Friday, April 10, 2009

Mauna Loa Spanker

My capstone ride during our Hawaiian vacation was planned for Thursday on the big island. I was going to attempt a “fire and ice” double hump, climbing both Mauna Loa (fire) and Mauna Kea (ice) from the 6500ft saddle between the two volcanoes.

Firt 4mi of climb have been repaved

The weather continues to be in a funk. It is very dreary here in Kona. If this were Michigan or New Hampshire, the heavy skies with muggy air would be sure bet thunderstorms are on the way. I don’t think the islands get those though. The summit forecast is what really mattered. Ice warnings and heavy precip are predicted over the next few days. Highs above 13,000ft are expected to stay below freezing. That means the 4-8mm of liquid precip will be snow, or about 2.5-5” of snow per 24hr period. I was bumming big time. I did pack full winter riding gear (standard Hill Junkie procedure for tropic vacations).

Next 13mi of climb were marginally paved

Steve and Gina are staying further up the coast on the big island. Steve picked up a road bike. Mom and Cathy wanted to do a later breakfast, then hit local attractions. So I went down to eat at 6:30am and was on the way to the saddle by 7am. It took only about 1.5hrs to get there despite getting stuck behind a school bus forever. I parked at the Mauna Kea State Recreation Area just shy of the saddle high point off Saddle Road. Saddle Road is a real masterpiece. Most car rental companies still prohibit their cars being driven on it. It used to be one-lane military road which had 2ft extensions added to either side to make is a “two-lane” road. The extensions have deteriorated, and most bridges are one lane. The rises and dips easily give you 0.5G and 2G thrills minus the amusement park fees. The state is slowly making a real highway out of it from the Hilo side. They are over half done now.

Mauna Kea from flanks of Mauna Loa

It was sprinkling on the way to the saddle. I fully expected a 6-8hr rain and snow slog ride. But as I approached the saddle, I could see patches of blue sky over the Hilo (east) side with sun partially poking through. My attitude improved. I kitted up with shorts and long sleeve jersey. I packed Pearl Izumi AmFib tights, a thermal top, rain shell, balaclava, PI booties, lobstah mitts, baggies for under the booties in the Camelback. I also carried 120oz of water and several food items. All this stuff weighed at least 20 lbs.

End of pavement at 11,000ft, looking down

I rented a Cannondale F29 hardtail from Bike Works Kona. This was my first ride on a 29er. I brought my own tires along, semi-slick 26”. Didn’t need them anyway, as the 29er had racy treads. The bike probably weighed 30 lbs. This meant I was hauling over 50 lbs of bike and gear up the climbs.

After two recovery days, my legs felt good starting out at 6500ft. My first climb was to summit 13,600ft Mauna Loa. It was 6 mostly flat miles on Saddle Rd to the Mauna Loa Access Road. The first 17mi of the climb are paved, the last 9mi unpaved 4WD route. I’ve heard various reports about the rideability of the dirt section. Most suggested it was unrideable, including the guys at Bike Works. They explained the loose lava rock is super light weight and you just sink into it, climbing or descending. They hadn’t tried it with a 29er.

Many lava tubes were visible along the way. They cave in easily. Dangerous to go in or over them. They can be 10-20 tall.

I made good progress on the paved portion of the climb, still feeling good reaching the weather observatory at 11,200ft in about 2.5hrs. I only had 2400ft to go. How hard could that be? I was still in shorts, although the air temp was probably in the low 40’s here. Climbing kept the core plenty warm.

I then veered off on the 4WD road that goes to the giant caldera at the summit of Mauna Loa. I could see patches of snow about 1000ft down from the summit. The summit wasn’t totally socked in with clouds like Mauna Kea was on the other side of Saddle Rd. I quickly realized climbing the remaining 2400ft was going to be no picnic. The air was thin, and the tires just plowed through the loose lava in most places. It didn’t take long before I was into some fairly long hike-a-bikes. The lava was so loose I’d sink to my ankles, skinning them up in the process. I almost went backwards on some of the double-digit grades.

A very common theme on this climb. Maybe 18% grade, and these lava rocks squirm every which way out from under you.

A couple miles in, there was a long traverse, maybe over a mile long. It went up-down, up-down, up-down, never gaining any vertical but chewing up scads of time. It was maddening, as most of the ups demanded dismounts. This was partly due to the looseness, partly due to not enough air to keep the legs spinning. I was around 12,000ft now. I became convinced that this ride would be a single hump ride, as my pace dropped to about 3mph.

