Studying and Resources
When I first found out our family was traveling to Hawaii, and visiting the Big Island, I immediately wanted to climb something. I have had a goal of climbing Mt. Rainier for the last year, planning on going in early Summer 2018. After looking through some options, we landed on Mauna Kea, the 13,800 dormant volcano which happens to be the highest point in Hawaii. This was going to be a big day, and we prepared and studied the best we could. I wasn't able to find a bunch of information, but found two useful sites. The first was the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) website. The second was an article written by Dobbs, a hiker, who wrote for On Walkabout. The Dobbs account can be found here. I depended on these two articles heavily, taking a lot of notes, then comparing these notes with a couple YouTube vides I was able to find.
In this blog post, I will do my best to break down how we prepared, how the altitude and incline affected us, and ultimately, where we went wrong. That's right, we didn't summit, but we had a great time in one of the most visibly amazing places we had ever been!
Fitness and Preparation
There were four of us that had decided to attempt the "hike", my wife, sister, sister's boyfriend, and myself. We knew it was going to be difficult, but I don't feel like the articles and first hand accounts led us to believe how difficult! At some point, on some website I can't find again, we learned the grade for the climb was anywhere from 6-10%, so all preparation was geared towards that. Most of our training was done on a step mill or treadmill set at a 15%. Later, I will talk about the actual gradient that I found through my Garmin 910XT.
After the advice from the VIS website, we were adequately prepared for a long day. We had plenty of food and plenty of water. I carried around 7-8 liters of water in my 5.11 Rush 72 backpack for just my wife and I. When we started off, it was around 45-50 degrees. All four of us were ready for that as well, being plenty warm in the early part of the climb. We were around 30 mins behind schedule though. I had planned on sunrise being around 5:30, so wanted to be there around 5. I felt like we should acclimatize to the altitude for the recommended 30 minutes before starting. We ended up leaving the VIS at 6 instead of 5:30. I don't think this played a role in our attempt at all though.
800'. That's the elevation that I enjoy while at home. We knew it was going to be a tough task to start off the climb at 9200'. That means we drove from our hotel, which was about 10 feet above sea level, to the VIS at 9200'. It was difficult to tell if the altitude affected us when we got there, it could have been the excitement and cold air, but personally, I felt great. Some of the others said they felt like the air was "thin" but felt good as well. As we climbed, I was more and more convinced that the altitude in fact, took a HUGE toll on us! We made it to 10,000' without much issue. As we neared 11,000', a couple of us started to feel like it was tough to catch our breath. It was understandable during the uphill effort, but even small moves became difficult. I noted changes in my heart rate, discussed later, that suggested the altitude was working on me. We stopped the climb at 11,500 feet.
The Dobb's article mentions that he was surprised about how little the altitude affected him. The altitude played a huge role in our unsuccessful attempt. At one point, my sister started to feel nauseated, which is one of the signs of altitude sickness, something as a paramedic I was on the lookout for. Did she have altitude sickness, I don't know, but as isolated as we were, we weren't going to risk it.
I believe it was a very hard thing to ask of our bodies. To live near sea level, then drive to 9000' and immediately start climbing. Next though, I'll discuss the incline, another HUGE factor in our hike.
The incline and gradient was insane! And... it was made worse by the footing. I was completely surprised by both the incline and the dirt. I'll touch on the footing quickly. The dirt was a lot more lose than I thought it would be. This isn't something that was discussed on the YouTube videos I watched, or the articles I read. At times, it felt like we were walking up a sandy dune. For every step you took, there was a decent amount of sliding back down.
After an hour or two of climbing, we kept thinking that we were going to find a section that was less steep, but NOPE, it never happened! The couple YouTube videos we were able to find made the gradient look rather flat, THIS ISN'T THE CASE! Below is the data sheet I created, after doing some calculations from my Garmin. As you can see, we went a total of 2.63 miles. I broke down the incline gradient by half miles. The easiest percentage we found was 12%, at the VERY BEGINNING! I was shocked though, to see the 18%. All of the studying I did, never did I see that steep of an incline. 18% is where the "wheels started coming off".
As we started up the segment that was 18%, there was a ridge we couldn't see beyond. That view is found in the picture below. Every small ridge we came to, we hoped we would see the summit or see a flat section, but that never happened. This started to weigh heavily on us mentally. So we struggled up this 18% section, and found another long, sun exposed, steep section. The last section was the .63 miles, at 14%. The 14% felt better, and our pacing felt better, but 14%, after the 18%, and the altitude, proved to be too much for us to continue safely.
