Monday, February 21, 2011

Orographical Excursions.

Heart of the Mountain (click for larger view).
Sunday I got to hike the Mauna Kea summit trail as part of a trash clean up crew. Our job was to hike down the trail from the summit to the Vis, picking up rubbish along the way. It was an amazing experience, albeit an exhausting one. The trail runs fairly straight for about six miles, dropping in elevation about four thousand feet along the way. Near the top, I got to see Lake Waiau for the first time, which was really nifty. The thin air was chilly at that elevation, but not too cold. I worked up a sweat early on from collecting trash, but settled into a fairly comfortable temperature equilibrium quickly thereafter.

Sitting at an elevation of 13,020 feet (3970 m), Lake Waiau (whose name means ‘swirling water’ although it doesn't really do anything but sit) is among the highest lakes in the world, and is one of the very few lakes in the Hawaiian islands. (As an aside, the word ‘lake’, much like the word ‘planet’ until recently, has no formal definition, i.e., it's as easy to argue about whether something is a lake as it is to argue over whether Pluto was [or is] a planet. So the ‘highest lakes in the world’ list can change quite a bit depending on what you personally consider to be a lake.)

Panoramic view of Lake Waiau (lost the right-most photo
 while transferring to my computer).
Lake Waiau is a pretty interesting lake from just about any perspective. Geologically, it's quite strange. It sits in the crater of Puʻu Waiau, a large shallow cinder cone whose bowl is lined with enough clay to hold the water in. It has no inlet, instead being fed with melting permafrost from the mountain, so its level fluctuates quite a bit depending on the snowfall each year. You can see a higher shoreline in the picture below, showing the lake from a higher perspective:

Lake Waiau as seen from the trail into the puʻu.
Biologically, Lake Waiau hosts some really extreme algae. The overall impression of the color of the lake you get when you're actually standing by it is green. Who knows how they survive – the lake freezes over almost every year, I've heard – but survive and thrive they do. I suppose they probably photosynthesize from the abundant sun (Mauna Kea is sunny well over three-quarters of the year) and feed on the nutritious volcanic soil the lake bed is composed of. On another note, Lake Waiau serves as a sort of oasis on the desert-like upper slopes of Mauna Kea. We saw some hardy grasses clinging to the rocks around the rim, something we didn't see again till we had descended almost three thousand feet.

I don't know what that algae is, but it sure is tough!
Lake Waiau also hosts some interesting surprises. While walking around it on garbage patrol, I was quite startled to feel the ground beneath my feet give slightly, then spring back like a trampoline. Tentative repeated pressing showed it wasn't a one-off event - the ground really was somewhat springy. The patch was rather large - I found intermittent springy parts as I continued walking around the lake. I've no idea what caused it, although I suspect the algae may be involved somehow. Perhaps mats of dried algae under the lake shore that are slightly springy?

The bouncy terrain is further along the shoreline in this photo.
Climbing out of Puʻu Waiau we were greeted with this majestic vista:
Those aren't car tracks, just two
parallel foot-paths (feet-paths?).
After a short lunch break, we began the long arduous trek downwards. I didn't get too many pictures at this time, as I was more focused on looking for trash and trying to keep my footing  as we wended our way down, around, and over the incredible landscape of the mountain. Most of the first few hours were spent clambering over glacial deposits or the hard dense Hawaiite formed when Mauna Kea erupted under its glacial blanket. The hot magma hitting the cold ice caused it to become extremely dense, making it an excellent tool material for a people with no deposits of metal ores to smelt. The ancient Hawaiians mined it for adzes, and there are scores of abandoned adze quarries around the summit. The adzes were rough-shaped on the mountain before being taken down and finished, and the piles of chippings are visible from quite far away. Indeed, the trail passed just below one that stood several times higher than myself:

This is even more impressive when you realize each chip
is roughly the size of your hand...and the pile is taller than you.
A little further on we passed a puʻu with a distinctive crater rim that I don't remember having seen before, despite the fact that it ought to be visible from the road. I need to look into that further...

Mauna Kea is an interesting mountain, because it's so big and flat near the top that you can kind of forget you're on a mountain at all because you can't really see down. Around this point on the trail it starts to slope off enough that you can look down and see Mauna Loa, the Saddle beneath you, and even Hualālai if you're lucky.

Note the varied terrain to be found on the slopes of Mauna Kea.
Hualālai is just visible at the far right.
As we drew closer to the Vis at the 9200 foot mark we started to notice familiar landmarks seen from unfamiliar angles. We also started to see vegetation again!

Notice how the path drops off as we
come to the really steep part of the trail.
As we crested the last rise and saw the welcoming buildings of Hale Pōhaku spread out before us, well, it was a sight for sore eyes, let me tell you! (and sore legs too!)

I've said it before, but “Little House on
 the Big Mountain” fits so well here. Quite idyllic.
All in all, it was a great trip, and I'm glad I went, even it my legs are complaining today! (I'm so thankful today is a holiday and I don't have to hike a mile to school and back.) I had a wonderful time, especially getting to see the elusive Lake Waiau. If you ever have the chance to hike the Mauna Kea summit trail I'd highly recommend it, although I'd make sure to plan for at least seven hours (at least) if you're hiking up rather than down.

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