Issue 6.5: October/November 2003

Big Air on Mauna Kea

story and photos by Kirk Lee Aeder

Sean Ammons flies high on Mauna Kea.

It’s a typical winter morning in Hilo: After a night of cool northerly winds and pounding rain, the sky is beginning to clear. Scott Wolff gets out of bed and heads down the hall to get the coffee started. Looking west out of his kitchen window, he gets the day’s first glimpse of Mauna Kea. But he can’t yet see what he’s really interested in—the volcano’s towering summit, which is shrouded in dark clouds. He drinks his coffee and waits and before long, his patience is rewarded: The dark clouds dissipate and the early morning light reveals precisely what he’s been hoping for—glistening white layers of snow.

Scott goes into his cluttered garage and begins unpacking boards. Thick dust fills the air as he places the boards, along with snow boots, gloves and winter parkas, inside his weathered pick-up truck. If this was any other morning, he’d be going surfing at nearby Honolii Cove, or windsurfing over at South Point. But not today. Today, with temperatures on the volcano below freezing, is all about snowboarding.

Mention the words "snow" and "Hawaii" in the same sentence to Island visitors, and you may get a blank stare in return. After all, Hawai‘i is often seen as a place to escape the snow. But on the Big Island, with its two 13,000-plus-foot peaks, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, snowfalls are a rare but real winter phenomenon. Whether it’s a vigorous cold front sweeping down from the Gulf of Alaska or an intense Kona low, both weather patterns can create snow—and bring out local residents eager to play in it. The venerable Hilo Ski Club is now over seventy years old—though these days, snowboarders atop the mountain vastly outnumber skiers (perhaps not so surprising given that Hawaii is the birthplace of surfing, and the sport of snowboarding has a lot in common with wave-riding). Daredevils on Mauna Kea can try their luck on snow-filled inclines with names like King Kamehameha’s Run, Alii’s Run, Warrior’s Run, the Poi Bowl and Pele’s Parlor.

This morning Scott Wolff, one of Hilo’s most enthusiastic snowboarders, knows he won’t be able to get to the top right away. After each snowfall, it takes county maintenance crews a minimum of several hours to clear the road to Mauna Kea’s 13,679-foot summit. The road is plowed so that the scientists who work in the observatories can get to their research stations, but the snowboarders get to reap the benefit—a change from the early days of the Hilo Ski Club, when enthusiasts drove to the 8,000-foot level (then as far as the road went) and rode by horseback to the summit. And even today it’s not a complete cruise for snowboarders on the mountain—there are still no chair lifts or rope tows when they get to the top.

Scott runs a few errands and calls the county road report every hour for an update. By noon, he gets the news he’s looking for: The roads are clear all the way to the summit, and Mauna Kea is once again open to the public. It’s perfect: Scott knows the snow will soften by early afternoon, creating prime snowboarding conditions. He makes a last stop at a nearby store to pack his cooler full of food and begins his journey.

Scott traverses the inclines of the Saddle Road, which bends and winds its way through the Big Island’s interior, past rainforest and volcanic cinder cones. Edging closer to his destination, he gets his first good look at Mauna Kea’s sister mountain, Mauna Loa; its summit is also covered with a thick blanket of snow. People do occasionally try to ski or snowboard on Mauna Loa, but Mauna Kea is much more accessible. From this part of the Saddle Road, it’s easy to see how the mountains got their names. Mauna Loa, with its elongated sloping summit, means ‘long mountain’; Mauna Kea, with its more defined, jagged peak now covered with snow, means ‘white mountain.’

By the time the Saddle Road intersects Mauna Kea Road, Scott has already climbed 5,000 feet above sea level. He makes the turn and heads for the top. From his home in Hilo, he can be at the summit of Mauna Kea in ninety minutes, including a thirty-minute stop at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy at Halepo¯haku, at the 8,000-foot level. The stop is made to allow the body to acclimatize to the high altitude before ascending to the summit, and it’s a necessity: Altitude sickness is a real phenomenon on the volcano. To deal with it, some people take aspirin, which helps to thin the blood, while others drink liquids with plenty of electrolytes.

A competitor takes to the air
during the Mauna Kea
Snowboarding Championship.

At the Center, Scott meets up with friend and fellow snowboarder Sean Ammons, and the two drive the rest of the way together. The remaining 5,000-foot climb to the top is serene and surreal. Small patches of snow begin to appear in the desolate moon-like landscape, creating a stark contrast to the black volcanic rock. The road, carved into the side of the steep mountain, twists its way across the eerie landscape. Above 10,000 feet, vegetation is sparse. What were earlier patches of snow turn into thick drifts the higher Scott and Sean go. Their hearts begin to beat faster and their pulses quicken, and it’s not just because of the altitude and the lack of oxygen—it’s also because they know they’ll soon be snowboarding on the pristine slopes of Mauna Kea.

By the 12,000-foot level, the entire terrain is covered with snow. No matter how many times Scott and Sean have been up here, they still marvel at the sight. A few minutes later, they reach the summit. Scott is careful to park his truck close, but not next to, one of the observatories. After years of snowboarding expeditions up the mountain, he’s well aware that sharp chunks of snow can fall from the observatories without warning.

