Climbing Mauna Kea by bike
It’s a challenge that haunts me. I will be back to conquer this beast, Mauna Kea. I’ll be back next August. It had me against the ropes and pounded me into oblivion. I couldn’t take anymore. I was beaten.
The story so far.
I was dreaming of the day when I was able to tackle the challenge of cycling up Mauna Kea, followed shortly by Mauna Loa.
We’d talked about this ride for a couple of years. Then I met Mark last year whilst cycling the Haute Route. He’d also had the same idea.
“Let’s make it happen” we said.
And so after a years planning I was standing on the soil of Hawai’i.
We’d just climbed Haleakala on Maui. We then flew from Kahului to Hilo.
Hilo’s a cute little town. Sitting on the north shore of The Big Island. It has a 60s feel about it. The hotels are very much built in the style of that era. They’re starting to look a little tired too.
We were staying at Hilo Hawaiian Hotel. It’s on the shoreline. An attractive hotel for Hilo, and convenient for climbing Mauna Kea.
Where it all begins
We set off at 5am. It starts to get light at 6. We’d not given ourselves much of a window for weather, but the gods were looking down on us. The weather was perfect.
Form the hotel we headed straight for the the 2000 Highway. It had a fresh lick of seal on it. A smooth black ribbon all the way to the Mauna Kea Access Road. This coupled with a wide shoulder and courteous drivers made for a pleasant 50km climb, up to 2000 metres, along the saddle road.
Saddle Road to the Visitors Center
Once at the Mauna Kea junction shit gets real, and really quick. It’s only another 800 metres of elevation to the Mauna Kea visitors information centre. 800 metres of shear hell. The road ramps up quickly,
too quickly for my legs. Gradients is only experienced on sections of a couple of hundred metres were kms long. I was zig zagging pretty early in the piece, like a paperboy on acid. I just couldn’t figure out how on earth I was supposed to climb this beast.
I’d opted for a 34/34 gear ratio. What I needed was a 22/40. This was insane.
Mark who I was riding with, an awesome dude from Australia/Canada, had a mountain bike. He was the sensible one. One with gearing suited to conquer the beast.
I was having to stop every few hundred metres. I should have invested in a gel company, that’s how quick I was swallowing them. Nothing was working, least of all my legs.
Somehow, and I still can’t recall, I made it to the visitors centre. Mark was waiting. He’d been waiting a while. I told him I was unable to carry on. I wouldn’t be able to complete this with him. He looked devastated, both for me and him. I was devastated. I’d flown all this way, from NZ, and I wasn’t up to the task.
I told Mark he needed to carry on. He looked hesitant, but dutifully went about the business we’d both come to do.
I hung around the visitors centre for a while. Collected the few thoughts I had. Then I decided I’d give the gravel section a crack.
The Gravel Section
I’d read, talked about, and been told and warned, about the gravel section of Mauna Kea. Nothing can prepare you for what it’s like. Heck, I’d even built a new gravel bike for this very section.
It was only when I came face to face with it that I knew what everyone was talking about. It’s a cross between sand, volcanic rock, and gravel, fine gravel. I couldn’t get any traction, even on the flatter sections of the road, and there weren’t many of those. The gradients of the previous sealed roads increased.
I let some air out of my tyres. It didn’t really help at all. I was running 32 gravel tyres. I tho I’d done everything to mitigate defeat. Little did I know, as so often is the case.
The broken man
I started walking. I was broken. Mauna Kea has snapped me in two. I stopped, and weighed up my options. Do I continue to walk the 4 miles, or roll back down the hill, carefully?
I chose to start walking. Walking on gravel in carbon soles road shoes is not advisable, but what the fuck, I walked anyway. Now I have to throw away one pair of carbon road shoes. It’s simply that demanding.
I walked 2 miles. A pickup stopped. They chatted to me. They were from the University of Hawaiʻi astronomy dept. at this stage I wasn’t sure whether they were chatting to me to understand if I still had all my faculties, or simply being friendly. Both I guess. They advised me that the road only became worse. How could it!
I took onboard what they’d said, and waked some more. Then I just couldn’t walk any further. I was done. My dream shattered, but it was only a dream. I’d desperately wanted to be as close to space with a bike as humanly possible, but it wasn’t to be. The decision was made, I was to head back down.
I thought going up was difficult, going down was equally challenging. The gravel section looked as though it’d claim me again. I descended so slowly, time almost went backwards.
The Mauna Kea visitors centre, again!
This time is approached the centre from the other direction. I arrived doing roughly the same speed. 4-6kph going up, possibly the same going down.
I hung around, grabbed coffee and a bite to eat. The clouds rolled in, so I rolled out. Down to the hunters shelter to wait for Mark.
I waited for an age for Mark to come flying down the access road. The wind had picked up. I wrapped up. Then he arrived. He was buzzing. He’d made it to the top. Mark was one of only 77 people to do so on Strava
. I was so pleased for him. He’d done it.
The run back into Hilo was fast. Pretty much all down hill, and with minimal peddling if you don’t have a headwind. It’s super fast. It took us just over and hour to do 50km. Yet it took us 4 hours just to reach the Mauna Kea Access Road. Then a further couple of hours to the visitors centre. It took Mark a further few hours to reach the summit. It really is that tough.
The next day we were to climb Mauna Loa.
Hilo is a very cool Havanaesque (or Napier if you live in New Zealand). It’s reminiscent of cool little towns. There are cool bars, organic shops, and some of Hawaii’s best cafés, especially Sweet Cane Café. Thos that are vegetarian or vegan will find plenty of fresh food here. The street are wide, but very cycle friendly, actually more cycle friendly than the whole of Auckland, New Zealand.
Flights: Flying Air New Zealand/Qantas $1000 return (Can be cheaper). Expect to pay US$35 for bike/flight
Hotel: Staying at Hilo Hawaiian US$125/night
Food: Food around Hilo can be fairly cheap, and eating out is good value.