Adventure Journal Main Menu: Mauna Kea, 50th State Highpoint

Mauna Kea, Hawaii Sea-to-Summit-to-Sea Adventure

I am pleased to announce that I have finished all 50 USA state highpoints, finishing on Mauna Kea on March 12, 2009. To complete the 50th, my brother Josiah Esper, 14, and I successfully completed a Sea to Summit back to Sea adventure solely by human power.

The story of why I decided to visit each of the 50 state highpoints starts with my unique upbringing in the mountains of New York State. I hiked extensivly in the Adirondack Mountains, starting at the age of 7, and in the process gaining several regional records for climbing the Adirondack 46 High Peaks during the winter season. After completeing 5 rounds of this group of 46 mountains (of which 4 rounds total were in the winter), I grew a bit too familiar with these mountains, and decided to move on and climb other peaks. So, my dad and I climbed all 116 mountains above 4,000ft. in elevation in New England and New York (the New England 116)in the winter, finishing in New Hampshire in January 2001. After this, I decided again it was time to move on, and set myself the next logical goal of climbing/visiting all 50 state highpoints. My family has always done a lot of traveling themselves, so going on a few summer roadtrips together made sense, and Mom, Dad, and my brothers have done over 40 of the state highpoints with me. After completing the 48 lower states, Denali was next on a private expedition in May 2007. I had written a journal while on Denali of the day-to-day on a solar-powered PDA, but I didn't back it up, and this was stolen in Mendoza, Argentina, after getting off Aconcagua and successful private summit expedition there in January 2008. So by default Hawaii was left for last, and finally the timing came together for a 5 week family trip to Hawaii this year.

