My Climb up Haleakala


I awoke at 4:30 AM, still on California time. In 2 ½ hours my friend was to awake and we were to depart to the base of Haleakala. I used the extra time to arrange my gear and pack it in the car. As I entered the house from my final trip to the car, there my frined, Debra, was standing there. 6:00 AM. “You made it up,” I said. “Well not yet,” she said in a morning voice, all sleepy eyed. She’d just got back from 3 weeks in China and was still adjusting to the time change. She’d been up for several hours in the middle of the night and was not working on very much sleep. “This will be a tough day for her,” I thought. She was going to be my support for the climb, driving in her car and stopping every few thousand feet of climb to make sure I was alright and had enough water, food, etc. Within 45 minutes Debra was up, fed and ready to. We were on our way. I was energized and excited.

We’d scoped out a start location the day before just at the intersection of the Haleakala Highway and Highway 36, just outside of Kahalui. This was about 3 miles into the road and at about 300 feet elevation. There was a large shoulder there plenty big enough for her to pull over and for me to get ready. The mountain still seemed about 10 miles away. Perhaps, I thought, the road will be rather flat until I got there. I started rolling at a moderate pace.

The highway was a big one, 3 lanes with two in the upward direction and one in the downward direction. There was a lot of traffic going down, heading into Kahalui from the up country for work. Soon the second lane was blocked in the upward direction so the downward traffic could use it. This forced all the uphill traffic into the lane next to me and often onto the four foot shoulder where I rode. Cars zipped by at freeway speeds. “This won’t last long” I thought as I headed towards the mountain, “Maybe ten miles.”

Soon I was gearing down as the peddling was getting harder. Within 3 miles I was already in my lowest gear. I was hoping I would not need to use that gear until at least after I’ve climbed 5,000 feet, but there I was 3 miles into the climb and already in it. What made it feel worse was that the road was still a straight highway and did not look to be climbing very much at all. The mountain still seemed to be off in the distance. I had to remind myself, “Jay, you are climbing. It’s going to be like this for the next 6 hours. Take it easy. Don’t be worried about using the low gears. Don’t push too hard. There is a long way to go.”

The weather was nice. I had no idea what to expect, heat wind rain? I did not know how the altitude would affect my breathing. My plan was just to take it one mile at a time. I brought plenty of water in the car.

Debra and I agreed to meat just outside of Pukalani, about 10 miles and 1,700 feet into the climb. However, there she was at mile 8. “I don’t think you should go this way,” she said explaining how there was no shoulder on the road and lots of traffic. She directed me on another road. The two would join about 2 miles up. “There is a stop light there. I’ll be parked there.” Two miles up was the first rest stop near Pukalani. I was feeling good, although I was working hard. I was still very energetic and excited. I almost forgot to fill up my water bottles, which was the main purpose of the stops in the first place. We looked at the map and agreed to meet in Upper Kula. Upper Kula is where the road turns up to the mountain and it appears that the climb really begins, however there was no mistake, I had been climbing and working a lot harder that I thought I would have been. Not only was I in my lowest gear, but my heart rate was about five beats above what I determined was my maximum sustainable heart rate, just three weeks before. This worried me. Perhaps my measurements three weeks before were incorrect; perhaps I will burn myself out at this rate too early. But I could not keep my heart rate down and still push that lowest gear. I had to keep moving.

On the road to Kula I began to pass the bicycle tours going down the mountain. It’s a big tourist industry on Maui to haul people up the mountain in vans and let them bike down. I would see these tours in groups of about 10, all coasting down in single file with full rain gear and motorcycle helmets. There would be a leader in front on a bike and following the group would be the van that they all road up in towing the bicycle trailer. I would pass these groups all day. Sometimes they would wave, or shout things to me like, “You are going the wrong way,” but more often of the time they would remain focused on their descent. The first group that I passed on the road to Kula was just pulling over and packing the bikes back on the trailer. Their journey was over which meant mine was just beginning.

haleakala2The weather continued to be nice. I expected it to get real hot. I could see the entire mountain which meant the usual blanket of clouds covering Haleakala was not there. The good news about this was that I would be able to see nice views all day. The bad news was that I would not have that cloud protection from the sun. I think I would be happy to sacrifice the views for the protection, but without it I will enjoy the views.

There was a rain cloud to the west. I could tell it was dumping rain not to far away. Occasionally I could feel light sprinkles reach my way, but the rain stayed to the west and soon I was riding in a direction away from it, towards the cloudless Haleakala.

As I cycled past the resort in Upper Kula I heard Debra call my name. I almost rode past her. I was still feeling good and still had a lot of energy. I had climbed 3,000 feet, almost 1/3 of the way and already past the height of Mt. Tam. I fueled up fast and was on my way.

In about ½ a mile was the turn up the mountain. Up until this time I’d been riding on the base. The switchback began at this turn. The grade did not change, but the road was no longer straight. The view was spectacular, with each switchback I could see to the west, the western mountains and the valley in-between, sprinkled with sugar cane fields, from one shore to the next. I could see all the way across. If I looked to the east I could no longer see Haleakala as I was now on it.
haleakala3This panoramic view taken about 5,000 feet, just below the cloud line. You can see Maui from shore to shore.

