Monday, August 20, 2012

Cycling Mauna Kea

On August 8, 2012, I took my bike to the top of Mauna Kea from the coast in Hilo. This is a 45 mile, 13,800 foot climb from sea level to the observatories at the peak. Is this the longest single climb in the world? I'm not sure, but I've not herd of anything else this big. By "took my bike", I mean that I rode my bike from sea level up to the visitors center at 9,500 feet, did a mixture of riding but mostly walking over the next 4.7 miles of dirt road, and rode the final few miles to the summit. The last part involved a bunch of traversing; it was tough to go straight up even to let cars pass.

Rolling up to the start point on Wainaku Bridge:

With the Hilo waterfront in the background, but bad lighting for a cell phone photo.

I left around sunrise or 6:00 AM.  Weather is highly variable at the top, so it is a very good idea to check the observatory websites before you go up there, even if you are just planning to drive up and look around. On this day, the weather in Hilo was great with expected highs in the 80s and minimal precipitation for Hilo standards.  The forecast at the top was for a high of 48 degrees with winds ranging from 2mph in the morning to over 35 mph at night. You can see that the road signs the pictures later are "swiss cheese" road signs so that they don't get blown over by the wind.  I hoped to summit sometime shortly after noon, so I expected clear weather, decent temperatures, and minimal wind. 

The first 29-30 miles are fairly benign climbing to the Mauna Kea Access Road at 6500 feet.  6500 feet of steady climbing over 30 miles is a 4.1% average grade, but it is not as easy as it sounds.  The Saddle Road across the island between the volcanos received substantial upgrades in the last 5-6 years; it is well paved with excellent shoulder all the way out of Hilo.  The road has nuerous sections of flattish grade and numerous short jumps of double digit grade that don't really show up in the Garmin chart.  Welcome to Big Island riding, where you will think +3% is flattish. Most of the elevation (6000ft) is gained by by mile 25.  The real meat of this section is miles 5-20 with an average grade close to 5.5%.  I probably could have cut a mile or so off of distance and suffered sooner by going directly up Waianuenue/Kaumana Rd, but it doesn't have a shoulder, so I made my way over the the Saddle Rd. via Komohana.

Here is the view rolling out of the low tropical elevations and into the Saddle Road wasteland.  I think this was around 3200 feet, but I didn't make a note of it.  I was hoping the rainbow was a positive omen.  I lucked out with no rain, but just a cool mist until I got over the tops of the clouds. The last 5-6 miles before the access road turn off are low single digit grade, so I almost felt refreshed when I made the right turn off the Saddle Rd. Below, I am cruising along the last few miles before the turnoff.  I was trying to save energy for the test ahead, and this mild terrain was helpful.  My garmin is set to record 5 mile splits, and the split from 25-30 is the only one other than miles 1-5 where I recorded a double digit average speed. You might note that I dropped the camelback seen in earlier photos.  I used it for 25 miles before I met up with my supply wagon.  Since my support team was going to follow me to the top, I decided to shed the extra weight and just pick up water and food every hour or so from the car.
It started to get hot on this part of the ride.  I was above Hilo cloud cover and the morning cool was gone.  That said, heat was never an issue because I had plenty of water and I left early enough that I missed the hottest part of the day before getting to high elevation.  In retrospect, I think sunrise in mid August is the optimal time to make the attempt.  There is plenty of daylight. It is your best bet for good weather down low and up high, and the sunrise offsets the temperature drop from gradual elevation gain.  At higher elevations past the visitor center, it was cool or even cold to stand around, but perfect for cycling with effort. 

