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On a recent trip to the Big Island, some friends convinced me to make the perilous trek to the summit of Mauna Kea. I was more than a little apprehensive about it, but never having done it before, I figured I’d suppress my fears and go along. It’s always been on my bucket list, which is only as old as the now-familiar pop culture trope. It was only after we made it back down to Saddle Road that the magnitude of the journey and the very real dangers it poses became clear to me.
For the most part, the road to the summit is open to the public, unless it is deemed too dangerous for anyone that doesn’t have scientific authorization to be there. For those who are considering the summit, here are a few important things to know. There are a great many ways to get into trouble when attempting the summit, and getting into trouble up there could easily win you a Darwin Award.
Acclimate for a while at the Visitor Center before attempting the summit. Simply put, the air at the summit is thin. Even the fittest extreme climbers, who can sometimes be seen walking the road, report light headedness when reaching the highest altitudes. For the less fit, losing consciousness is a very real possibility. Someone in our group who had been there before nearly did, and had to be taken down a few hundred feet before he was able to gather his senses. We would have been in trouble if he was the driver.
Use a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Once you pass the Visitor Center, most of the road to the summit is a dirt road, loose with gravel and without much traction. The danger here is that if you are not in a four-wheel vehicle you’ll likely get stuck, and if you get stuck there’s no room to back up and turn around. And the side of the road is an impossibly steep and precipitous drop all the way back to the Visitor Center.
Bring an ample supply of drinking water. The air at the summit is as dry as it is thin and humans dehydrate quickly at the summit. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, take a few sips of water every few minutes.
Bring a camera that isn’t in your cell phone. The instruments at the summit are profoundly sensitive, and visitors are asked to turn mobile devices off to prevent fouling any data being collected, which is vast. And it is always being collected. The view is unparalleled on Earth, and you’re going to want pictures. Just don’t use your mobile device.
Which brings me to an important point. Even if you get into trouble, wireless signals at the summit are dodgy at best. So you may not even be able to reach someone for help if you need it. The summit is a truly deadly environment. The uninformed and cavalier may soon find that they’ve made their final excursion.
All that being said, the summit of Mauna Kea is a life-affirming journey for those who do it properly. It’s a dangerous and fragile environment, home to hundreds of Native Hawaiian cultural sites and a variety of endangered species unique to the area, found nowhere else on Earth. Demonstrate respect by taking down what you take up. Don’t interfere with researchers.
Attempts have been made to accommodate visitors, including a small parking lot and a bank of outdoor toilets of the festival variety (albeit much, much cleaner). But these are not meant as hospitality. They are meant to keep you alive in dangerous, austere conditions.