Toughest Bike Climb in the World!
Mauna Kea, Mauna a Wakea, Sky Father, The White Mountain…the tallest volcano in all of the Hawaiian Islands, and technically the tallest mountain in the world, has many names as it towers over the Big Island of Hawaii. Literally above the clouds. It is a dormant shield volcano, like most volcanoes on the island. The sacred path to the top of Mauna Kea was traditionally reserved for only royalty in Hawaiian-Polynesian culture. Yours truly had the incredible opportunity to take on this world renown cycling challenge this past August while on a family vacation (yes, I prepared for this all year). And what a challenge it was!
Soaring almost 14,000 feet above sea level (4207 meters) Mauna Kea is considered to be the most difficult road bike climb (as in pedals) in the world because of the unique combination of several factors. And I’m not even counting the amount of highway hazards along the way such as the busy morning commute by locals, a blinding rising sun, and the random chunks of lava rock and feral goat roadkill strewn along the shoulder. All of which ALONE could pose a trip ending event to the unsuspecting cyclist.
The first major factor is simply the distance from 0 (sea level) to the summit. While the traditional route is from Hilo and is about 69 km, the route that I took from Kailua-Kona was a longer route of 104 km. I chose this route due to the convenience of rolling out of our Air B & B to start my journey, but this way is not recommended if given a choice as per items mentioned above. The distance alone, however, is not a big deal for endurance cyclists until you throw in the ascending gradient, which gets steeper the further you go. The rise over run % average grade for my route was “only” about 4% total. But when you turn onto the actual Mauna Kea access road off the Danny K Highway, you have 10km of 8% grade to the Visitor Centre, and then 15 more km of 12% average to the peak. Yikes!
The second factor is the road surface you are cycling on. While the majority is good quality State of Hawaii tarmac, once you pass the Visitor’s Centre you have to slog through 8km of volcanic gravel before returning to smoother pavement. I use the term “gravel” very loosely (no pun intended). If you can imagine riding your bike through course, black sand, that is anywhere from 1 to 4 inches deep you’d soon appreciate the effort it takes to keep the rubber on the road so to speak. And this is uphill! Throw in the abundance of sight seers riding their brakes on their rented 4 x 4 vehicles the whole way down the road, kicking up dust, and you get a better picture of the nature of this section.
Thirdly, and perhaps the most crucial item, is the elevation of Mauna Kea as it relates to the amount of oxygen available. The Visitor Centre sits at 10,000 feet above sea level. This is the height at which the air make-up starts to change. Park officials make motorists who are driving to the top wait here for about 30 minutes to give the average person time for their cardiovascular systems to adjust to the altitude. Cyclists are exempt from this mandatory layover as their bodies are slowly, but constantly, adjusting during the climb up to this point in the challenge.
While not anywhere near the “death zone” of 26,000 feet (the height at which the oxygen content cannot sustain human life) the summit air at 14,000 feet contains approximately 40% less oxygen than at sea level. What that means to an endurance “athlete” like me is simply that you have to work harder to maintain your current level of performance. So feeding your body with enough fuel, hydration, and mental reasoning all get tampered with (google “exercising at altitude” to really dive into this phenomenon). I really felt the effect of this at about 12,000 feet where my legs seemed to turn to lead and I struggled to push my bike up the road, let alone sustain any sort of pedaling cadence. Mind you this particular spot was on a short stretch of pavement that was almost 20% grade!
Yet another variable that makes this ride overwhelming to the faint-of-heart is the varied climates and ecosystems you travel through. Without my support team stopping alongside me throughout the day I don’t know how anyone could take all of the varied clothing and nutrition necessary to be successful. I started out literally at an urban sandy beach dipping my wheel into the ocean at 5am, rode through humid tropical rain forest, passed through lava rock dry desert scrub in the heat of the afternoon, into cool wet cloud cover, and on top of barren moon scape at 6pm. The temperature range during my journey went from 32 degrees Celsius in the lower sections down to 7 degrees Celsius at the summit. My only saving grace was that the day was unusually calm in terms of any headwind. So in that respect Sky Father was smiling on me.
It always amazes me what the body and mind can do through an endurance challenge. Upon seeing the metal flash of the international observatories, I knew that I was closing in on the final destination. Suddenly I was able to find newfound energy, determination, and oxygen as I pedaled to the top. Breathtaking, in all senses of the word, would be an understatement when describing what it was like rolling up to the pinnacle of The White Mountain. Here you are on top of Hawaii bathing in the dazzling sunlight, looking down upon an endless blanket of rolling white clouds that spread out to the horizon in all directions, set against the pure blue Pacific atmosphere.
Done! Some cheering from my family/support team and from a few random tourists who hopped on my bandwagon along the way, a cold brew from Kona Brewing Company, spectacular views, a bit of deep reflection of what I had just accomplished, and a much-needed flattening out of the road were some of the prizes at the finish line. Thanks to Bike Works Kona for setting me up with a sweet rental and key trip advice, to the many training partners throughout the preparation process, and to my phenomenal support team who spent their day in a suburban watching my progress. Just to be clear I was NOT allowed to ride my bike down, and for good reason. The fatigue, the speed, the darkness, and sketchy road surface all combine themselves to form a treacherous descent. This is definitely crossed off of my cycling bucket list! If you have the same semi-psychotic desire to do this ride, feel free to contact me for more details. I’d love to chat more about it with you. Mahalo.