You could see the observatories at the top on this kind of clear day.  Those white specks really don't look so far away, do they? They also don't look like they are at the very top, but its an illusion; they are at the very top. The next picture is me about to take off after making the turn onto Mauna Kea Access Road and stopping for nutrition.  I was feeling good here after the relatively easy last few miles.  That said, my schedule was out the window.  I had hoped to make this turn in three hours of actual time.  I made it in 3:12 of Garmin riding time that cuts out my stops.  It was more important that I stayed within my abilities, especially over this section of the ride.  Its not like this was a training ride; I just wanted to finish. (As an aside, several people stopped to talk with me at higher elevations and after I came back down.  They all asked what I was training for.  I trained for this!  Is there something harder?  It was nice to be thought of as some kind of pro on a ridiculous training ride, even if only by non-cyclists.)

The picture right is a shot of me starting up the access road.  (Readers familar with the area might notice the scar of the dirt road in the upper left of the photo. It goes from the left side upward toward the right. These huge switchbacks are plainly visible from Saddle Road.) The trip to the visitor center is marked as 6 miles from the turnoff.  I've found that "6" in Hawaii means anywhere from 5.1 to 6.9, but I later found that since this is part of the national park system, the sign was accurate.  I had heard from other accounts of this ride that the last few miles before the visitor center were hairy, but I hadn't really thought about it, despite studying others Garmin tracks closely.  Oops.  The turnoff is at 6500 feet.  The visitors center is 9500 feet.  The distance is 6 miles.  Rough average grade: 9.5%.  This is HC territory.  The terrain doesn't look that difficult in the photo. As it turns out, it is not that difficult for the first couple of miles.

Park Ave. in Laguna Beach, CA climbs about 1000 feet in 2.0 miles for just under a 10% grade. That is a nice workout. The road ahead of me would do a similar grade for 6 miles. (My support car left for the visitor center after this photo.) When I first rode Park Ave in Laguna, it was unnerving in the beginning because you only end up with 350ft of elevation gain in the first mile. Mile 2 is about 12.3%. That stand up and bust your legs type of grade. Its almost funny to face a mile of double digit grade.

As you might notice from the mildly sloping terrain above, I was having a similar feeling this time. I kept trying to do math in my head. "6 miles, 3000 ft. Why don't I feel like I'm really climbing? What is coming up ahead? Is this Garmin altimeter correct? Is it possible tht I only gained 450ft in 2 miles?" Yes, I wasn't climbing hard, climing hell (nirvana?) was ahead, and I had over 2500ft to gain in 4 miles. That is over 12% for 4 miles. That was not funny at all. Did I mention that the steepest 5 miles in CA is 9.6%? I love testing myself on Mt. Baldy, but until this day, I had never seen a major league curveball.

For perspective, it is roughly 15 miles and 7250ft to the summit from the turn or 9.2%. For 15 miles! This is after ascending 6500 feet on Saddle Road. Did I mention that the air is thin at 13,700ft? The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike in California by John Summerson says that the toughest 10 miles in CA is the last 10 miles of Onion Valley Road in the Sierra with an 8.3% average grade. The toughest 20 miles is White Mountain with a 5.9% grade. The toughest 5 miles is Shirley Meadows at 9.6%. The steepest anything over 1.5 miles is Old Priest Grade at 13.1%. The steepest mile in CA is Mix Canyon at 15.8%. This climb beats all those stats in one shot.

Back to the ride. As it turns out, it eases up at the end of this section.  A little. Briefly. Those cones above are the entry to the visitor centor.  I've never gone, but I'm told they put on a great startgazing exhibition here at night.  I'll have to get there one day.

As I was pulling into the vistor center, I was absolutely shocked to see someone on a mountain bike pulling out of the parking lot and up the road.  Really?  I'm on an insane road probably climbed by less people than have climbed Mt. Everest, and someone is here today? I thought about going all Jens Voight, catching, and then dropping him, but then I stopped for food instead.  That is me in the background below talking with part of my support team.  Note the ranger truck.  He would start shadowing me later in the ride.

I am sorry that I have no photos of the next 5 miles of dirt. The reality is that it is a rough road and my support truck (4WD please) cruised quickly to my next check point at the beginning of the upper section of pavement because its no fun driving on it. 

