Climbing Mauna Kea

Can't say this was the wisest choice I've ever made, but in the middle of our bike touring trip, I decided to climb Mauna Kea via the Saddle Road up to the Visitor Center (not a full Mauna Kea!). To begin to understand what a poor choice this was, let's look at some numbers:

At that point, I had already done 200 miles in the previous 5 days on a loaded touring bike. I typically ride about 150 miles a week, unloaded. 

Two days before, we had done a 5,000 ft climb (loaded!) 

Some of previous miles that week had been on gravel... with road bikes... still loaded... making them even more challenging. 

Mauna Kea from sea level to visitor center is 9,200 feet. There is about 1/3 less oxygen at 9200 feet than at sea level. 

My previous "highest consecutive climb" was about 6800 feet. 

I only had a steel bike with a 1x11 drive train (42-42 was my best gear)

Oh, and I had rack on the bike. 

I had no support vehicle. 

I was also sunburned, just to throw that in there. 


Yeah, some potential adversity. But hey, it's important to try!


The night before, Alexa, Machiko, and Cathy had cornered me and gave me/my supplies a solid run through - did I have enough food? water? tire pressure? clothing? sunscreen? What was my backup plan? We worked through it together, me, obviously, not wanting to bring as much crap up to 9,000 ft as possible ("no! no more clothes!! or food!") and them not wanting their companion to die on vacation ("dude, you need a jacket for the way down, NEED"). We worked out a compromise that ultimately (and fortunately) ended up being pretty near perfect (well, I had too much food, but hey, first world problems). 

All was dark and quiet... 

Yes, for those of you at home wondering, food of choice was a Milky Way bar, which was surprisingly hard to find on the big island. 

I woke up at 5 AM and snuck out of our airbnb by 5:30 AM after a quick and near silent breakfast of scrambled eggs. The goal was to beat the sun and climb mostly in the cool morning and hit the visitor center before noon. When I left, it was perfect - about 55 F degrees near sea level and no traffic (woo!). I merrily climbed my way through neighborhoods, making it to the saddle road around 2000 feet and just a little after sunrise. At this point, it got a bit chilly, dropping to 43 F (brrr!) but I soldiered on. 

Mauna Kea looms! 
The saddle road was a straight forward climb - for the next 2 hours or so, I chipped away at another 4000 feet along a fairly busy road with a wide shoulder. The grade stayed pretty constant at 6%, and I listened to my music and felt great - I was killing this climb! It warmed up to about 55 F, the sun was up, I could see the telescopes on Mauna Kea; for the hardest climb in the world, this wasn't so bad! 

On long climbs like this, I have hours for introspection and really thinking through repressed feelings, etc. As I started to plateau on the Saddle road around 5,000 feet, I thought about how far I've come - cycling, life, job, PhD. Most of the time it feels like I have so much further to go, so much more to do, but I had a few moments of clarity where I realized that Lo a year ago couldn't have made it to the top of Saddle Road like that. Lo of 2 years ago couldn't have dreamed of it. Present day Lo, although very out of shape... she was going to do this, not because she was "so much stronger" but because she was so much wiser - she had learned to pace and to use energy strategically. 

The face of a fighter.
Mmm I shouldn't have played the victory music during the sunrise so soon. I made it to about 6,200 feet and then turned right onto Mauna Kea Access Road, and cue the worst 6 miles and 3,000 feet of my life.

At this point, it was still blessedly mostly cool (60ish F) and I had completely clear skies. The grade started to notch up a bit (12%) and I thought "well I guess it had to pick up eventually". wrong. 

The climb from hell slowly escalated to 16%. Then 18%. Then 20+%. Now, in Seattle, we're used to 20% grades - that's just part of commuting. However, I'm used to 20% grades that end after .2 miles. Not 20% grades that go on for 4 miles. Four. Miles. 

At some point as I was wobbling around on my bike and about to fall over, I admitted a defeat - I wasn't going to make it up this climb without stopping once. I stopped, caught my breath, and convinced myself that I just had to make it around the bend up ahead... I was at 7,000 feet or so, it wasn't that much further to the top! wrong

I did make it 
I made it around the bend to see that there was no relief ahead for me, just another wall. And another one and another one and about 10 more walls after that. I wish I could say I fiercely slayed the Mauna Kea dragon here, but I didn't. I limped my way to the top, stopping frequently to catch my breath and not puke/die/scream/cry/destroy my bike. I was pretty lightheaded starting at 8,000 feet and wondering WTF I was doing, honestly contemplating turning around multiple times. Machiko and Daniel provided critical text message support, although Daniel wondered why I was texting him and not biking (answer: to keep from vomiting on the side of the road). 

Enjoy that sand.
Finally, I saw the end - the visitor center! And I pedaled straight past it. I wanted to try to make it to the top, and by golly, I wasn't going to stop until I had to, screw that I had a road bike... and then I hit the sand pit that is the "gravel" phase of the Mauna Kea Access Rd (for the next 3 miles). I stood no chance unless I wanted to hike my bike to the top (which apparently a lot of people do, but I don't think that counts as "riding" to the top of Mauna Kea). In a mixed emotional state of total relief and slight devastation of not being able to summit the whole Kea, I rolled back down to the visitor center for a quick photo and to be told by pretty much everyone there that I was clearly a nut job (can't disagree). 

The descent down the access road was as terrifying as climbing it. Even with disc brakes fully compressed, I couldn't slow below 10 mph let alone bring my bike to a stop (omfg). At one point, I was going 45 mph, which was the fastest I've ever gone on a bicycle and not been on my trainer. Once again, total relief when I was done with that access road. 

They really do mean 17%. For 6 miles. 
Before I returned to Hilo though, I used the last of my energy to explore the Mauna Loa access road (conveniently right across the street). This was the most beautiful road I've ever had the delight of being on. Yes, I know the hero's story is climbing Mauna Kea, but the love story and the real reason we ride bikes lays across the saddle point on the other side. I climbed as much of Mauna Loa as I could until the grade started pitching over 10% again (legs were toast). I turned back and enjoyed a nice 6 mile or so rolling descent back to the saddle point on a windy one lane road through a lava field. My nightmares are of Mauna Kea but my dreams are of roads like Mauna Loa. 

Descending down Mauna Loa, the view of Mauna Kea 

From there, it was a luxury cruise down to Hilo. It still took me over an hour of not pedaling to return to Hilo, where I went to the ocean and laid down, wanting nothing more than to sit in the sun and not move. However, Machiko wanted to go to the farmer's market and then to get shaved ice and then to go shopping for a ukelele and then to look at sandals and then to eat dinner, so the itinerant lifestyle continued. 


They always look so sweet and innocent when they're sleeping

ride is here: https://www.strava.com/activities/2063228160

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4 comments:

John Weller said...

Lo Smith, an absolute force of nature. That is all.

Cathy Henley said...

John W hit it on the head. Force of nature on both the bike and on the written page. I love your story telling.

Maria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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