The data from my Garmin is shown below. It shows the elevation per distance traveled.
So we started at 9200', climbed 2100', making it close to 11,500'. It took us 3:30 hours, which included a 15-20 minute lunch break, and various 5 minute breaks.
The above picture shows the relationship to the elevation gained and my heart rate. As you can see, there wasn't a direct relationship with elevation and heart rate. I can sustain a long effort (3-6 hours) with a heart rate around 130-150, which is where I was most of the time. The next picture though, does start to show how elevation started to get us.
When I added in the line graph of our speed, I could see how the elevation started to affect us. As we neared 11,500', we had slowed to a snail's pace. I noticed that my heart rate at rest was around 100 (a little high), but as soon as we started moving it would jump up to 140-150 (too high for how slow we were going). I knew that if my heart rate was 150, my wife's heart rate was closer to 160, which is just too high to sustain what we wanted to do.
This is what we saw when we decided to turn around. We had already been through 3.5 hours of really tough hiking. A couple of us complained of a slight headache and my sister felt nauseated. We were as isolated as any of us had ever been, even the access road was probably an hour hike away. We had two options, continue walking uphill, getting around the cinder cone in the center of the picture, and find ourselves closer to the access road. This would have allowed us to walk back down the access road, or catch a ride down. This idea, however, seemed like a terrible one. It would have been another 30-60 minutes of walking uphill.
The option we chose was to go down. We were a little nervous though because the grade was steep enough, we knew the descent was going to be difficult as well. Not difficult on our lungs, but on our footing, knees and legs. Immediately everyone started to feel better. We moved down fast, with the help of the grade. Footing wasn't terrible with the occasional slip, but no falls. The descent was very hard on feet and quads though. The whole climb uphill, I never thought about my legs hurting me, but as soon as we started going down, my quads were really being tested. Our total descent time was only 1.5 hours. We were able to avoid some of the really steep sections by getting to the access road when the trail ran next to it. This was very helpful, especially to our feet. We walked the last mile on the access road, back to the VIS.
We all thought we put in a really good effort, and in the end, decided to do the safe thing. We stayed together, decided to descend as a group, and we made it back to the car without ruining the rest of our day, or the rest of the vacation! The climb was tough! A couple blogs I read mentioned this being more of a hike than a climb, I would disagree! The grade and soft sand footing made this a tough climb.
We were happy though, to find a couple things working better than our lungs at 11,500' feet. We all had cell phone coverage. We are on the Verizon system, and my wife actually took a Facetime call at 11,000' or so! This helped with making us feel safe and we were able to find information when we needed it. One of the best things though, is that Google Maps worked for us, even at the moment we decided to turn around. To be able to consult the map to help us to decide to go up and over to the access road, or down and over to the access road was extremely helpful.
Lastly, I don't believe any of us took in enough water. We had enough water, but didn't keep up in the dry and thin air. I was carrying 7 liters of water for my wife and I, plus extra just in case. At the end of the ascent and descent, I still had around 6 liters left. For the time we were out there, we didn't drink enough, but I didn't feel thirsty. I didn't feel like drinking, but we forced water breaks. I think as hard as we were working, plus the altitude, it affected our hydration as well.
I took my 5.11 Rush 72 in black. This is my everyday backpack for work at the fire department. There is always more than enough room, and can be packed tight enough, I carried it onto the plane with me as a carry on. It fit my Source Tactical WXP 3L Water Reservoir with plenty of room for extra stuff. It's the best pack I've owned!
I've loved my GoPro Hero4 Session. This along with a 64GB microSD card worked perfectly for our climb. It's very light, barely noticeable. I wore it on my head, over my ball cap. The software that comes with the GoPro is spot on, easily producing some quality and entertaining video!
My baselayer was Mountain Hardwear Wicked LS Tee, and then an Outdoor Research Sequence Long Sleeve Zip Top. My outer layer was a Mountain Hardwear Men's Super Chockstone Jacket. With the listed layers, I was able to keep my upper body plenty warm. For the bottoms, I wore the super comfortable Outdoor Research Ferrosi Crag Pants.
I chose to wear my New Balance 870v3 running shoes. My feet felt great, but during the descent, there was a lot of dust and rocks that were getting into my shoes. That's not the shoes fault though, but it would have been better to have some taller hiking shoes or boots.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None