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Hawaii Trails

Living in the Present on a Hike Up Mauna Loa

The climb up this legendary peak's volcanically shifting landscape is never quite the same, no matter how many times you do it.

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I stop to take a breather at the transition point between two worlds. Above, I can see the barren volcanic landscape of Hawaii’s highlands, a far cry from the tropical forest of ohia trees where I stand now. Just a couple miles across the broad valley is the summit of Kīlauea, the world’s most active volcano, where new earth spills down the mountain every couple of years.

Six years ago, I looked down upon Halema’uma’u, Kīlauea’s crater, on this same hike, from nearly this same spot. Smoke billowed out of it at the time, and a lake of lava bubbled at the bottom. At night, the glow lit up the forest all around.

I hardly recognize it now. The crater, once only .6 mile in diameter, is now more than a mile wide. The lake of fire exploded in a 2018 eruption, when the land spewed and shook then cracked and crumbled in on itself. Six hundred homes were destroyed by lava, and parts of the coastline were completely reshaped—bays filled in, beaches destroyed—in a geologic instant.

Cooled lava
Bill Ross/Getty Images

It’s hard to resist comparing the two landscapes in my mind, the before and after. The desire to contrast the past and the present is the nature of repeat experience. But nothing stays the same, especially around active volcanoes. I try to see the view for what it is today, not what it was a couple years ago. If there’s one thing living in Hawaii has taught me, it’s that change is inevitable.

Though most of what I see in the distance is Kīlauea, I’m actually on Mauna Loa—the biggest mountain, by volume, in the world. The two volcanoes are butted up against one another in the southeast corner of the Big Island, Mauna Loa rising tall above the shorter, younger Kīlauea. The Mauna Loa Summit Trail climbs more than 18 miles and 6,500 feet to the summit crater, where a backcountry cabin sits amid jagged basalt on the rim. There’s another hut, Red Hill Cabin, a little less than halfway up the trail. I’ll spend the night there to acclimate on my way to the 13,678-foot summit from sea level.

I suck down half a liter of water and step through the transition zone. Drinking the water removes a little weight from my pack, but not much. There’s no reliable water source on Mauna Loa, so I’m carrying 9 liters for the journey, bringing my pack weight to more than 50 pounds—each liter alone weighs more than two pounds. The reason for my heavy load? The upper summit zone is so desolate that, despite the presence of the two cabins, the backcountry office requires all hikers to carry a tent in case of storms. With no trees or natural shelters and vast stretches of empty lava flows to cross, unpredictable weather conditions—including snow—present significant danger.

Hiker on Mauna Loa
Will McGough

But right now, the sky is blue and clear and the sun is bright, although it is cold, especially by Hawaiian standards (low 50s and dropping). The red-flowered ohia trees of the lower elevations have vanished; I forge on into the empty landscape, miles and miles of nothing but lava rock ahead of me. It’s a lonely feeling, stepping away from the forest and into emptiness, without another hiker in sight.

Mauna Loa’s lava fields are some of the sharpest and toughest terrain on the planet. They were built, layer by layer, by hundreds of eruptions, including 33 in the last 176 years (most recently in 1984). Experts keep saying that the “big one” is overdue and inevitable, but for now, the volcano remains relaxed. While Kīlauea often undergoes dramatic, overnight changes, Mauna Loa’s reshaping is mostly gradual, decades of small eruptions and earthquakes slowly shifting the landscape into something entirely new.

This idea of inevitable change is what draws me to backpacking on Hawaii’s volcanoes. Nothing is ever the same from year to year, the land constantly bending and breaking under the pressure of immense forces. The slow crawl of a pahoehoe (smooth, ropy lava) flow, steamrolling over small hills; the expanding, cracking fissures of the volcanic slopes; the shifting and shaking of myriad earthquakes.

small and spiky green plant

These regular occurrences rarely garner news coverage—change is less noteworthy when it’s gradual. But they add up. For a decade, a volcano might change so slightly you barely notice from visit to visit, then one day you trek up and find that the landscape from your first hike exists only in your memory.

Once in a while, the earth serves us a tremendous volley and change comes quickly and catastrophically—like Kīlauea. When you wake up in the morning, it’s not just that something’s different—it’s that everything is.

It hits me hard on this particular trip, because like Mauna Loa, I too, have a big change looming. Thanks to Covid-19, my time in Hawaii as I know it now may be coming to an end. There are decisions to make—about my job, my lifestyle, maybe even where I choose to call home. Am I ready? What will my landscape look like a few months from now?

I reach Red Hill Cabin just in time for sunset, as the temperature begins to plummet. Shivering, I pull a hat, gloves, and an extra layer from my pack. A few days ago, it seemed bizarre to pack them—along with long underwear, wool socks, and a winter jacket—next to my board shorts and flip flops. The extreme conditions keep away the crowds that fill the coast, though, and I’m the only one at the cabin tonight. I choose one of the top bunks so I can gaze at thousands of stars through the window as I fall asleep, with no light pollution for miles.

Clouds from Mauna Loa
Dominik Rue

In the morning, I can see my breath. The water tap is frozen, but I didn’t lug 9 liters of water along for nothing. After scarfing down breakfast, I begin the 12-mile, 3,215-foot climb to the summit.

The hiking is intense. Unsure footing, sharp rocks, and volcanic glass keep my eyes glued to the ground. There’s not a tree, bush, or patch of grass in sight. Sections of the lava rock underfoot have begun to oxidize, shifting from black to bright red. This volcanic landscape isn’t as monochromatic as it first appears: I see many variations of rust, and other colors too—green, brown, and a few shades of gray—all with different stages and rates of transformation.

Stopping for a moment to take in the view, I spread a small towel on top of an angular chunk of lava rock—the sharp edges might rip my pants otherwise. Pulling out my camera, I snap a photo of the oxidized rock rainbow, knowing it will never look exactly like this again.

It takes more than 6 hours to reach the Summit Cabin. It feels less like a mountain summit than a visit to the moon, the cabin a tiny manmade speck in a sea of black rock on the rim of Mauna Loa’s gigantic summit crater—a 6-square-mile, 550-foot-deep hole. White steam blasts out the bottom of the crater floor like a whale coming up for air.

There’s a couple from Colorado already at the cabin. We sit next to the crater and watch the sun begin to set, joking about what we’ll do if an eruption occurs. Run? Panic? Nah… I tell them I’d do nothing—just enjoy the spectacle and explore the aftermath if I survive it.

The sunset turns the sky a deep shade of red, outlined in bright, brilliant orange. The woman looks over at me.

“There’s our eruption,” she says with a smile.

That night the wind blows hard against the cabin walls, and I can hear ice falling on the roof. I lay huddled in my sleeping bag on a top bunk again. Tomorrow I’ll be back down at the beach, sweating in the sun.

If the experts are right, the “big one” will eventually—and dramatically—reshape Mauna Loa. When will that be? How long do I have to explore the hike I know before it vanishes forever? These thoughts spin through my mind as I lay in my sleeping bag, here at the top of Mauna Loa. I have no more insight into the fate of a volcano than I do my own future.

Lying here, thinking about the volcano, I suddenly feel an overwhelming sense of connection. Everything around me is changing. Nothing stays the same. Not here on Mauna Loa, nor anywhere down at sea level. It all goes on, becoming what it will, without regard for what it used to be. Mauna Loa and Kīlauea are embracing change. Why should I be any different?

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