Up the Long Mountain

Freezing lava deserts, altitude sickness and a steaming caldera make the Mauna Loa Trail one of Hawai‘i’s toughest, least attempted and most rewarding treks
Story by Kyle Ellison. Photos by Matt McDonald.

It hasn’t snowed much overnight, so we’ll at least be able to follow the trail of footsteps we’d crunched into yesterday’s snowpack during our ascent. I try to think warm thoughts—if we make good time, don’t get lost and can endure the wind, we’ll be at the beach by sunset. This is, after all, Hawai‘i.

The door begins rattling just after midnight and doesn’t stop until dawn. The wind is literally knocking on our door, and the water we’d planned to boil for coffee is a block of ice. With every clang of the metal latch and every whistling gust, I remember anew that in hours—soon minutes—we’ll need to walk out into the lifeless moonscape, wind chill near zero, and trudge through shin-deep snow.

Our group of three Maui-based adventurers has climbed some of the world’s most famous peaks, from Rainier to Kilimanjaro, but had never scaled the snowy mountains in our own backyard. Wanting to trek through Hawaiian snow, we chose to hike in the middle of winter and chase a storm forecast to drop six to eight inches of powder. Confidence levels were high given our experience, but lying there in the summit cabin having already walked nearly twenty miles on the grueling, two-day ascent and listening to the wind slowly pick up, we agree that this is as hard—if not harder—than anything we’ve ever done.

For those hardy enough to climb the state’s second-tallest (and still active) volcano, Mauna Loa, the spectacular summit caldera of Moku‘āweoweo awaits. Above, hiker Jason Cantor warms his hands while preparing dinner in the summit cabin.

At forty-three lung-stretching miles, the Mauna Loa Trail is often called Hawai‘i’s most challenging hike. Much of the trek is above ten thousand feet, and if you stay at the summit cabin, it means sleeping at 13,250 feet—higher than the highest point in forty-three US states. Altitude sickness and nausea are common, headaches are almost guaranteed and snowstorms can form at any time of year, even in midsummer. If altitude and weather aren’t challenge enough, the whole journey is up the rocky flank of the world’s largest active volcano.

Mauna Loa—“long mountain”—last erupted in 1984, and 98 percent of its surface is younger than ten thousand years. It sprawls across 2,035 square miles, which is not only larger than Rhode Island or Delaware but also nearly as big as the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined. With ten thousand cubic miles of rock, it is 375 times the size of Mount Hood in Oregon and more voluminous, when measured from seafloor to summit, than the entire Cascade or Sierra Nevada mountain ranges.

Why, then, does Mauna Loa not get more attention? Because it’s Hawai‘i’s second-tallest peak (by just 119 feet), it misses out on all the fanfare bestowed upon its nearby sister, Mauna Kea. It’s less exciting than its dynamic neighbor, Kīlauea, which has been famously erupting for thirty-five years. Despite its gargantuan size, it somehow manages to fly under the radar—and very few people seem to care.

The summit cabin sits at 13,250 feet, reachable through a grueling, two-day ascent. Temperatures there drop below freezing and snow is present during much of the year.

Just how undervisited is Mauna Loa? Consider that Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park sees two million visitors per year—but only 312 of those two million people apply for the backcountry permit needed to sleep near Mauna Loa’s summit. To save you from doing the math, that’s roughly one-hundredth of one percent of annual visitors to the park.

When the travel writer Isabella Bird climbed Mauna Loa in 1873, she noted the mountain’s summit area was “rarely visited by man.” Her climb, she was told, was“a fool’s errand” because only a fool would choose to do such a thing. There are simply some of us out there, however, who itch if we only stand on the slopes and never ascend, drawn by the angst of vistas going unseen. Others just like the lonely silence or the transcendental calm. Some of us hear the same voice John Muir heard telling him he must go to the mountains.

Why we climb up is a matter of personal choice, but for the Scottish explorer Archibald Menzies, who logged Mauna Loa’s first recorded ascent in 1794, it was the pursuit of scientific knowledge. A botanist, naturalist and surgeon, Menzies accompanied explorer George Vancouver on his round-the-world expedition. Upon arriving on Hawai‘i Island, Menzies was keenly interested in getting a fix on Mauna Loa’s height. Previous explorers, who had sailed with Captain James Cook, failed miserably in trying to reach the summit when they became lost in the forest, tangled amid ferns and forced to sleep beneath logs. Based on the snow line, they erroneously estimated that “the altitude of the summit cannot be less than 18,400 feet.”

