Snowboarding on Mauna Kea, Hawaii
“C’mon, girls! There’s snow on the mountain! Let’s start the New Year off right and go skiing and snowboarding!”
My two nieces eagerly climbed into my car, and we began the hour-long drive through the tropical rainforest in the steaming heat. Wait – didn’t I just say we were going skiing and snowboarding? That’s right – I forgot to mention we’re in Hawaii. Skiing and snowboarding in Hawaii??? Yes, it is possible! Mauna Kea, which peaks out at nearly 14,000 feet, is so tall it gets snow on its summit. It has been known to snow as late as June! Usually, the snow line will come down to 10,000 feet, though on rare occasions, such as this year (2002), it came all the way down to Saddle Road, which is 6000 foot elevation.
Soon the road rose up from the heat of the flatlands to the icy air of Saddle Road, then to the Onizuka Visitor’s Center. Here we stayed for an hour, to acclimate to the 9200 foot altitude. Then we continued to the summit, breaking two rules; 1) only 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended to drive beyond this point, which my 1995 Toyota Camry was not, and 2) kids under 16 aren’t supposed to go above the Visitor’s Center, and my younger niece was not quite 7 years old. Oh, well, they don’t check…
We all made it to the summit just fine. However, most of the slopes were covered with a very thin sheet of ice. Some of them were completely bare. At least it was worth the drive, just to see the view and look at the 13 observatories. We turned around and went home.
Three weeks later, we were blessed with three glorious feet of wet but fluffy snow! Since it was Martin Luther King’s weekend, school was out. We went up again. I let Amber and her boyfriend Micah share my snowboard, since the bindings could work with hiking boots. Dominique, the younger one was going to stand on the backs of my skis, so that meant I would have to stick to the bunny slope. It was just as well, since she had never skied or snowboarded in her life.
Skiing and snowboarding on Mauna Kea is pretty much the responsibility of the people who choose to do it. There is no “snow patrol”, no marked hazards, no facilities even, except for a few port-a-potties. The Visitor’s Center makes recommendations for safety; other than that, you participate at your own risk.
Because Mauna Kea gets snow so rarely, and even then only lasts a few days, there are no lifts, so people who go there have to either hitchhike or walk. At 14,000 foot altitude, walking uphill is a laborious process, even without clumping in stiff boots and carrying 10 pound skis. Dominique, with her immature cardiopulmonary system, found the uphill walks even harder. That’s why they discourage kids under 16 to go up there. Ability to handle high altitudes is one thing that improves with age. I’ve discovered you can build endurance by long distance swimming.
I had brought my skis and snowboard from the Mainland; that’s why I had them. No equipment is available for rent or sale on the Big Island of Hawaii (it is on Oahu though – figure that!). Most of the people up there were using boogie boards. They were standing on them! I have no idea how they steered those things!
Here at the Mauna Kea Visitor Center, I'm showing off a thermal t-shirt I bought at High Cascade Snowboard Camp
Scenes from the Summit of Mauna Kea
After three runs, Dominique told me she was tired and wanted to rest in the car. I let her, and did a few more runs by myself. Then Amber and Micah told me they were ready to call it a day. We met at the car, and I strapped into my snowboard, allowing Dominique to stand in the center so she could get in one run. Amber met us with my car at the bottom of the slope, and we headed back to the tropics after our alpine adventure.
Skiing and snowboarding on Mauna Kea is one of those activities you do just to say you’ve done it. The place is rife with unmarked hazards. The year we had our aforementioned adventure was an unusually good one; the snow lasted well into May. Yet a girl had a fatal accident when she flew off her boogie board into a field of lava rocks and cracked her skull. So one must be conservative while skiing or snowboarding there.
To make matters worse, the snow quality is usually poor, and the 14,000 foot altitude makes for only 2/3 the amount of oxygen that you get at sea level. This can addle your judgment. One film they often showed at the Visitor’s Center has a construction worker who calls his office in Hilo to complain that he had cut a metal bar 3 times, and it was still too short. It is important to drink lots of water, to supplement the limited oxygen. Also bring your own lunch; the nearest restaurant facilities are 40 miles away, in Hilo. Service your vehicle before coming up, since the nearest gas station is also in Hilo. Most important, it gets EXTREMELY cold up there, so dress warm! Even at the Visitor’s Center, where it’s usually in the 40’s and 50’s Fahrenheit, it feels cold; on the summit, it can easily sink to sub-zero temperatures. In fact, even though I’ve skied in Colorado, the coldest I’ve ever been in my life was on the summit of Mauna Kea, when it dropped to -4 degrees Fahrenheit!
