Backpacking Mauna Loa Day 3: The Summit and The Descent | December 16, 2018
Unfortunately, our night in Mauna Loa cabin was anything but restful. It seems that I have not mastered the skill of being able to fall asleep anywhere at any time as Curtis has — which is why he’s the submariner and I am not. I wasn’t able to nap before the large group arrived. While my body was weary and exhausted, my mind just couldn’t shut off.
Lying there above 13,000 feet was a weird feeling. I was constantly evaluating how I felt for any signs of altitude sickness. I’m not sure if my head hurt because of my neck and shoulder muscles from my heavy backpack, from dehydration and sun exposure, or from the altitude. It wasn’t a pounding headache, just a dull ache, so I wasn’t too concerned. Curtis also had a headache and said he wasn’t able to regulate his body temperature.
All things considered, we really didn’t have it that bad. When the group arrived at the cabin, they came with all sorts of symptoms. There was a lot of coughing and sniffling. Then in the middle of the night, we were awoken by one of the members that got sick. I’ll spare you the details, because she spared us none. That kept me awake for far too long. I started to regret being inside the cabin with all these people and their germs, but I knew it would be much colder outside on the summit.
The group stayed awake far later than us, talking and laughing with the occasional “Shhhh people are trying to sleep!” then the whispers would creep up back to talking normally and laughing, cycling through like this for hours. The group leader was constantly making more food and yelling out asking if people wanted any. The words “Couscous,” “Pudding,” and “Hot Chocolate” would continue to haunt us, playing over and over in our heads throughout the long and sleepless night. To make matters worse, as the night went on and no one was going to bed, the leader called out “I need at least 2 people to set alarms for 4:30!”
4:30 came way too soon. But the group didn’t all pack up and leave right then…no… They hung around talking, laughing, making breakfast, eating, and packing for about 2 hours. Curtis and I remained in our sleeping bag cocoons waiting for them to leave.
Over and over, I asked myself why? Why didn’t we change our permits for the next day and just stay in the drive-up campground in the national park that first night? Could we possibly have had this cabin to ourselves a day later if we did? I made myself believe that God had it work out this way for a reason. There had to be a reason why we ended up in this situation.
Once the group was gone, we got up and made our breakfast and packed up our things. We vented about all the little things that annoyed us, and that made us feel better. I was still exhausted, but our heads were feeling better and we were ready to take on the day.
Well…to an extent. As I predicted the day before, I still had no desire to hike to the summit. Curtis was doubtful if he wanted to, and debated it the whole 2 miles back to the trail junction. Once there, we sat down to think some more about it. I told him I thought he should do it — he would probably regret it if he didn’t. After sitting there a while longer and considering it, he finally decided to go for it. He emptied my backpack, which is more padded and comfortable to carry, and took only snacks and water, and set off to summit Mauna Loa. For him, this would mean an extra 5 miles on top of an 11 mile day. Thankfully most of the 11 miles would be going downhill. While he was gone, I took off my boots, rolled out a sleeping bag and tried unsuccessfully to sleep again. I was all alone for the entire time he was gone, and though I couldn’t sleep I definitely felt better than I did all night.
Curtis: The last 2.5 miles to the summit were much like the rest of the hike: a slow and steady climb with no end in sight. As the trail wound around to the West side of the peak, gusts of wind began to buffet and push me. At least it was pushing me up the hill. I broke out my phone for the first time of the hike to record my final ascent to the summit, and by doing so I was easily able to keep track of the miles. After about two miles, the trail returned to the edge of the caldera and I was able to look down into the crater. The cliffs at this point were several hundred feet high, but I was at a false summit and still had a half mile to go. The summit itself was pretty much the same but with more knick-knacks and hiker trash stashed in the summit cairn. I took my picture and pictures of the surrounding area, signed the summit register, and then started back down. I had told Jess to expect me to take 3 hours and I was pretty spot on with my guess. At one point, the gusting winds actually caused me to be pushed off the trail, but other than that, the hike back to Jess was uneventful. As the North Rim of the Caldera came into view I was able to see Jess and my bright orange backpack, and soon enough I was back. Nothing like a 5 mile hike to warm up for a 9 mile hike.
Jess: Once Curtis returned, he took a short break, then we repacked the bags and set off down the mountain. Here’s where a new problem arose — my shoes started having problems. They had started to come apart on the side seams this past year, and using crampons on Konahuanui certainly didn’t help that, but while going downhill they really started to split. I had to adjust the way I walked to avoid having my feet push too much against the front and cause it to split some more. All I needed was for them to make it down, then up and down Mauna Kea… 30 more miles. Could they make it 30 more miles?
Other than that, our hike down was much better than the hike up. Not just because it’s easier to walk down, but also because the views were much better. We were able to see farther in the distance to where we were heading, and we had the ocean in the distance and Mauna Kea to the North always there, always an incredible sight. But whenever I turned around and saw that endless slope, it was very easy to remember exactly what I was feeling the day before.
We came across one other hiker heading up, an Italian or French man who unfortunately had mistaken the numbers on the map for kilometers rather than miles. We knew that the big group was going to finish the mountain today rather than stay in the Red Hill cabin one last time. Of course, we had gone into this not sure if we wanted to stay a third night, but we were beginning to think it would be better to stay at the cabin. Because Curtis had summited the mountain, he would have to go 16 miles just to make it to Red Hill Cabin. Finishing would have added an additional 7 miles on top of that, then we would have to find an alternate spot to camp. The only camping site we knew of was a first-come first-served drive-up campsite in the national park that had just 9 spots.
We reached the cabin in the mid-afternoon, and found it occupied by a group of 6. We briefly debated whether to stay here, but decided it’d be good to take a break, and we would still have bunks of our own. Thankfully we didn’t end up regretting this decision. The group consisted of 6 friends that worked together here on the Big Island and were spending a night in the cabin to celebrate Christmas break. They were kind, quiet, and respectful, and played a fun brain game that we picked up on.
When we started talking to them, we learned that they had been hoping to stay in the summit cabin that night instead, but the national park rangers refused to give them permits up there because it was too windy at the summit. Apparently they stopped giving out permits the day after we got ours — which means that if we had decided to delay our hike because of the big group, we wouldn’t have been able to go to the summit either. And that was my reason — my mind could be at peace knowing that there really was a reason for being stuck with the group of college students! We were a little confused though as to why it was considered to be too windy at the summit. I personally never thought it was windy, and Curtis only noted the one spot along his hike to the summit that had bigger wind gusts. Surely this shouldn’t have kept people from being able to stay at the cabin?
Anyway, we settled in for our last night on Mauna Loa, feeling much better than the past 2 days and excited to finally be done with this tomorrow. And for once, I actually was able to sleep!