It’s eerily quiet except for the sound of breathing and packed snow crunching under foot as Scott and Sean remove their snowboards from the truck. The view is a 360-degree panorama. In the near distance looking southeast, Mauna Loa’s summit is visible. Looking west reveals the shimmering waters of the Pacific and Alenuihaha Channel, which separates the Big Island from Maui and its towering volcanic mountain, Haleakala. Scott and Sean realize how lucky they are that Mauna Kea’s summit—for the moment at least—is cloud-free. But blustery, below-freezing winds chill their faces, the only part of their bodies not covered by layers of clothes. As they prepare their equipment, they notice a few other snowboarders arriving. Up here, it’s good to have company. Everyone is full of smiles—and for good reason.

"Hey, which board are you going to use?" Sean asks Scott.

"The snow looks like it’s getting softer so I think I’ll use this one," Scott replies, pulling out a sleek-looking board and explaining how its harder rails will make turning easier in the softening snow. Before long, the duo is surveying the terrain to decide which run they’ll try first.

Scott Wolff (top) and
Sean Ammons walking
back up Warrior's Run.
A long run down one of the mountain sides can be exhausting; since oxygen is scarce, the snowboarders must pace themselves. Warrior’s Run, for example, features a 1,300-foot walk up a virtually ninety degree slope. Running it means thirty minutes of agony for two minutes of pure exhilaration.

As they decide, Scott and Sean consult with the other snowboarders on the mountain, and camaraderie fills the air. Eventually, the crew settles for the run directly below the observatories, which has the great advantage of being accessible to the road at the bottom—so that after slipping, sliding and jumping down the mountain, snowboarders can get a free ride back to the top to do it all over again. Going full speed, a snowboarder can be at the bottom of this run in less than three minutes.

Before long, Scott and Sean have their boards strapped to their feet. After a lengthy stare down the hill to search for any exposed black lava rocks, they begin their free fall into the Hawaiian snow. The remaining snowboarders aren’t far behind and their yells of exuberance echo across the mountain.

Not everyone gets to snowboard on every run—someone has to be the driver. They take turns, and after a run, everyone piles and crams their way into the back of someone’s truck. A couple of minutes later, they are back where they started, getting ready for the next takeoff.

Not all of Hawaii’s avid snow seekers hail from the Big Island. One day each winter—snow permitting, of course—hoards of snowboarders arrive from nearly all of the Islands to compete in the Mauna Kea Snowboarding Championship.

"When they hold that contest up here, it becomes a whole different scene. The road is so packed with cars that there are actually traffic jams—atop Mauna Kea!" laughs Scott.

The snowboarding championship consists of two parts—a slalom race and a "big air" jump—all held at nearly 14,000 feet, under the watchful eye of a few clouds and the surrounding observatories. The event was started by Maui windsurfing expert Kim Ball, who moved to the Valley Isle in 1980—ironically, after a brief career as a ski instructor in Lake Tahoe, California, and Snow Mountain, Colorado.

"It’s funny when I think about it, because the reason I moved to Maui was to get away from the snow and try out a different lifestyle," says Ball today. But the year after he arrived in the Islands, unable to resist the lure of Mauna Kea’s fresh powder, Ball went skiing on the mountain for the first time.

"I had a blast!" he remembers. "Snowboarding wasn’t even around then. But I went skiing on several occasions after we would get those big storms in winter months. Several years later, we started getting into snowboarding, and eventually there were so many people doing it we came up with the idea of having an event."

The inaugural Mauna Kea Snowboarding Championship was held in 1994. A storm came up, snow fell, a few quick phone calls were made and competitors were given what has become a trademark of the event today—twenty-four-hours notice. Everyone who made it up to Mauna Kea’s summit was automatically entered in the event. The first year, forty-nine competitors—from Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island—showed up, including several of Hawai‘i’s better-known windsurfers, like Robby Naish, Peter Cabrinha and Rush Randle, all of whom are extreme sport stars today.

Robert Teritehau, halfway
through his winning
360-degree loop in
the 1996 championship.

It wasn’t long before the contest featured international competitors. In 1996, under a cloudless blue sky, a shirtless Robert Teritehau from New Caledonia executed a perfect 360-degree loop during the big air jump. Other notables that year were Roger Anderson from Maui and Paul Hardy of Canada. Hawai‘i’s Obidiah Miller won the 1997 slalom event in the middle of a blizzard, and Sarge Barrilleaux, Forrest Murphy and Victoria Trujillo led an all-Big Island sweep in the December 2001 event, the last time the contest was held.

"It’s unbelievable how much it’s grown," says Ball. "I get phone calls from all over the world now asking, ‘When’s the event?’" People everywhere, it seems, are drawn by the lure of snowboarding a volcano. And the contest itself has its fans, who compare it to the old surfing contests of the 1960s, when competing for dollars was never the issue and the event was all for fun. The championship has remained free to enter since it was created, and its low-key prizes include sandwiches, koa wood bowl trophies and—the most coveted item—T-shirts.

Scott Wolff has competed in the championship each winter it’s been held; though he’s never fared particularly well, he loves the contest—and anything that gets him up on Mauna Kea and on a snowboard. "I’ve lived on the Big Island a long time and it’s still such an unusual feeling to look up there on the mountain and see snow," he says. "I’m no expert on world geography, but I don’t know too many tropical places in the world where you can go snowboarding."