Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Climbing Mauna Loa

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to hike the summit of Mauna Loa with a few friends.

Mauna Loa, if you don't know, is the largest volcano on Earth, and second in the Solar System only to Olympus Mons on Mars. It is estimated to have a volume of 18,000 cubic miles of rock (75,000 km\(^3\)), that is, 375 times the size of Mount Hood, enough to fill the Grand Canyon 18 times over, and more than the entire Sierra Nevada range. It achieves this great volume by being not only incredibly tall (almost 56,000 feet! [17 km]), but incredibly flat. The overall slope of the mountain doesn't exceed 12\(^\circ\), which, despite its great height, makes it rather hard to see when you're directly on it. From Hilo, Mauna Loa just looks like a big hill, while Mauna Kea (which is only 120 feet taller than it) looks like a looming mountain. The name Mauna Loa means "Long Mountain" in Hawaiian, and as I quickly discovered, it could not be more appropriate.

We got out of Hilo a bit late, and the fact that the road from the Saddle road up to the Mauna Loa Observatories is a big pot-hole-y mess meant we didn't arrive at the 11,000 foot mark until 8:40, at which point we left the car and began hiking. Now, being the over-prepared nerd that I am I had taken the opportunity beforehand to thoroughly inspect our route on Google Earth, so that I would have at the very least a mental map in case I couldn't get reception, or the weather suddenly turned nasty and we couldn't navigate. The smooth slope of Mauna Loa actually makes it somewhat difficult to determine which way is mauka (uphill, away from the sea) or makai (downhill, seaward) in places.

Anyway, on Google Earth there was a very clearly defined route traveling up the mountain via several switch backs that petered out just below the rim of North Pit, a small secondary crater on the edge of the summit caldera, which is named Mokuʻāweoweo.  (Mokuʻāweoweo is an absolutely huge crater, 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long. North Pit is small only in comparison, and is probably a mile in diameter.) I naturally assumed that this was the "6 mile trail" mentioned on several websites, and that it would be a fairly simple matter to just walk up the nice, gentle slope of Mauna Loa's flank.

Since no one else was showing any signs of navigation, I assumed the position (aided by the fact that I had excellent reception [and access to Google Maps] the entire way up) and bravely led the group up the fork of the trail that led up the mountain, rather than the mysterious fork that appeared to continue on around the mountain. Or, rather, I pointed the way out to the group and huffed and puffed along behind them in the thin atmosphere. Along the way I turned around long enough to snap the following picture of Mauna Loa in the early morning light:

Mauna Kea in all its glory. So pretty...
In the slightly zoomed-in image below, you can make out several observatories on the summit (I see the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, Subaru, the Caltech Sub-millimeter Observatory, Keck I & II, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Gemini North, and the UH 88-inch telescope) and can even spot the limits of Mauna Kea's glaciers as a fairly distinct line encircling the mountain about a third of the way down from the summit.

Observatories on Mauna Kea, and the line marking the extent of glaciation.

Breathing at altitude is funny stuff. The slightest exertion leaves you breathing heavily, and heavy exertion has you gasping. By the end of the day I was beginning to worry I'd cracked every rib in my body from the force of my breathing alone. (Thankfully, that healed up in about two day. But boy, when it hurts to breathe, every day seems like an eternity.)

Anyway, we continued on our merry oxygen-deprived way for an hour. Then two. Then another. And another. Finally, after five hours of almost non-stop walking, at long last we we reached...the edge of North Pit. Oh, and did I mention that the clouds came in and started dropping sleet on us (yes, sleet) about noon?

Trying to get out of the constant light sleet I clamored down the edge of North Pit, found a slight outcropping of the crater rim, and proceeded to eat the small lunch I had brought with me. It was quite exciting to be sitting on the frozen surface of a vast lava sea, knowing that the volcano had been active a mere twenty-eight years earlier, and that a vast magma chamber lurked only a little less than two miles below my feet. I was able to put together the following panorama while I was sitting there:

North Pit on the summit of Mauna Loa, with the true summit visible in the distance.
This picture was taken in a rare five-minute period when the Sun broke through the clouds. Off in the distance, just below the far wall of North Pit you can see steam rising from the floor of the crater. Further off you can see through the break in the wall of Mokuʻāweoweo, and even see the highest part of the crater rim near the center of the image.

