Ascent of Mauna Kea on 2014-12-19

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Friday, December 19, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mauna Kea
    Elevation:13796 ft / 4205 m

Ascent Trip Report

I returned to Hawaii in December 2014 with Katie with the goal of biking to the summit of Mauna Kea from sea level. I've seen this described as the most difficult bicycle climb in the world, ascending almost 13,800ft in 40 miles, almost 100% uphill. It is definitely something that should be on a cyclist's to-do list.

We first acclimated by doing a three-day hike up Mauna Loa. On December 18 we drove to a bike shop in Hilo (Hilo Bike Hub), and I rented a mountain bike for 24 hours. I waited until the shop was just about the close at 5:30pm to get the rental to maximize my time with the bike the next day. I chose a mountain bike because I wanted to bike 100% of the route, of which a few miles were rough gravel near the summit. I had read a few reports of other cyclists who claimed credit for biking all the way to the top, while in reality they had pushed their road bikes up the several miles of gravel road.

Katie and I stealth camped outside of town that night, and early the next morning drove back to Hilo. I touched the back wheel of the bike in the ocean at 5:30am, then started pedaling while Katie went back to take a nap.

The road started going up hill and would continue ascending for the next 40 miles. I pedaled slowly in the dark, trying to conserve energy for the remaining hours. I had several advantages in this ascent. First, I had already acclimated on Mauna Loa so the altitude would not slow me down. Second, I had just come off a 6-week bicycle tour in Eastern Europe averaging 90-100 miles per day, so was in good biking shape. I was riding a mountain bike now which wasn't super efficient on the road, but it was much lighter than what I was used to riding loaded down with food, tent, and sleeping bag.

I soon left town and wound through the forest on the Saddle Road. The sun rose within the next hour few hours, and by 9:30am I had reached the turnoff for the Mauna Kea Access Road. As planned, Katie was waiting with extra fuel and water. I scarfed down a few sandwhiches and topped off my water bottles, then continued riding. Shortly later, I reached the visitor's center and met up with Katie again for a final break.

Katie set off from the visitors center to hike up to the summit and I got back on the bike. The road turned to gravel briefly, but it was no problem for my mountain bike. As I climbed higher the road got steeper, and at one point my back wheel started spinning out in the loose gravel and I had dismount. I bet this was the area where the other riders started walking, but I was not deterred. I got back on the bike, backed up a bit, and pedaled carefully through the section without spinning too much.

Successfully around the turn, the gravel got denser and I made it to the pavement higher up. In the final few switchbacks the road got incredibly steep, probably close to 20% grade, but I managed to power through it and reach the end of the road.

At the summit parking lot I pedaled behind the guard rail and up the trail as high as possible, until I was about 100ft below the summit. Here I had to give up and carry the bike the remaining distance to the summit. I reached the top around 1:00pm, and had it all to myself.

After taking a nap for an hour Katie made it to the top, and we snapped some summit pictures. By then it was 3:30pm, and with the bike shop closing in just 2 hours I didn't think there was a chance to get back in time. But it was 100% downhill, so I thought I might as well give it a try.

I rode back down to the parking lot, then started the amazing descent. It definitely helped to have disc brakes, because I would be applying the brakes for the next few hours. I blasted down from the summit, slowed down in the gravel, then continued all the way to the saddle road. I did have to pedal a little bit on the start of the saddle road, but then resumed coasting down.

Unfortunately I couldn't remember exactly where the bike shop was, so biked around town a little bit before finding it at 5pm. I had somehow arrived well-before it closed, against my expectation.

The shop owner was very impressed, calling me "the closer." He said plenty of people come to town and want to bike up Mauna Kea, but he'd seen very few do it. I'd just shown up and done it though.

Katie met me at the shop, and we celebrated with a nice pasta dinner that night before resuming our vacation to hike into Waimanu Valley the next day.
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My bike on the summit, around 7 hours after leaving the ocean at Hilo. I would take around 1 hour to bike back to Hilo. (2014-12-19). Photo by Eric Gilbertson.
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