Backpacking Mauna Loa Day 2: Red Hill to Mauna Loa Cabin | December 15, 2018
[Read about day 1 here]
This day was quite honestly the hardest of our trip — and one of the hardest hikes we’ve done both mentally and physically. Not because it was dangerous like many trails we’ve taken on Oahu, but because the terrain and the altitude played with our minds the entire time. I cried several times on this day — the first time being when Curtis asked me, “Are you ready?” that morning when we woke up…because I was definitely not ready, and I knew it.
I didn’t sleep much on the porch of Red Hill Cabin. I moved back and forth from side to side to my back, but it wouldn’t be long before I’d grow uncomfortable again. Along with that, it got colder as the night went on and moving around so much caused the cold to creep into my sleeping bag. The group of 12 were all inside the cabin, and they stayed up far later than us talking and it seemed like every 20 minutes someone would come outside to go use the outhouse.
We got up when their alarms started going off at 5. We ate bananas and peanut butter tortillas and packed up all our things, refilled all water containers with filtered water, then left to get a head start on the group. In my head, I was doubting my ability to do this hike. However, I didn’t know what the alternative would be…to stay at Red Hill all day? Going back down meant having to find another place to sleep. I also acknowledged that this trip was possibly our only chance to hike Mauna Kea, and if I couldn’t hike Mauna Loa, how could I hike an even steeper trail up a higher mountain? I kept most of my concerns to myself, though I’m sure Curtis had his own doubts. Instead of focusing on making it to the peak, I focused on making it one more mile. A half mile. Until the next break.
On the plus side, the sunrise that morning was spectacular. This was honestly what I had been looking forward to the most: seeing several sunrises and sunsets from above the clouds. It was a highlight from our Haleakala experience, and it certainly proved to be the best part of this day as well.
Speaking of Haleakala, we started comparing this backpacking trip to that one, as well as our trip to Maui. We weren’t even halfway done with our hike up Mauna Loa, but we already knew that we enjoyed Haleakala much more. Hiking across Haleakala, it seemed like the scenery changed much more and there were more colors, cinder cones, silver swords, and valley views. Here, the majority of the terrain and rocks were black with some dark brown thrown in, and we only came across a couple of cinder cones that were bright orange 2 or 3 times. Overall, the scenery didn’t change. In fact, my favorite views from the whole day (besides the sunrise) were looking across the valley to Mauna Kea, and seeing Haleakala above the clouds in the distance.
I remember when we were hiking Haleakala, coming around a bend and seeing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa for the first time. We were so eager for the day we’d be there, and now here we were, reminiscing and thinking about how we enjoyed Haleakala so much more.
We finally reached the 11,000 feet sign. Up until this point, the only signs along the trail came after every 1,000 feet of elevation — the trail itself is marked by many, many cairns. However, the stretch between 11 and 12,000 had 2 extra signs that gave the names of the cinder cones we were passing by, and we were quite disappointed to see each of them and realize we were still nowhere near 12,000, or the end.
It was somewhere along that 12 mile stretch where I discovered something about myself: I’m not a volcano/lava rock person. I know several people who would probably have been much more fascinated in the rocks we were walking on and when it would change, signifying a different year of lava flow. I was interested at first, but it got really old after a while. One thing that did catch my attention every time was when we would walk over a rock that sounded like it was hollow underneath. We would occasionally come across giant holes, which was slightly terrifying when I thought about it. Who’s to say that this rock won’t collapse as I’m walking over it? Could it support the 12 people making their way up the mountain a ways behind us?
Eventually, we made it past the 12,000 foot sign — now in the final stretch towards 13,000! At this point, it felt like the trail was playing games with us. The edge of the crater was finally coming into sight — at least we thought so — but the trail was zig-zagging around rather than going in one direction. It wasn’t switchbacking, just meandering around, going past different parts of lava flow. Some was actually pretty cool to see, but after 9 miles of lava…we were ready to be done. We finally reached the edge of the crater…but instead of relief, we were met with more disappointment and were honestly…unimpressed.
Don’t get me wrong, the giant crater is pretty cool. It’s huge, and from where we stood we couldn’t even see the whole thing. We still sat down right where we were to have a snack and take it all in. But on the cost/reward scale, this hike demanded way too much effort to have such a low reward. The real ‘reward’ for this hike was just knowing that we accomplished it.
However, we still weren’t done. This is where the disappointment factor comes into play. From where we were, at the first lookout of the crater above 13,000 feet, we were actually at a trail junction: We could either hike 2.5 miles in one direction to reach the true summit, or we could hike 2 miles in the other direction to reach the cabin. The summit and cabin are only 2 miles apart as the crow flies — across the crater — but nearly 5 miles apart by foot, and there is no other trail that connects them. Therefore, we had a decision to make: Do we try to summit right now, while we still have several hours of daylight, or do we give into our desires to just be done and go straight to the cabin, and save the summit for the next day?
I didn’t want to hike to the summit. Truthfully, I had already made it much farther than I thought I would, and my real goal all along was simply to backpack Mauna Loa — not summit the mountain. However, Curtis is a true peak bagger, in that he actually has to stand at the highest point. I wanted to go with him, but felt so exhausted in this moment that I really had no desire to do it. But I reasoned that I wouldn’t want to any more tomorrow, so after eating we decided to go for it.
As we began, we ran into 3 other hikers coming up from the Mauna Loa Observatory trail (this trail begins on the North side of the mountain, off of the Saddle Road, and is significantly shorter and steeper). We asked them where they were going, and learned that they also were staying in the Mauna Loa Cabin that evening — along with us and the group of 12. Curtis was about to warn them about the large group when they mentioned that they were meeting a group of 12… so now it was a group of 15. Perfect. The group was just making it to the crater at that point, so we hurried along to try to summit before them.
At first, walking the summit trail was flat and easy, and I thought maybe I could actually do this. But then we passed a sign saying that we still had 2 miles to go…and I realized exactly how far we’d have to walk, both up and back and to the cabin. And I just couldn’t get passed that. Curtis saw my disappointment and exhaustion, and immediately said “Let’s just turn around. We can do this tomorrow.” That was all I needed to hear. In that moment, all I wanted was to go straight to the cabin and be there all alone and try to sleep a bit before the big group made it there.
Thankfully the whole group was headed for the summit, which meant if we kept up a good pace to the cabin we could have a few hours to ourselves. For a while, I had thought of the group as being around our age, but somewhere along the trail I had a realization: they were in college, which puts them in the 18-22 year old range…so at the least, I was 4 years older than them. At first this was a devastating discovery, but then I realized that I needed to use this to my advantage: I needed to play the seniority card, and take one of those bunks with the padded mattresses. As their elder, I deserved it.
The cabin trail also started off flat, then eventually began going up in elevation. We passed by some pretty cool lava and some pretty big craters, but it all just blends together. Finally we could see the cabin in the distance, and little by little we drew nearer and nearer until we finally arrived. We didn’t take much time to look around, just entered, claimed some bunks and lay down. There were still several hours of daylight, but the combination of our heavy packs, dehydration, and the altitude were taking their toll on us. We settled in, hoping to get a nap in before everyone else arrived.
While we hadn’t yet made it to the summit, even at the cabin we were at our highest elevation ever hiked at 13,250 feet. The only other hike we’ve done over 13,000 feet was Mount Sniktau in Colorado in 2015.