by John W. Perry
art courtesy John W. Perry Archival Images
Years ago, when I was still young and foolhardy enough to climb high volcanoes, I stood beside Mauna Loa’s summit caldera, Mokuaweoweo, watching wind-blown snowflakes tumble violently into the massive abyss. Nearby, marked "Wilkes Camp Site" on my topographical map, lay the historic spot where Charles Wilkes, naval commander of the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842), had encamped in December of 1840. Here at nearly 13,700 feet above sea level, Wilkes had suffered terribly from the high altitude and cold, while I warmly enjoyed the mountaintop’s frigid domain, thanks to high-tech mountain gear and a goose-feather sleeping bag.
He may not have been the first haole (foreigner) to summit Mauna Loathat distinction belongs to Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, who made the ascent in 1794but Wilkes was the first to make extensive scientific observations at the summit and leave a detailed published record of his climb. Prior to ascending Mauna Loa, I had read his Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1845), a massive, multi-volume book detailing the expedition’s Pacific-wide adventures. The Narrative’s chapters on Hawaii, writes A. Grove Day in Books About Hawaii, "made the world realize, almost for the first time, the existence of the Hawaiian archipelago as a region of superlative natural wonders and tropical charm near the western shore of the American continent." Wilkes’ impressive book is illustrated with a fine steel-engraved portrait of Hawaii’s king at the time, Kamehameha III, and remarkable views of Hawaii Island’s famous active volcanoes, K?lauea, (which means "spewing," as in a volcanic eruption), and Mauna Loa ("long mountain").
On arrival in Honolulu Harbor, Wilkes disembarked from the Vincennes, his flagship, and marched to the royal residence, where a Hawaiian in a scarlet-colored uniform stood guard. Inside, "seated in the midst of his retinue," sat Kamehameha III and his kuhina nui (premier), Keka¯uluohi, a former wife of Kamehameha I, the king’s famous father. Informally dressed in a blue coat and white pantaloons, the king engaged Wilkes in pleasant conversation, while Keka¯uluohi dazzled the commander in her attire of yellow silk and a head lei of yellow feathers from the mamo, a now-extinct forest bird. "She was," wrote Wilkes, "the most remarkable-looking personage I have ever seen."
Mauna Loa's summit, circa 1840
At the king’s request, Wilkes ordered a mapping survey of a large Oahu awa, or cove, called wai momi ("water of pearl") because of its pearl oysters. It was the U.S. Navy’s first technical work in what is now known as Pearl Harbor, which Wilkes described as a "lagoon filled by alluvial deposits." Correctly, he predicted that, if dredged, the inlet would be "the most capacious harbor in the Pacific." Sixty-eight years later, the U.S. Navy began construction on the now-famous naval base erected in the homeport of Kaahupahau, Oahu’s shark goddess.
However, it was Mauna Loa, not pearl-shell harbors nor royal chitchat, that most occupied Wilkes’ thoughts while he was in what were then known as the Sandwich Islands. As an explorer-scientist, he was determined to ascend the volcanothe most massive on earth, measuring more than 30,000 feet from its summit to its base on the ocean floorregardless of the physical cost. An iron will drove his resolve to overcome obstacles that would defeat weaker men, part of the reason that, in later years, he would be called "the American Captain Cook."
Wilkes’ expedition, resembling an African safari party, departed Hilo for Mauna Loa in grand style on Dec. 14, 1840. Two hundred Hawaiian porters slowly led the way inland toward the distant, snow-spattered volcano, carrying scientific instruments, food and tents, and driving a herd of forty hogs. Naval officers and common sailors solemnly followed on foot, unaware of the hardships that awaited them in the homeland of Pele, goddess of volcanoes. In the procession’s rear, seated in an armchair carried by four Hawaiians, sat the stern-looking Wilkes, who had earlier dined on koloa, a native species of duck that is endangered today but can still be seen in Hawaii’s wildlife refuges.
After a short stopover at K?lauea ("a huge pit, black, ill-looking"), where Wilkes’ dog, Sydney, burned its paws on hot lava, the expedition began its arduous ascent of Mauna Loa. An astonished Wilkes described the mountain before him as a "bronze-colored dome outlined against a deep-blue tropical sky." The view rendered him reflective: "I now felt the magnitude of the task I had undertaken."
As the expedition meandered skyward along the Ainapo ("darkened land") trail, sailors trained to climb ship’s masts, not a 13,677-foot volcano, fell ill from altitude sickness. The increasing cold numbed their toes and fingers. Distressed, Wilkes sent to Hilo for fifty more sailors from the Vincennes to assist in carrying equipment and supplies. Wisely, he established base camps along the ascent route to shelter the sick and transport cargo to the higher elevations, a procedure used by modern-day mountain-climbing expeditions. On Wilkes’ orders, the ill-dressed, freezing Hawaiians, some wearing ti-leaf sandals rather than shoes, gladly dropped their loads and returned downslope, still uncertain why Wilkes wanted to climb Mauna Loa in the first place.
Happily, Wilkes arrived at the volcano’s summit caldera in time to celebrate Christmas Day with hot chocolate heated with a few sticks of firewood. Bivouacked inside a tent at the crater’s edge, he sat wrapped in "blankets and furs," trying to keep warm during a snowstorm. Over the next several days he directed construction of a makeshift campsite, calling it Pendulum Peak, after a large pendulum clock he used for precision time measurements. To retard the cold and high winds, the party built walls of lava rock to encircle their tents, which contained sailors’ quarters, a kitchen and the expedition’s scientific instruments. The walls’ remains are still visible today.
Amid the summit hardships, Wilkes mapped the terrain, measured the depth of Mokuaweoweo and determined the correct height of Mauna Loa and its nearby sister, Mauna Keathe first official scientific measurements of the mountains and an important contribution to geographical knowledge. He documented the human heartbeat at high altitude and sniffed with a scientist’s nose volcanic fumes of sulfur, which Hawaiians called kukaepele , meaning "Pele’s dung." Using a mortar, which served as a morning wakeup gun during the ascent, he tested the velocity of sound in the mountain’s rarified atmosphere.
During his precious leisure hours atop Mauna Loa, he enjoyed watching clouds from above, which reminded him of looking down on "Antarctic icebergs" afloat on an endless sea. Always fascinated by scientific contraptions, he also made sketches of his Hawaiian guide, "Keaweehu," using a camera lucida, an optical device for tracing images on paper.
On Jan. 13, 1841, engulfed in falling snow, Wilkes departed the mountaintop, eager to complete his Hawaii visit and his historic around-the-world voyage. In his Narrative, he devotes fifty-six pages to the ascent of Mauna Loa, confident he had achieved a memorable place in the Western history of Hawaii. Despite the hardships, his only regret was a failure to acquire eggs for his breakfasts atop the volcano: Prior to his Mauna Loa ascent, a Hawaiian egg-seller had rejected silver coins as payment, demanding instead metal scissorsno scissors, no eggs, even for an omelet-starved Amelika (American) explorer with a bag full of coins.