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Hypoxia at Thirteen Grand

Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world, measured from the sea floor. Not the highest, mind you, but the tallest from base to summit. Its peak is at 13,796’.

Most people come to Mauna Kea, spend a half hour at the visitor center (about 9,000’), and drive straight up to the summit where most of the world’s finest astronomical observatories are located. Then they get altitude sickness: headache, nausea, shortness of breath, the whole bit.

That seems too easy to me.

Instead, I decided to climb up from the visitor center. The trail is a bit over six miles, and almost a mile of vertical. This was complicated by the cold I was coming down with, but I figured if that slowed me down enough, I’d just turn around.

Here’s a view of Mauna Loa on my way up. The younger sister of Mauna Kea, she is the largest volcano in the world by mass. There’s one larger volcano in the known universe, but that’s on Mars. See the web of different colors on the side? Those are lava flows from about every 20 years, going a long way back. She’s overdue to erupt again. Apparently I climbed Mauna Loa in a previous life, in 1834. The summit is 13,679’, deceptively high because the mountain has such gradual slopes.

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As I climbed, I wondered at the lack of signs showing how far along the trail I was, or how high I was. I guess some other hikers had the same thought. But apparently they had a GPS, because they left me this:

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At this point, my nose was running like a faucet. I felt a bit lightheaded, but that could have been from the cold or the steady uphill climb. One thing I’ll note about the hike: I’d heard it was rocky and the footing was bad. WRONG. Most of the hike is on sand-like dirt, so it’s a bit like climbing up firm sand dunes.

A few short sections were rocky, or made of pumice stones like those in a gas grill. I didn’t have any problems there, although I could see how someone that is not too coordinated to begin with might have issues after getting hypoxic from the altitude.

As I neared the top, the trail split and I gambled on which path was the real trail. I crested a hill and saw Lake Waiau –  “placenta lake,” where native Hawaiian chiefs used to throw their firstborn son’s umbilical cord to give the child a place in the afterlife as chief. I didn’t get any closer than this, because I didn’t want to go downhill and then back up again.

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Shortly after turning around at the lake, I saw some telescopes over the crest of a hill! Now I finally believed the mantra I’d been repeating for the last four hours: “I’m 80% sure that I’ll make it to the top.” You can also see a representative (if less sandy) section of trail here. It’s not so bad, eh?

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After a bit of a walk up the road (because the trail stops), I came to one final, sandy hill, higher than the last of the telescopes. The wind was whipping at 30-40mph+ (that’s 60kmh+), and it was a few degrees above freezing. With the wind and the slight hypoxia, it was so cold my fingers went numb in under 30 seconds.

As I neared the peak, I was unbelievably excited to have made it. Now I know how people feel when they summit Everest or a similar peak. I swear the tears dripping down my face were from the wind in my eyes, though.

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After hitchhiking back down to the visitor center, I waited around for sunset on top of a nearby ash cone. This strange slantwise effect must be due to the mountain’s shadow.

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Hiking up Mauna Kea was one of the hardest things I’ve done.

My hike was probably made much tougher because of this cold. I’ve been battling it for two days since Mauna Kea, though fortunately it isn’t too bad. Nevertheless, I may have lost the desire to hike up any 7000m or 8000m peaks someday. I’m not sure that 22,000’ and above is the place for me, sans oxygen.

But you never know… maybe I’ll change my mind. Anyone want to sponsor an expedition?

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Posted in Around the World 7 years, 4 months ago at 3:30 pm.

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