The last time I came up here in 1995, I drove a minivan to the top.  That was dumb.  The road is steep with  2300 feet elevation gain in 4.7 miles or so, and generally requires 4WD.  As for riding it, the dirt and cinder are loose.  I could have done it with fresh legs and mountain bike, but the rear wheel slippage hurt.  I more or less failed on the cross bike and dead legs.  In fact, it was worse than that.  I had regular Gatorade mixed with water in my Camelbak (TM) for the first 30 miles.  When I turned off to the access road, my stomach was done with sugar.  I had intended to get G2 instead of regular Gatorade, but I wasn't paying attention at the time I got it.  Three hours into the ride, I was sick of even diluted with water Gatorade.  By the visitor center, I was in salt/electrolyte deficiency but didn't know it yet.  After pedaling a rough mile or so on the dirt after the visitor center, my legs cramped up fierce and I realized I had not been making up the difference with enough salt tablets, so I got off and walked and walked and walked.  I tried to get back on a few times, but the legs were killing me every time I tried to pedal. The guy who left the vistor center ahead of me didn't make it through the dirt section.  He came down in his support car while I was walking up.

The shot to the left is looking down toward the Saddle Road and the slope of Mauna Loa from somewhere on the dirt road.  The road seen in the lower right is dirt. I don't know what I thought I was taking a picture of here, but the view was spectacular.  I was suffering from despair at this point because each time I tried to get back on the bike, both my legs would cramp all over and I'd have to hop off after something like 10 pedal strokes. I was determined to get to the top of the dirt and attempt to ride on the pavement again before giving up.  The cramps were so sharp that I didn't think I could recover my legs on this ride.  My only consolation was popping Hammer Endurolytes and Advil like candy while I walked up this road.  My garmin speed track really doesn't show the walking vs. riding.  It was all the same speed.  The sections of the cadence track at zero are the only sign that I wasn't on the bike.

Eventually, I got back to the pavement at 40 miles total and 11,800ft up.  I asked my team to hang out here because I didn't think I could continue with the leg cramps.  I was only another 4.2 miles to the top, but if I couldn't ride the pavement, I was done.  I got on the bike.  I pedaled.  It didn't hurt.  Thank you Hammer Nutrition.   This last section averages 9.0%, but as you can see below, the grade is variable.  Below, its flattish and fairly easy to pedal on my busted legs and 34x36 gearing.  Of course, that ment that the grade would get silly again up ahead somewhere.
Me after getting back on the bike.  It was getting cold at the last stop and the wind was picking up, so I put on my windbreaker.  I took it off a short while later because a little effort & bright sunshine beat the cooling effect of thin air and mild wind.

Here is my support crew waiting for me at the top of the dirt section. Thank you support crew. This ride is simply impossible without access to resources/nutrition stops along the way.
There is a loop at the top around the observatories. The top of the road is to the right.  I am approaching that turn in the first picture below.  The park ranger in the truck had decided to start following me by this point. He was probably both curious and concerned for my safety and/or sanity. I'm sorry that I don't have a good shot of the road after the right turn because it looks horrible from below. Actually, I'll just insert this link from another website so you can see the final stretch. The next several pictures are me finishing the last mile or so.

The cinder cone behind me is the highest point.  You can walk the trail over there, but no thanks.  It is about as high as the second floor of the observatory in the last photo below. 
With the Park Ranger

With my support team

When I started, I had hoped to ride to the top from Hilo and then ride down to the west into a hotel at Waikoloa Beach to meet back up with my family. After getting to the top at around 2, I decided to forget the ride down.  It would have been a lousy, stressful descent.  The pavement is good except for the dirt part, but the grade is such that my hands would have cramps from squeezing the brakes.  The dirt part would have been worse. Even the Saddle Rd. down to Hawaii Belt Rd. would have sucked because the shoulder disappears and there are some short, sharp climbs on the way down.  (The descent down the last 2500ft on Waikoloa Rd. is awesome, smooth and straight. I rode that later in the week.)  Anyway, I got in the car and cruised down to the hotel to get on with my vacation.