Menzies was dubious of so large a figure, and along with a small expedition that included a native “unfortunate man-servant” whom Menzies tasked with carrying a three-foot-tall barometer, he headed for Mauna Loa’s peak. They, too, were denied—twice—unable to find a path up the mountain.

It wasn’t until King Kamehameha I suggested they try from the east that Menzies succeeded. Vancouver’s ship was anchored off the island’s west coast, so Menzies headed south by canoe and then overland toward Kapāpala with a team of native guides. Only bird catchers frequented the cool, upper reaches of the forest, and it’s believed that Hawaiians would go higher only during eruptions to see Pele’s fiery shows.

Their trip was fueled by biscuits, rum, coconuts and chocolate, and according to an entry from Menzies’ journal, they slept on “beds of flat rocks, with pillows of hard lava, and in this way passed the night tolerably comfortable.” The journey, however, was anything but easy, and after returning to the foot of the mountain, he called the trip “the most persevering and hazardous struggle that can possibly be perceived.” Menzies estimated Mauna Loa to be 13,634 feet high—a miscalculation of just forty-three feet, which is amazingly accurate for such an early date.

I think about Menzies while lying awake in the summit cabin predawn, picturing him nibbling on a biscuit of hardtack before going to sleep on a rock. Even though it is literally freezing inside the cabin, we’re fortunate to be sleeping indoors with pillows, sleeping bags and food.

Prior to 1934, when the summit cabin was constructed, climbers had to sleep outdoors or, if lucky, in tents. Some would shelter in Jaggar’s Cave, a large, rock-lined hole in the ground at thirteen thousand feet that blocks the wind. It bears the name of Thomas Jaggar, the pioneering volcanologist who not only founded the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory but also suggested, in 1912, that a trail be built on the north-eastern flank so hikers could access Mauna Loa from Kīlauea.

By 1915 that trail had been built—constructed by the US Army’s African-American 25th Infantry regiment, the famed“Buffalo Soldiers.” They’d already built trails in the desert near Mexico and across the Sierra Nevada, and given their success in difficult climates, they were seen as a strong, capable team for carving a route to the summit. Toiling for months in the desolate terrain, they blazed a path that the Mauna Loa Trail still closely follows today.

At left, writer Kyle Ellison and Cantor hike across pāhoehoe (smooth lava) with neighboring volcano Mauna Kea in the background. At right, Ellison and Cantor on the first mile of trail, where vegetation offers some shade.

When Menzies had made his trip to the top, he followed the steeper ‘Ainapō Trail, which weaves up the mountain’s southeastern flank. Hikers can still take that route today, but it crosses over private land and requires permission. Another alternative, the Observatory Trail, departs from the Mauna Loa Observatory near eleven thousand feet and is only twelve and a half miles round-trip to the summit. It’s the preferred route for day hikers, but just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean it’s better. Because hikers can drive up to eleven thousand feet—on a road that, amazingly, was built in the 1950s using prison labor and partially funded by the sale of one-dollar lava rocks—altitude sickness is much more common because there’s so little time to acclimate. And if something goes wrong, national park personnel won’t even know you’re up there.

Jessica Ferracane, the public affairs specialist for Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, says that a backcountry permit is “absolutely crucial” for ensuring your safety on the mountain. When Alex Sverdlov, an experienced hiker, became trapped in a snowstorm in 2014, he got lost, slept in the snow and at one point thought he might die. But because he had a permit, rangers knew he must have been in trouble when he failed to return to his car and staged a dramatic helicopter rescue.

Cantor and Ellison relax at the Pu‘u‘ula‘ula cabin, acclimating to the altitude after an intense, seven-mile uphill slog from the trailhead. Visitors to the Pu‘u‘ula‘ula cabin have inscribed their experiences on its walls. Some of the graffiti dates back to the 1960s.