Another thing; make sure you come down before sunset. The 8 ½ mile road from the Visitor’s Center to the summit is mostly unpaved, and has no guard rails. It can be hard to see after dark, and if you have any problems, like brake failure, it’s harder to be rescued. (By the way, being towed off the mountain costs $600, and rental vehicles aren’t allowed up there.)
So why bother to ski or snowboard Mauna Kea? To give you bragging rights. Doing so means you’ve 1) done it in Hawaii, 2) done it on the tallest mountain in the world (with its base 18,000 feet below the ocean, that makes it taller than Mt. Everest) 3) gives you a fabulous view of the tropical ocean while you’re on snow, and 4) this is one of the few places in the world where you can ski / snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon.
I drove my nieces in my 1995 Toyota Camry to the summit more times than I can remember. Then came one cold November day when we rode up with church friends in someone’s jeep. Right around Milepost 4, the engine died; this, even though it had 4-wheel drive! To avoid the $600 towing fee, the driver struggled to turn the jeep around, then coasted the 4 miles all the way back to the Visitor’s Center – this, with power brakes that barely operated! That scared me into never making the drive up there again. I have since heard the jeep driver could have started his engine again if he had equalized the air pressure by merely removing and replacing his gas cap. Still, I’d rather not take that chance.
This guide lists the best places to visit in all the inhabited islands in the state. For guided skiing / snowboarding tours, check out groups like Ski Hawaii.
Me, snowboarding the Poi Bowl.
Sarah, my roommate, snowboarding in Hawaii
For several years after that, we had minimal snow. Then we got a decent dump in 2007, and I went up to snowboard. This time, I hitchhiked from the Visitor’s Center to the summit. This gave me the extra advantage of being able to hitchhike to the top of the slope as well, so I didn’t have to waste time and energy hiking.
I went up again a couple days later, but saw the snow had turned to ice, so I turned around and hitchhiked back to the Visitor’s Center. That’s another thing; often, the snow will melt and re-freeze overnight, making it rock hard the next day. There are no grooming facilities, so it’s best to go as soon as it snows.
The Christmas / New Year Holidays of 2008 – 2009 proved to be the best season in 7 years. This time, I went up three times; one was with a roommate of mine named Sarah. We filmed each other snowboarding. There was two feet of snow up there, and it was wonderful.
The last time I got to snowboard on Mauna Kea was February 2012. I’d heard there was only 4 inches of snow, but by that time, I was already at the Visitor’s Center, and so decided to take a chance, anyway. I discovered you really can ski and snowboard on 4 inches of snow! It was good quality, too; light and fluffy. Unfortunately, on my first run, the backs on the bindings of my snowboard broke off. (I did have it for 13 years; I guess the plastic got aged.) On my second run, I discovered why we need backings; it’s to maintain the proper posture. Those of you who have had snowboard lessons may have heard the term, “Sit on the toilet; don’t smell it”. That means bend your knees and not your waist. This makes it easy to turn. I found I could not maintain that stance, and therefore had to sit down and flip my board every time I wanted to turn.
I haven’t snowboarded on Mauna Kea since, but it’s not because of lack of equipment. That summer, some wonderful co-workers of mine bought me a snowboard they’d found at a garage sale. The reason I haven’t used it yet is because there hasn’t been enough snow. It snowed only once since – June of 2012 – but it was in patches, barely an inch deep. I hitchhiked up there, then had to turn right back around.
If you don’t want to go through all that trouble or take risks, local tour guides offer ski packages, which include rental and transportation to the summit of Mauna Kea. Information is available at http://www.hawaiiinfoguide.com/hawaii_skiing.htm
Definitely try skiing and snowboarding on Mauna Kea. It’s the adventure of a lifetime!
After a day of snowboarding (or if no snow is available), you can stargaze. Every night, the Visitor's Center has free stargazing, films, and cultural programs.
Snowboarder shredding UH88 Hil Part I
Snowboarder Shredding UH88 Hill Part II
© 2012 Yoleen Lucas