By this time, it was already 2 in the afternoon, the sleet was switching to rain and back again and showing no signs of letting up, and we still had to walk down, so after eating a woefully late lunch we started the trek back down. I was happy when we got low enough for the sleet to stop, until it was replaced by rain. That morning I had made the decision to wear my (lighter, non-water-proof) fleece in favor of my (heavier, water-proof) coat, so everything I had very slowly began to moisten as we walked down. That actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because my damp clothes kept me from overheating and kept my body temperature just about perfect the entire way down. Thankfully the rain never got heavier than a light drizzle.

Three hours after we left the summit we finally staggered back to car, whereupon we had another hour-and-a-half drive back to civilization. I haven't heard of any lasting injuries, but we were all stiff and sore for the next few days.

Mauna Loa is an absolutely fascinating mountain, especially when you compare it with its near sibling Mauna Kea. The lava on Mauna Loa is obviously much newer and fresher than on Mauna Kea, where most lava flows have been covered by either cinder, glacial deposits, or vegetation. (There are some places near Mauna Kea's summit where you can see the exposed flows, usually deeply scarred from the glaciers they erupted under.) On Mauna Loa,  lava flows stand out stark and fresh. They also weather to a different color; while old lava on Mauna Kea oxidizes to a reddish-brown color, Mauna Loa's lava goes more for a straight brown. It's very neat to be driving through a patch of black lava, probably less than a hundred years old, and come across a small kīpuka of much older brown lava that didn't get covered in the middle of it. There is a lot of older lava on Mauna Loa (take a look at the picture below for some) and it's fascinating to think about what Mauna Kea must have looked like before it began its post-shield phase and covered everything with a layer of cinder. Alternatively, it's really cool to imagine Mauna Loa after it enters its post-shield phase and starts erupting cinder and cinder cones all over.

A fairly old lava flow on Mauna Loa's flank.
Note how the lava is starting to crumble and flake off.
All in all it was an incredible experience, though one I am in no hurry to replicate. In fact, after we got back and started mentioning it to others more familiar with the mountain, it turned out that we had missed the actual trail and taken the vehicle trail. (Turns out it was that mysterious fork after all...) So instead of a 12.2 mile round trip, it was probably more like 15-20. Because it took us so long to reach the summit we were in no position to actually explore or look around, so we didn't make it to either the true summit on the west side of the crater or the location of the historic Wilkes Expedition campsite on the east side. (The Wilkes Expedition was part of the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the Pacific, a push by the young United States to explore the Pacific for scientific and commercial reasons that lasted from 1838 to 1842. Fun fact: the site of Wilkes' campsite on the rim of Mokuʻāweoweo is the only physical evidence in the Pacific that remains of the entire expedition.)

Now that I know where the trail really is, I wouldn't mind going back some day (hopefully one with better weather) and trying again for the summit. Because despite the discomfort and days of soreness, there's something incredibly cool about standing on an active volcano so far removed from sea level and civilization.

I'm going to close this post by linking to a chapter from a book called Life in Hawaii by Titus Coan, an early American Christian missionary. He describes Mauna Loa's great eruption of 1855-56 that came within a few miles of destroying Hilo. He describes ascending to over 12,000 feet to find the source of the eruption, watching it for many days, trying to cross it in full flood (!!!), and a whole bunch of other incredibly nifty observations about it. It's a long read, but I suspect that once you start you won't be able to stop reading it. Here it is: The Eruption of 1855.


  1. Hey, very cool! Especially the weather. When are you going to do that spelunking we talked about? See the other end of those magma flows?

    1. I don't know, I'll see about it. Maybe sometime next month or something.

    2. If you do it, take the rite(->) fork.



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