Flipping through logbooks inside of the cabin, I’m amazed to read of the back-country folly endured by so many hikers. Some trekked in rubber slippers and walked for hours in the dark or stumbled through thigh-deep snow with little more than a daypack. Our group came equipped for backcountry survival, which is how Ferracane says to prepare, because the park doesn’t have a chopper on call and if you get into trouble, you might be on your own. John Broward, chief ranger for Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park (and the one who rescued Sverdlov), says many of the rescues they’ve conducted in the past could have been averted if hikers had simply taken the time to study a map. Also realize you’re setting out on a hike that one former visitor described in the logbook as “a mixture of heaven and hell.” That same phrase has been used in the past by Mauna Loa observatory scientists; some extol the heavenly views and grounding sense of calm. One threatened to shoot off his own foot if forced to ever go back.

It isn’t easy spending multiple days in a silent, shadeless void, but our group is up for the challenge as we cinch down our packs, lace up our boots and at 9 a.m. take our first steps into the rock-strewn wilderness of the Mauna Loa Trail. Compared with the rest of the hike, the first mile, beginning near seven thousand feet, is an anomaly. Koa and ‘ōhi‘a trees partially shade the misty trail, and pūkiawe and ‘ōhelo berry bushes spring up from the craggy black rock.

By the third mile the ‘ōhelo are gone, and when we cross the tree line above eight thousand feet, we see what lies ahead of us, just as US Navy Captain Charles Wilkes had during his 1841 expedition. An “immense dome rose up before us from a plain some twenty miles in breadth. I had not, until then, formed any adequate idea of its magnitude and height … and now, for the first time, felt the magnitude of the task I had undertaken.” Of the terrain itself—which he hiked with a caravan of two hundred people carrying hogs and calabashes of water and poi—he lamented, “There was never more difficult or unpleasant ground to travel over.”

That description still rings true as we climb over jagged ‘a‘ā lava and rolls of uneven pāhoehoe following a line of ahu, or rock cairns, that lead the way up the mountain. There is no trail in the traditional sense—just clambering from one ahu to the next over uneven layers of rock, through a landscape riddled with lava tubes, caves and the scars of freshly (in geologic terms) scorched earth.

Staying upright means paying attention to where you step, but if you don’t keep looking up to orient yourself to the next cairn, you’re lost before you know it. Some ahu are three feet high and easy to see from afar, while others are barely as high as your ankles and camouflaged against rocks. It’s a difficult trail to find in the daytime—impossible in the dark.

By 2 p.m. we reach the first cabin at Pu‘u‘ula‘ula, or Red Hill. The air is thinner, at just over ten thousand feet, and the final pitch to the cabin is up steep red cinder on an 8,500-year-old spatter cone. Oxidized iron gives the hill its red color, though a nearby flow of pāhoehoe makes it look as if jet-black paint has been slowly poured on an umber canvas. From tree line to summit, the landscape is constantly changing colors before you. Some lava shimmers with silver and gold and crumbles beneath your feet. Yellowish browns fade into reds and are suddenly sliced by black —a painterly palimpsest of Mauna Loa’s restive history.

Since 1832, when American missionary Joseph Goodrich made the first known record of a Mauna Loa eruption (which he could see from Maui), the mountain has erupted thirty-three times. During the eruption of 1926, lava buried the coastal village of Ho‘ōpūloa, and the small village of Ho‘okena Mauka was consumed in 1949. Hilo—Hawai‘i’s third-largest city—could be lost to an eruption, and there have been some really close calls.

In 1881, when a river of lava approached to within two miles of Hilo, Princess Ke‘elikōlani was summoned from O‘ahu and asked to pray for the town. A staunch proponent of Hawaiian tradition, she stood within feet of the flow armed with offerings and prayers. While many were critical of her approach, the flow stopped within days of her visit, and Hilo was spared.

Things went a bit differently, however, when lava once again threatened Hilo in 1935. The military took to the skies and dropped bombs to try to divert the flow by collapsing tubes near its source. When the eruption stopped just a few days later, bombing proponents like Thomas Jaggar were quick to label it a success. Others, however, called it a coincidence, as most of the bombs were off target. Many Native Hawaiians condemned the act as a sacrilege against Pele and the ‘āina (land). It might have been no surprise to them, then, that four weeks later two of the airplanes involved in the bombing collided midair over O‘ahu, and some of the airmen who’d bombed Mauna Loa were killed—at the time the largest aviation disaster in Hawai‘i’s history.

