Ascent of Mauna Loa on 2016-04-02

Climber: Andrew Kirmse

Date:Saturday, April 2, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mauna Loa
    Elevation:13679 ft / 4169 m

Ascent Trip Report

From the Saddle Road, I drove about 15 miles to the Mauna Loa Observatory. The road is well-paved, but only a single lane, making for a little adventure at the top of each rise. There is public parking just below the observatory, where one other car was parked. At 11,000 feet I was already well above the clouds that had caused some drizzle on the way up.

The trail initially follows a 4WD road, then turns uphill at a sign after about 0.4 miles. The path is marked by cairns, though no trail per se is visible. Wherever possible, the path avoids the sharp aa lava in favor of the slabbier pahoehoe, which is much easier to walk on. There is absolutely no vegetation, and in fact, other than the observatory, no signs of life other than a few small insects. At 1 mile I passed a group of 4 people headed up to camp at the cabin that lies across the caldera from the summit. I saw no one else all day.

After a few miles the path joins the road briefly again. The road is extremely rocky at this point and looks undrivable to me. At 3.8 miles there is a short section of actual trail through sandy pebbles, then a pit toilet, and a junction where the trail to the cabin goes left, and the trail to the summit goes right. It is still 3 miles of slow climbing over tedious lava, including more aa sections, up the last 600 vertical feet to the summit. At the top is a summit register in an ammo can that indicates a climb every few days. The view of the caldera is one of the most spectacular volcanic vistas I’ve seen. Even in direct sunlight, the floor of the crater is a flat, unreflective black. The steep walls are hundreds of feet high with bright red highlights. Mauna Kea rises above the clouds on the saddle to the north, and to the west, Haleakala on Maui is clearly visible.

On the way down, I took a shortcut that Scott Kruis had recommended. This track is also marked by cairns, as well as by yellow blazes that have been scraped away in places. This way saved perhaps half a mile, but is steep, and I was happy that I hadn’t come up this way. While I hadn’t been able to locate the benchmark marked “Mauna Loa” on the topo map near the summit, I did find three strange benchmarks on the way down. The first was completely unmarked. The second was unstamped, but indicated that it was placed with the cooperation of the Territory of Hawaii, indicating that it was from before 1959. The third was a regular disk stamped HV 020 RESET from 1978. All three were in inconspicuous places near cairns, not at the top of anything.

My knees took a pounding on the 6 miles downhill, and I found myself stopping frequently. By the end I was surprised that the gain had been only 2800 vertical feet. It felt like more. This was a memorable hike that’s well worth doing.

Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:2809 ft / 856 m
    Total Elevation Loss:2809 ft / 855 m
    Round-Trip Distance:13 mi / 20.9 km
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:2809 ft / 856 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 2679 ft / 817 m; Extra: 130 ft / 39m
    Loss on way in:130 ft / 39 m
    Distance:7 mi / 11.3 km
    Route:Observatory Trail
    Start Trailhead:Mauna Loa Observatory  11000 ft / 3352 m
    Time:3 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:2679 ft / 816 m
    Distance:6 mi / 9.7 km
    Route:Observatory Trail
    End Trailhead:Mauna Loa Observatory  11000 ft / 3352 m
    Time:3 Hours 

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