I began to get hungry. Debra and I agreed to meet at 5,000 feet. It would take me about an hour from Kula to get there, but I was growing more and more hungry and wanted that peanut butter sandwich that I had packed. To my delight there was Debra at about 4,000 feet. I was ready for a lunch break. At 4,000 feet I was past the height of Mt. Diablo and nearly to the height of Mt Hamilton. These were the highest peaks that I have ever climbed. I was now on a new mountain.

haleakala4I had about a 15 minute break, the longest of the day. I was still feeling energized and full of energy. I was expecting that I would be starting to get tired at this point, but was happy I was not. Debra thought the next place she would be able to stop was about 2,200 feet up. I was certain she would find a place before that, but I agreed. I knew I could climb 2,200 feet in one shot. I went on my way.

That stretch turned out to be a tough one. I was starting to feel tired in my legs now. I had plenty of water, but I just needed the break of Debra’s support for the mental rest. I past many places that she could have pulled over, but knew I would not see her for a while. I kept peddling away.

The clouds had gathered around Haleakala like they usually are. I was starting to reach the cloud level. It would be nice to ride into the misty clouds, but they just seemed to elude me. I appeared to go around them rather than through them. However the sun was not bad. The temperature remains at about 77 degrees at this elevation.

As I reached the point where I thought I’d see Debra, she was not there. With each turn that I made I’d hoped to see her. She was not there. “What happened?” I thought. “Did I pass her?” I began to wonder how far I’d be able to go without her. I was getting low on water. I knew the visitor’s center was coming up. I could fill up there, but would not have me energy drink. I kept peddling on. Up ahead was the park gate and as I cleared the view of the pay both I could see Debra’s car on the other side. “What a relief,” I thought and was excited to stop. It was only 200 vertical feet past where we were going to stop, but it seemed too far for me. She wanted to get inside the gate so she could use the facilities and now she was napping in the car. I tapped gently on the window as to not startle her out of her slumber.

We were at about 6,400 feet. I had the equivalent of a Mt Diablo climb left. I could see the visitor’s center from where we were. While a good natural next rest stop with it’s store and facilities, it was too close. We picked a place about 900 vertical feet from where we were. I did not want to go more than 1,000 feet at a time.

I continued my climb. The wind was getting really intense. With each switchback it was either a tail wind or a head wind. I could see the top of the mountain now across the barren landscape. I could see each switch back as the road climbed. There were still many to go. I’d been climbing for over 4 hours now. My heart rate finally dropped to where I thought it should be at the beginning and stayed there fo rthe rest of the climb.

At one point as I was riding along I heard a bird chirp sound come up behind me, rather close. It nearly startled me, as this pheasant looking bird ran up beside me. It was about 5 feet beside me running along beside me like a dog chasing a car. It did not seem aggressive, but more like it was fascinated with me and was checking me out. Soon my brain registered that this was a rare Nene bird. These are an endangered species that are native only to Haleakala. It is even rare to see one up here and here was this one, running right beside me. I felt so welcomed by the mountain and honored. I slowed to a stop as the bird did also and it move away a bit. I took a quick cell phone quality photo. the image did not turn out. The bird slowly walked away and I rode on.

At 7,500 feet, there was Debra. This time she had her computer out and was working hard on he manuscript. She got all the napping in that she needed to get caught up on her sleep. ¾ of the way, I could taste the summit. There was one more switchback left and then a straight shot to the top. My legs were still feeling good and I had plenty of energy. There was no doubt that I would soon be completing my goal.

On last rest stop at the last switchback, 9,100 feet. I’m too excited to stop long and continue on past the last switchback. It’s now a straight shot. The mile marker on the side of the road says two miles. I’m heading in the direction of the wind, but it seems to gust unpredictably. Sometimes at my tail, where I feel like a sailboat being pushed up the hill and other time it whips around at my head blowing me to a standstill. At one point it hit me so hard from the side it almost knocked me over. I keep to the center of the road as to now be blown off the side.

haleakala5Up ahead are the observatories that represent the top. As I get closer, to the left is the visitor’s center. This is still not the top. Looming ahead at the very peak is the observation tower. That is where I must go. I see the cars climbing a steep road, this last ½ a mile. I know it’s going to be tough. I don’t know why, but they always seem to make the last little bit of a climb twice as steep. It’s that way with Mt Tam and Diablo as well. I’m in my lowest gear standing, climbing the last few hundred yards. The wind is blowing me back and forth, up and down. Soon I see the parking lot. Debra is there with her camera. I ride up to her as she snaps a picture and I give her a hug. I’m still not there. There is a small walkway leading up to the observation tower from the parking lot. There there is a sign that says 10,028 feet, the absolute summit. The wind is chilly and Debra grabs her coat and runs up after me. I reach the sign and get off my bike. Victory! I have made it. A few more pictures. Debra is cold and she heads back to the car. I ride down to the car. No, I’m not riding down the mountain. Not with this wind, not when I have a warm car to tuck my bike into. Shortly after I get back to the car, four other cyclists reach the summit. We are the only cyclist climbing up that day. They completed the climb in 4:50 minutes, an hour and 40 minutes faster than I. If they mountain had been a little higher they would have past me.

Debra stays in her car working on her manuscript as I stretch out my legs. Soon I am done and we head down the hill. I feel good. Not too tired. My legs still feel strong and I still have plenty of energy. I am sunburned.


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