There’s no question it will happen again, and scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory think it could be soon. The volcano has been silent for thirty-four years, which is a historical anomaly—the mountain is well overdue. If lava breaks out on the northeastern flank, it could take weeks—even months—for a flow to reach Hilo, but a large eruption on the south-western flank could reach the island’s coastal communities in a matter of hours. In recent years the microseismicity (the occurrence of small earthquakes) has been trending toward an event, and scientists have dozens of monitoring stations that will alert them if it looks like “the big one.” Scientists think they can predict an eruption at least a couple of weeks out, but as we clamber across rocks that are younger than I am, it’s still unnerving to know that this quiet ground is only sleeping.

You can still see the scars of Pele’s fury from the top of Pu‘u‘ula‘ula, which we scale via a spur trail behind the cabin, our backcountry home for the first night. With the sun fading in the west and Mauna Kea’s snowcapped peak looming on the northern horizon, an orange glow from the lava lake in Kīlauea’s caldera rises in the east. Soft at first, then progressively stronger, by nightfall it’s like a pillar of light bursting from the earth, shooting toward a sky full of stars.

We have the Red Hill cabin to ourselves —three guys and five empty bunks. Rather than jostling among hundreds of visitors at the park’s main overlook, our 7.5-mile trek has earned us a private viewing of Kīlauea’s fire far below. Later that night a lightning storm flashes on the horizon with a fury I’ve never seen, and when combined with the glow in the east and the Milky Way above, the sky crackles with an energy that makes us feel as small as we are.

By morning the rocks are covered in frost, and the cabin temperature hovers just below freezing. The hardest part of the hike lies ahead, with nearly twelve miles of climbing across lava, all above ten thousand feet. The trail doesn’t have mileage markers, so elevation—rather than distance—is our best indicator of progress. We stop to rest, eat, drink and check our altimeters with every thousand-foot gain.

Ellison and Cantor pass thirteen thousand feet and look for the next ahu, or stone marker, leading to the summit cabin. At this altitude, the Mauna Loa Trail is less a clear path than a series of ahu; making sure one can see the next marker is the only insurance against getting lost.

At eleven thousand feet we cross lava from the 1984 eruption, which cracks and breaks beneath our feet. Black pāhoehoe spills down small ravines like frozen, billowing waterfalls and even consumes the trail in places, forcing us to scramble over them. At twelve thousand feet we pass Steaming Cone, which during its eruption in 1855 covered the trail in olive-green pumice that’s settled like sand on the slopes—a relief from the lava and easily our favorite section of trail. By the time we pass thirteen thousand feet, the Pohaku Hanalei spatter cone is thirty minutes behind us, and the landscape is nothing but black and white—a volcano covered in snow. Thunder booms up from clouds down below, and despite the urge to rest, we need to outpace the approaching storm.

The last two miles—which seem like four—are by far the hardest, as we trudge across icy ‘a‘ā while trying to suck oxygen out of the thinning air. Only two things sustain us now: adrenaline and the view. The climb up to thirteen thousand feet had been scaling the side of a mountain, but the final two miles involve walking the rim of Moku‘āweoweo. At seven square miles and six hundred feet deep, the caldera is Mauna Loa’s pièce de résistance, the reward for reaching the top. David Douglas, who in 1834 became the first person to summit Mauna Loa since Menzies had forty years prior, wrote, “The spectator is lost in terror and admiration at beholding [the] enormous sunken pit … how insignificant are the works of man in their greatest magnitude and perfection, compared with such a place.” When Bird was here in 1873, she experienced Moku‘äweoweo in the throes of a violent eruption, where“a pit of unresting fire” created a bubbling lake of lava for which the caldera is named: Moku‘āweoweo means “island of the ‘āweoweo,” which is a fish whose vibrant red color is reminiscent of glowing lava.

The caldera floor still steams today, wispy fumaroles swirling among patches of snow. After crossing the North Pit of Moku‘āweoweo and skirting the edge of Lua Poholo, a pit that drops two hundred feet to a bottom that’s too deep to see, we clamber along the rocky rim and arrive at the summit cabin just minutes ahead of the storm. It would fortunately drop only a dusting, and I hold out my hand to ceremoniously catch a Hawaiian snowflake.

Nine hours later, in the middle of the night, the wind is at our door, and at dawn one of my hiking companions walks out-side, bends over and vomits in the snow. It’s hardly unexpected; numerous hikers had left notes in the cabin logbook about doing exactly that. One entry sums up our entire journey better than all the others: “Worst altitude sickness of my life. Would do it again in a heartbeat.” HH