After thinking about how easy Mauna Kea is for most people who just drive up, I originally had planned to simply hike up almost 5000 ft from the visitor center, because we are, after all, hikers. But then sometime before our trip, I came up with the idea to go from sea to summit on human power, and this seemed fitting especially because Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world from base (below sea level) to summit, even a greater rise than Everest. I am not one to plan from afar, so I just figured once we got to Hawaii and saw the mountain we'd get a feel of the best route to take. Once in Hawaii, we realized that there is not a good trail from sea to summit, mostly because of all the private property surrounding the flanks of the mountain. There is supposedly a trail from the NE coast, which is the shortest distance from coast to peak, but once you reach the Mana 4WD ring road, the trail ends, and to be legal you'd have to travel ~20 miles on the Mana Road around Mauna Kea to join the summit road everyone takes. So, we decided on biking from the west coast along roads up to the visitor center at 9,000ft, and hiking the rest of the way to the summit. But once we realized all the effort we'd put into peddling up 9000+ ft, we thought we might as well enjoy the downhill fruits of our labor, and coast all the way out to the ocean again for a true Sea-Summit-Sea completion of the highpoint. So my brother Josiah and I (Mom and my 3 other younger brothers didn't want to or couldn't have done it, so they supported us by car), rented mountain bikes from the C&S Outfitters bike and hunting shop in Waimea for 3 days. We started in the mid morning from Anaeho'omalu Bay on the west coast, dipping our feet into the ocean, rode up the Waikolo Rd, ran out of water and got dehydrated in the hot sun, and then finally up the cooler Saddle Rd. The Saddle Rd. is very scenic with the green pastures, so in our opinion we liked that route better than the shorter but non-scenic route up to the saddle from Hilo. We chose to bicycle because it was the best way to cover the long distance we had to go, and the best route was following roads, but we're not hardcore bikers - neither of us had done any training for this besides being in our everyday good physical condition that being an outdoor-lover entails. We camped in tents at Mauna Kea State Park the first night, with the rest of the family, and continued the next day up to the visitor center, walking our bikes for about a mile on the steepest sections of the road. A nice woman offered to take anything of ours to the top after hearing we were planning on hiking up that same day, so she probably got more than she bargained for when we suddenly saw an opportunity to do some real mountain biking on a decent from the summit down the hiking trail, and so we put our bikes on top of her Jeep's rooftop rack, and told her to just leave them up there by an observatory building. My whole family (Cheryl Esper mom, Brecken 14, Josiah 14, Galen 10, Hansel 7, and I) took all afternoon on the second day to reach the summit crater area, reaching the telescopes by sunset. It took us a lot longer than expected due to snowy conditions starting at around 12,000ft, and as sunset came, the winds started to pick up even more to ~40mph. So, just as we got to the top of the road, with the true highpoint only 5 minutes away, a summit ranger was clearing the summit of any remaining visitors to elimate any light pollution for the telescopes from car lights or headlamps. And the younger boys were starting to get chilled in the wind, as the temp. was dropping. So, with the ranger saying he had to drive us down and couldn't leave us up there, and we had to descend now, Josiah and I immediately took off running for the true summit, because we'd ruin our Sea-toSummit-to-Sea effort if we were so close, but were forced to decend before tagging the top. The ranger knew our family story from earlier, so he trusted me with my prior mountain experiences enough to leave us at the summit and ride our bikes down in the dark, and drove the rest of the family down in his vehicle. The winds became ferousiously strong and cold at ~70mph on the final little ridge up the summit, and by the time we topped out, it was howling wind, pitch dark, and getting cold, so we didn't even take a photo. Riding down the top section of the road on our bikes was extremely difficult in the wind, and our brakes started burning quickly. Once we descended to near snowline, Josiah and I cut across the firmed-up thin snow layer over to the trial, because we really wanted to ride some challenging singletrack, even though the ranger most certainly expected us to ride the road down, and so didnt even think to tell us we couldn't ride the trail down. We actually aren't sure if bikes are allowed on the trail at all, but ignorance is bliss. We descended the rest of the trail in a little over an hour, which involved extremely technical and challenging steep loose scree and pumice descents, with the back tire locked a lot of the time, with very dim headlamps. That night the rangers allowed all of us to 'star-gaze' in our sleeping bags in the parking lot, because they knew the summit to sea section wouldn't count if we rode down that night to lower elevations and came back up the next day. The third day Josiah and I made our decent much more difficult than it had to be by deciding to also complete a circumnavigation around Mauna Kea that enabled us to ride the 40 mile Mana Rd, which is a classic mt. bike ride in it's own right. We started out on the R1 rd, a higher 4wd road also countouring around the mountain, but since we didn't have a good map, it was difficult knowing if any of the spur tracks decended down to the Mana Rd. And we didn't want to take a spur down a couple miles for it only to peter out. We finally settled on one road, the R5 I think, solely because from the other direction, if you were coming up this road, there was a little sign that said "Mauna Kea Preserve" and I figured if we were already coming from withing the reserve, there'd be no point to have this sign here, so people must be comeing from outside the reserve (ie. lower down the flanks of Mauna Kea, where the Mana Road circles). At the private land boundary, the road petered out, so we road down rocky cattle pastures, just trying to lose elevation and get to the Mana Rd. We eventually came out to it, after riding through a maze of fence lines, spiny gorse patches, and bulldozed tracks through burnt bush vegetation, guided only by intuition and subtle clues, like, "which direction do you think this bulldozer came from?" (By the way, bulldozer track treads aren't directional like car or bike tires.) We had no idea how far along the 40 miles we had come out to, but as what usually happens, we eventually passed signs for a forest park that the map 'said' was way behind us. I don't ever have knee pain, but if felt like I was getting inflamation in my knees from overuse, so it was too painful for me to peddle up hills anymore, so I slowed us down quite a bit. And it rained (even though came from above the clouds in the morning), which somehow had the effect of stiffening our (probably defective) front shocks on our bikes to complete rigidity within a matter of 20 minutes. So we walked the uphills, and tried to coast down the eroded and rocky downhills without holding onto the handlebars so the extreme vibrations wouldn't transfer so much through our bodies. Eventually, late that afternoon on the 3rd day, we made it around the mountain and ou to Waimea. But we still had another 10 miles downhill back to the west coast, which was dissapointingly not so fast since we let out some air in our bike tires earlier to reduce the vibrations, and as a result rolling friction increased. Our mom had earlier scouted the possible beaches we could end at with the most direct descent to the ocean, so we coasted into Spencer Beach Park after sunset, ditched the bikes and dashed into the surprisingly warm ocean water. I want to thank my family for their support on this, and many other previous, highpoints, and of course God, whose given us the strength and health for our adventures.

We were on the Big Island of Hawaii another 10 days, so after watching the weather every day, a week later our whole family returned to Mauna Kea, so that the rest of the family could step on the highpoint (and so that we could get a photo of us on the highpoint). We already hiked the mountain, so this time we hitchhiked right out in front of the visitor center, and quickly caught a ride in the back of a pickup truck up to the top. Gee, the ascent goes by much faster when you're in a vehicle! So, we spent a perfect afternoon again enjoying the summit area, taking photos, getting yelled at for accidently standing on the coconut religious offerings on the summit cairn when trying to get a bit higher in elevation, etc. The following day the whole family minus Brecken hiked up Mauna Loa, which is the most massive (volume-wise) mountain in the world, from the Mauna Loa Observatory Road. It was an uneventful day, though tiring and long, and it seems we failed to learn our lesson from before when we were stumbling down the lava flows in the dark again with a headlamp that was almost worse than the tiny sliver of moonlight on the black rock.