We looked at the map to hike Mauna Loa and it looked rather straightforward. Drive up to 6,600 feet and hike 7.5 miles and 3,400 vertical feet to Red Hill shelter. After that it was 12.5 miles and 3,600 vertical feet to the summit where there was another shelter. We had hiked 5,000 vertical feet in 5-miles in North Cascades National Park at Sourdough Mountain. We’d also stacked together multiple 20+ mile days on the Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park. It seemed doable, we would have to get up early and just keep moving throughout the day.
Greg, the backcountry office ranger, advised us to to Mauna Loa in 3-4 days instead of the two that we were planning. He recommended one day up to Red Hill, one day up to the summit and then we could either descend in one day, or more likely we should descend to Red Hill and then hike out the following morning. Greg obviously didn’t know our hiking ability. We were far more talented than he assumed.
Before starting Mauna Loa, though, we had to hike back from sea level where we stayed at Ka’aha. It was only 3.8 miles but we were both exhausted. The sweltering heat and lack of breakfast wiped us out. We realized that we didn’t have enough calories so stopped by the convenience store in Volcano (yes, that is the town’s name) and picked up sodas, candy bars and Trevor grabbed a local delicacy, spam masubi (seaweed, sushi rice and spam). After stocking up on the extra food we made for the trail head and packed our bags. We were in 80 degree heat, but needed to pack as if we would be going skiing as the nighttime temperatures at the summit are 30 degrees or colder.
Day 1: Sea (Ka’aha Camp) to 10,035 feet (Red Hill Shelter)
Eat lunch in the Mauna Loa parking lot. Pack our bags with way too much stuff including a Tipsy Elves ski suit, an Outdoor Ukulele and other sponsor gear to take photos. We ate lunch in the covered picnic area and laughed at the absurd weight of our packs. As we stood there wishing we had brought a stove and had something other than canned sardines for dinner we met two locals who had come up to drink some beers and hang out. One of them gave us an avocado and wished us luck on mountain, we thanked him for the extra calories, loaded our packs and began hiking. The trail was moderately better traveled than the K’au Desert trail, there were some parts where you could see a difference in color in the lava, but we were still forced to navigate our way between lava rock cairns. The only other trail markers came as wooden posts that marked every 1,000 feet in elevation.
We hit 7,000 feet rather quickly. 8,000 came shortly after that and then our pace slowed to a snails crawl. By the time we reached 9,000 feet Trevor was fighting off a headache. Dehydration? Altitude sickness? Red Hill was at 10,000 feet and the final section was a continuous uphill slog. The sun was low on the horizon and in our eyes, so my eyes were directed towards the ground as I put one foot in front ofthe other. At 9,000 feet I began the mind numbing task of counting my steps, 1,2,3,4…2,2,3,4…3,2,3,4…and so on until I got to 1,249,2,3,4. The last thousand feet in elevation had taken 4,996 steps. Call me crazy, but I need the mind numbing. I didn’t want to think about the distance, or the heat, or the sun, or the elevation. I wanted to zone in on something that would completely occupy and distract my mind. So I counted to nearly 5,000, arrived at the shelter, put my pack down and ran up the ridge to take pictures of the setting sun. We were above the clouds and surrounded by lava flows.
The shelter could hold eight people and we were the seventh and eighth occupants to arrive. Everyone else was coming down after being on top of Mauna Loa, they were happy, excited and effervescent. We were the opposite, beaten, broken down and exhausted. There was a German couple of Lufthanasa pilots, two Israeli dudes, one who was a traveler like us and another who was in school in California, finally there was an elderly couple from California. They had all made it to the top, clearly we could do the same. In reality, none of them actually made it to the top. They hiked to the summit shelter, but were 200 feet of the actual summit, but who is paying attention to those type of details.
Day 2: 10,035 feet (Red Hill Shelter) to 13,400 feet (Summit Shelter)
We left Red Hill at just after 7am. Trevor had fully recovered from the day before and we were making good time. We were at 11,000 feet by 8:30am. We took a 30-minute break, but were at 12,000 feet by 10:30am. All seemed to be in order in terms of our hiking speed. After 8 miles without shade and grating our feet on rough lava we were out of juice and stopped for a lunch that ended up being an hour-long break. 13,000 feet didn’t come until just after 1:00pm and Trevor accurately described our pace as a drunken stupor. You couldn’t drink water fast enough, combine the heat with the decrease in oxygen as we increased our elevation and we were consistently gassed. We made it to the summit crossroads at 1:45pm. Near the summit there is a crossroads that forces you to make a decision. The path to the left takes you two miles to the summit shelter at 13,400. The path to the right takes you two and a half miles to the geographical summit at 13,600. Based on our pace we didn’t think we could make it to the summit and back to the shelter before dark, so we opted for the shelter. We arrived at the shelter shortly after 3pm and proceeded to take a three-hour nap. We woke up to watch the sunset, eat some food and then it was back to bed.
Day 3: 13,600 feet (Summit) to 10,035 feet (Red Hill Shelter)
We awoke at dawn and ate breakfast so that we could begin our hike to the summit. The two miles back to the crossroads were infinitely easier than the day before, I suppose a full nights rest at elevation and two full meals will do that.
We stashed a bunch of our gear at the crossroads and hiked to the summit where we took pictures with our sponsor gear and enjoyed the fact that we were atop on of the largest mountains in the world. From its base 18,000 feet in the ocean Mauna Loa is over 31,000 feet tall. Making it nearly 2,000 feet taller than Everest. We took photos and Trevor was able to track down a USGS webcam and ran over to get his picture next to the summit. We also called Greg, the backcountry ranger, both to let him know we were doing well and that there was in fact cell reception at the summit. He was genuinely surprised, we aren’t sure if it was because we were doing well, or because of the reception.
We stopped for lunch at the crossroads and prepared ourselves for the 9.5 miles down to Red Hill Shelter. Compared to the day before it was quite simple. That being said, hiking on lava is still brutal on your feet. We arrived at Red Hill right as the sun was setting. There is a tiny hill behind the shelter which gives you a great view at neighboring Mauna Kea and positions you perfectly to overlook the clouds. Being above the clouds is a rather surreal feeling. It feels like you are on top of the world.
Day 4: 10,035 feet (Red Hill Shelter) to Sea Level (Apua Point)
We left early knowing that while we only had 7.5 miles to hike out we were also intending to hike and camp on the coast. The way down was much easier than the way up and we coasted all the way until we got back to our rental car.
After a quick lunch we made a stop at Volcano (town name) to reload on corn syrup laden supplies, soda and Little Debbie snacks. Our next stop was the Backcountry Permit office where we ran into our friend Greg and got a permit to camp on the Puna Coast Trail at Apua Point. We had made it up and down Mauna Loa and lived to tell the tale, success!