed down. Even better, the last three miles or so are paved again, a measure to reduce dust for the many precision telescopes that dot the summit area. I was able to drive within a quarter mile of the highpoint, arriving around 7a, the only vehicle not there on official telescope business. The weather was picture perfect. The only clouds were low down by the coast to the north and east. There was a light wind and it was probably 40-45F. I couldn't have asked for nicer conditions.

As I made my way on the nice trail to the highpoint, I looked around and noticed there were a number of other summits, mostly cinder cones that had built up sometime after the last major eruption. There must have been a good deal of ejected material, because there is very little lava flow to be seen at Mauna Kea's summit - most of it is loose crappy pumice-like lava. It's easy enough to hike on when on the flats or on an established trail, but climbing the sides of the cinder cones proved to be some of the most tiring climbing I've come across. When I had finished with Mauna Kea, I decided to pay a visit to all the cinder cones over 13,000ft which I could find on my GPS, seven of them including Mauna Kea. I thought it might be fun to hike all of Hawaii's 13ers in a single day (not knowing ahead of time what I'd find on Mauna Loa), and set off to scale the others. I didn't pick the most efficient route, returning to where I parked the car several times as I made my way in various directions to nab one or two before returning. It proved to be quite tough. Not only had I had zero acclimatization and was spending 4-5hrs over 13,000ft, but as mentioned earlier, the cinder cones proved difficult as only one other had a trail besides Mauna Kea. There was some variation to the terrain, in places where there was finer volcanic sand that had been sculpted by snowmelt, rain and wind into rivulets that resembled rough sand dunes. Pu'u Mahoe to the northeast offered views of 12,000-foot cinder cones on the east side of Mauna Kea (these would have to wait for another trip to the islands). Near Pu'u Waiau on the southwest side is high alttude Lake Waiau. Though not very large, its unusual occurence gives it a revered place in Hawaiian lore. Umbilical cords were tossed into the lake in order to give the mountain's strength and vitality to newborns. It is still considered sacred and swimming and other activities at the lake and shore are prohibited.

Before I had finished the last of them, I had realized the folly of the ambitious plan and knew I would have to leave Mauna Loa for another day. I was pretty knackered as I started the drive down, thinking I'd hit a few more named cinder cones on the way down. One at 12,987ft just a half mile east of the road looked like too much work as I drove by. Back at the Visitor Center I found two easy summits off a dirt road just below. I drove in a quarter mile to a parking spot and took less than five minutes to climb the first of these on a maintained trail. The second was about 3/4 mile to the west, a short enough hike, but I decided to drive further in on the road since I had my high-clearance vehicle. This is where the day's major mistake unfolded.

I made it down to the east side of the second summit and easily enough scaled it cross-country up maybe 200ft. The problem came when I tried to drive back up and out on the dirt road. It proved too steep and loose for the under-powered Compass. I made more than a dozen efforts to get it up the first of several steep sections, using rocks and branches for traction, deflating the front tires to less than 20lbs of pressure, all to no avail. I spent probably an hour on various strategies before giving up. This one was going to cost me. A lot.

I hiked back out to the Visitor Center on the slim hope that one of the employees there had a 4WD and tow cable. No, they don't tow for any amount of money as policy. I called AAA knowing that I wouldn't be covered on a dirt road. At least they could send out a tow truck, right? No. After 15min with them, the best they could do was give me the name of the tow company so I could call them. To add insult, the number they gave me was off by one number and came up as disconnected when I called. The clerk at the gift shop was kind enough to loan me a phone book and after a few tries I got a hold of someone in Hilo who could winch me out. $650, no negotiating. Ouch.

After more than an hour (I read every thing on the walls at the Visitor Center, watched all the shows, and played with all the toys set out to entertain people) a rather large Samoan in a red tow truck picked me up. We didn't talk much at first, but after we got to the site and I started to help him with the cables and chains and other stuff, he warmed up. He got me out with little fanfare, then took an imprint of my credit card for the full sum. He apologized that I was having to see the island in this fashion. I told him not to spend it all in one place before we shook hands and parted. All my efforts to extract the SUV on my own had done little more than billow up huge clouds of Hawaii dirt that covered the vehicle. I'm going to have to find a car wash before I return it to the rental agency as I'm pretty sure I violated at least one of their stated policies...


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