Backpacking Mauna Loa Day 4: The End | December 17, 2018
We began our morning by walking up the steep path to the summit of Red Hill to watch the sunrise along with the group of 6 (Red Hill Cabin is right next to Red Hill). This morning, instead of only a flat layer of clouds for the sun to rise above, there were also wispy clouds overhead that turned bright red before the sun came above the clouds. It was the prettiest sunrise we had seen yet.
We didn’t have much food left, so we set off with only water for our remaining 7 miles. We knew it wouldn’t be too difficult and hoped to get it over with as quickly as possible. However, we were now realizing that we need to step up our food game quite a bit. The one good thing that came from hiking with other groups is we realized how much variety that they had brought, compared to our canned soups and ramen. To be fair, we had planned this trip on a whim and only took a few minutes to get supplies from Walmart when we arrived, but we’re storing away some ideas for future backpacking trips. It would be easier if we had a camp stove, but we can’t fly with one so that’s out of the question for island hopping. We both acknowledged that we were calorie starved and would have done better with more food.
One thing that we did well on though was clothing, besides my boots: we both had our cargo hiking pants, then multiple layers for tops: a base layer (t-shirt for Curtis and athletic top for me), a light long sleeved layer for sun protection (Curtis wore a moisture wicking button up and I wore an athletic long sleeved top), a fleece for warmth, and our brand new pullover windbreakers that we got at consignment shops the night before we left. Those turned out to be a great investment; I’ve already worn mine several times on Oahu as well. We were sufficiently warm throughout our entire hike thanks to all of those.
Most of our descent was pretty uneventful, but we were surprised by the different plants we started seeing. We didn’t remember it being so green on our way up. And then we could hear birds again! It was so exciting!
When we were just a quarter mile from the end, we ran into a park ranger hiking up. She informed us that the road leading up to the trail head was about to be closed due to fire hazard, and asked us how many people were still up on the mountain. We told her 6 at the cabin on their way down, and the Italian/French man possibly up at the Mauna Loa Cabin. She was surprised by this, saying he wasn’t supposed to be up there, that they hadn’t given out permits since the day we received ours. What could anyone do in that situation? Surely she shouldn’t have to hike all the way up that day trying to find him, when he clearly bypassed the permit system and did what he wanted?!
Anyway, that also made us realize how perfectly the timing of this trip worked out. The summit was now closed, and the road was about to close. If our trip had been any later, we wouldn’t have been able to hike this mountain and knock out this goal! We realized how much the weather can be a factor in our ability to hike — even/especially in Hawaii. I started to worry if it would be possible to hike Mauna Kea in our 2 days remaining. All I could do was trust — trust that just as God allowed us 4 perfect days to hike and summit Mauna Loa, He would also give us one day to hike Mauna Kea.
One thing we also noted when we were staying in Red Hill Cabin was all the notes written in the cabin log book, and written on the walls. There were so many people saying “I made it to 12,000 feet!” I wish I had seen that on our first day in the cabin, because then I wouldn’t have felt so bad for feeling exhausted. Truly we were fortunate to not only obtain permits for the peak, but also to have made it! We had so much to be grateful for, despite all the trials presented to us on this hike.
Lastly, when we made it back down to civilization and turned on our phones for the first time, Curtis noticed that he had a voicemail from the national park. We had left our phones off intending to use them only in the event of an emergency. The message had come either on Saturday or Sunday, when we were supposed to be on the summit or in the summit cabin, and it said something like “We suggest you shelter in place because of high winds at the summit.” Again, we were confused because besides one gusty spot along the trail to the summit, we hadn’t ever felt even remotely blown around or in danger. Also, if we had gotten the message and stayed in place, would we have gotten stuck on this road that was about to be blocked off for fire danger?
I suppose all this is to say, if you ever plan on hiking Mauna Loa, be aware that there are many things that can cause the park to not hand out permits or close the road to the peak. I have no idea if certain times of the year are more likely to have this happen. I know that last year at this time, much of the mountain was covered in snow — this year, we saw no traces of snow, ice, or frost. I know that the mountain was off limits all last summer during the volcano activity, and had just reopened in October. Now, it’s all closed again because of the government shutdown. It’s probably best to go into it with an open mind and alternative plans, and be willing to consider even being able to get to Red Hill as an accomplishment. While some would consider this to be an easier 13,000 foot mountain because it doesn’t require any climbing/mountaineering, it’s still one to be taken seriously.
Our takeaways from all this were to prepare as much as we could in advance, and if given the chance to backpack this mountain, go for it, but still be mindful of the altitude and exhaustion it can cause. We drove back down the mountain road feeling satisfied and accomplished, and prayed that the last half of our trip would go as well as the first half had.