Had I not been on a 29er, I would have abandoned this climb right way and went to the Mauna Kea side, which I climbed four years ago from sea level with a road bike. There really is something to the big hoops, especially descending sketchy material. Much of the surface was feet deep orange to grapefruit size lava rocks. The rocks do not bind to each other at all. They are very light, probably quarter the density of granite, and most likely would float in water. If the rear wheel spun at all climbing, it would immediately sink six inches, stopping you dead. Descending, grabbing front brake almost always caused the front wheel to slide out. Just nasty stuff. Riding a 26” bike on this would be a non-starter I think. Perhaps these conditions have something to do why there are no reports of someone riding to the summit...

Closer inspection of lava

As I painfully gained altitude, the ratio of ride to hike diminished greatly. Above 12,000ft, I think I was able to ride only 50-60%. I shuttered to think what I was in for when going back down. I thought it could be even worse. Crashing on this stuff was not an option. Much of it was as sharp as glass. I think crashing into a cholla cactus would be more pleasant.

Getting close to 13,000ft, the rim of the North Pit, the skies opened up with snow. I stopped to put the long layers on. As I did, the snow really started to come down, limiting visibility to a couple hundred meters. I had my GPS, but there was nothing else up here. Just hundreds of square miles of barren lava flows. Getting lost was not an option. At least with some visibility, I could keep my bearings straight. But now that was gone. There are multiple 4WD tracks up here. Taking the wrong one down would be disastrous. Some dead end on the wrong side of the volcano. So I made the responsible decision and bagged the rest of the climb. I could almost smell the summit, I was so close.

Beginning of the snow squall above 12,500ft. Snow on the ground here.

After descending a little ways, the snow stopped again. It was too late to head back up again. I lost too much vertical. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost everything was rideable going back down. Only steep ups on the way down sent me off my bike. There were a couple uber sketchy drops I dismounted for also. But at least 98% of it rode well. I think I would have been hiking a lot of the descent with any of my 26” mountain bikes. Really has me thinking now. No wonder Dave P kicked my butt in Colorado a couple years ago on the descent into Telluride. He was on his Niner.

It was probably a good thing I turned around anyway. I was very rapidly getting a severe altitude headache. Getting altitude sickness in such a remote area can be fatal. I started to get sick climbing Mauna Kea four years ago too. I had to get back down to about 9000ft before the symptoms started abating. Summiting 14,000ft Mt Evans in Colorado twice didn’t give me any trouble though.

It was good to hit pavement again. I held speeds of 30+ mph most of the time. The paved (or marginally paved) road is only one lane wide. It has many blind spots, so I had to be wary of cars. I saw a total of three during my climb and descent, or over 5hrs worth of riding. Below 10,000ft, some pretty heavy rain moved in. I had all my layers on except for the booties. I was never cold. Further down in the saddle the rain cleared up again.

The dirt portion of the climb took 3x longer than I expected and sucked the life out of me. There’s no way I could do a Mauna Kea/Mauna Loa double in one day. I think the Mauna Loa out and back alone would take about 8 hours. I headed back to the car instead of crossing over Saddle Road to the Mauna Kea Access Road. Mauna Kea was completely socked in with clouds anyway. There would be nothing to see or photograph. I opted to save a little for a ride Friday morning instead.

I got back to the car with 6:13 riding (and hike-a-biking) time. I climbed about 6945ft in 58.4 miles round trip. The distance and vertical don’t come close to explaining how hard this ride was. This ride was way harder than the 82mi, 10,700ft ride up Haleakala a few days ago. Similar riding time for the two rides, but the brutality of lava took a toll. Overall, a great full body workout, and I got to see 90% of a new climb. I feel Mauna Loa is unfinished business, but I will think really hard before attempting this one again. Although it can snow any time of year up top, I don’t think I would try it this early in the season again. Only two more days for us on the islands. I would like to get one more long ride in Friday. Weather looks abysmal.


Dave said...

Hard ride. The 29er sounds interesting. I might like to get one, but I kinda got my heart set on a Pugsley which may have handled the ride you attempted.

Dave P said...

Hi Doug,

Just keep thinking 29" wheels is why I pummeled you in CO and your ego will remain intact. [lol] It is quite fragile, yes? Besides, for me, it's more about the endorphin buzz. I think there is a direct correlation b/t me getting my butt kicked by better riders and how good I feel at the end of a ride. Good blog post, felt like I was there.

Anonymous said...

I think this could be done more easily now with a fat tire and super low gearing. The traction would make up for the extra weight.