Others have rode this mountain from the triathlon stomping grounds in Kohala (Kona side north) to Mauna Kea. Going from the west, it is 10 miles longer, the shoulder on Saddle Rd. is nonexistent in some places with heavy traffic, the extra terrain goes up and down quite a bit, and the very strong wind will almost certainly be in your face for a long, long time. I took the Hele On public bus from the Hilton Waikoloa to downtown Hilo, spent the night, and left in the morning. The bus is chock full of hotel worker commuters, but clean and timely. What do you expect for $1? Actually it was $2 with the bike. Riding from Waikoloa is far harder. I salute all those who have done it from the Kona side of the island, but I strongly recommend the Hilo departure.  The only change I would have made would have been to go all the way up Wainuenue/Kaumana Rd instead of cutting across to the Saddle Rd. in town.  This would have shortened the route by a mile or two. That won't matter for those who start out at the beach south of the Saddle Rd; just go directly to the Saddle Rd. intersection with the highway.

At some expense, I had brought my cross bike to Hawaii for this adventure. Its a 2010 Specialized Tricross Comp. (I love this bike for all purpose riding; I don't race cross.) I cheated and put a mountain bike derailleur and an 11x36 cassette on it. Thank God! I've read that people have climbed this on a regular 11x28 cross setup and supposedly people have done it on a road bike. That is simply beyond me. I needed the pseudo-granny gears for sustained miles of double digit climbing.  That said, the cross bike was not enough for me to tackle the dirt section.  I will always wonder if I could have rode the whole way on a 29er.  For those considering this ride, I'd recommend renting a 29er in Hawaii.  Make sure it has good granny gears.  One could also take a road bike up to the visitor center and then have your support crew bring a mountain bike for the last 10 miles.  If you don't want to mess with the dirt section, you can ride pavement all the way to 11,500ft if you go left off Saddle Rd. just east of the Mauna Kea turnoff.  That road leads to the observatories on Mauna Loa.  They aren't at the summit, but 10,500ft is no small feat.

I don't know if its possibly to properly train for this ride unless you live in Hawaii. There really aren't that many places to get so much vertical all at once.  Its a big difference from doing repeats.  I'm sure it would help to live at elevation before attempting this. 

Garmin Link

Strava Link

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Trying out the iPad blog application

I am trying to resurrect my old blog with iPad software. Hopefully this works. #1 is about as tall as Mom.


Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Trying to get back on track with the online diary


Thursday, June 03, 2010

Link to a drawing by DC Rainmaker

I'd like to win this sale, so here is a link to get me in the drawing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Samantha Getting Ready for Christmas

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

My Photo Contest Entry

A gator at the National Zoo. Nothing but green. I bet this one could win a photo contest.
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At the National Zoo

Here we are with the pandas and some crocodiles at the National Zoo. All part of a nice week visiting relatives in and around D.C.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Grace's Birthday

Showing everyone at the party that she can sing show tunes just as well as Gabriella in High School Musical. There was cake & lots of friends too, but our camera operator didn't quite get the hang of the flash, so you'll just have to imagine the rest. Happy 3rd birthday to girl #3.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

At the Pumpkin Patch

The kids love going to this place every Fall. I especially like the one of Dani jumping up with her little bear. Its good to be a kid.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday After School

This is a nice picture after some Friday afternoon playtime. Three for three in the same grade.
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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Dani's First Day of School

'lil Dan was not nearly as nervous as her big sister was last year. I guess it helps when you've already seen the school a bunch of times. Here she is all dressed up and ready to go.
Here we are getting out of the car to drop the kids off.
Meeting up with Caroline in front of kindergarten.
Bye. Have a great day!
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