Extreme Hikes by Location -->| Oahu-Koolau | Oahu-Waianae | Big Island | Maui | Kauai | Molokai |

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Descent of Mauna Loa via Southwest Rift -- By John B. Hall

Not many people have done the traverse of Mauna Loa and descended the Southwest Rift. Before I did it for the first time, I talked to all the old-timers I could find, and couldn't locate anyone who had done it or knew of anyone who had, with the possible exception of one of the geologists at the Volcano laboratory. It is not easy to explain the challenge of this trip to the average layman, or even to most experienced hikers.

Craig Chisholm, in his book "Hawaiian Hiking Trails" characterizes the climb of Mauna Loa from the Strip Road to the summit cabin as "one of the hardest hikes in the Hawaiian Islands". This is entirely justified, yet the end of the trail at the summit cabin represents the final departure from civilization and the doorway to the truly untouched wilderness for those who attempt the still more challenging trek down the Southwest Rift.
As one leaves the summit cabin and travels around the rim of the caldera to South Pit, the approach to the Southwest Rift comes in view. The terrain is as I imagine a storm in the North Atlantic, on the edge of the ice pack, might be: The wind shrieks and lightning crashes. Great rollers rear and break, and enormous slabs of foot-thick ice are tossed and up-ended and piled on top of each other, sucked down into the deep troughs between waves and heaved high into the air again. Suddenly, all is turned to stone, a wild, gray-black desolation of jumbled stone, baking and glittering in the sun - this is the scene that greets the eye as we gaze beyond South Pit. The decor is somber - shades of black and gray, with occasional stretches of dark browns or slightly reddish tinged rock, relieved only in the crypts of the vents and cracks by a sudden startlingly brilliant touch of red and yellow. Humans are dwarfed by this harsh and indifferent land, and the thought of picking one's way for miles through a region so alien and devoid of life is daunting. It is not surprising that few have ventured into such a Gehenna.
The way is not obvious at first, as the slope of the mountain is gradual, more a plain than a ridge, and it is necessary to set a compass course from the outlet of South Pit to strike a tangent to the rim of Lua Hohonu, a pit crater on the rift zone below the caldera, vast and impressive from the edge, but lost amid the chaos of stone until one is virtually about to fall into it. From there, a second compass course is set to the rim of Lua Hou, an even deeper, more impressive pit crater half a mile further along. From here, a third bearing takes us out into more open, less tortured land, and another mile or two brings one out over a hump in the mountain that reveals a view of the Rift below all the way to South Point.
The ambience of the Mountain and the impact of the vista permeate my soul. The silence, the solitude, rest on the land like a cloak, a balm to the spirit, and a benediction. The sky is a pale blue canopy a
million miles away, and the thin, cold, alpine wind whistles over the land, the sound more accentuating than relieving the silence. The lava ticks as it bakes slowly in the bright New Year's sun. Civilization has not yet been invented and there is no life on earth save for our party of three and a small forest bird arrowing frantically across the desolation. The vastness of the Mountain spreads out before us, and cinder cones march down the rift into the distance, until they fade into the far away haze and are lost in the infinite horizon. I feel like God on the second day of creation, with the whole Earth, bare and unformed, waiting at His feet.
Not far below is Sulfur Cone. A broad white flat steams at the base of the near side of the Cone, where sulfur-laden fumes percolate through the acid-etched rock and soil and deposit their burden of brimstone. This great white flat will be visible for miles down the mountain, and even two days walk below, long after the cone itself, impressive as it is, is no longer visible, we will be able to identify its location by the white patch high on the side of the mountain. The easier route down to Sulfur Cone is on the right of the Great Crack and the vents and cones that line its upper reaches. On our second expedition, we lunched on the side of the Crack, just at the edge of the Cone. At this point the sulfur fumes had encrusted the rock lip of the Crack with a thick coat of sulfur crystals, beautiful, brilliant, fluorescent, scintillating, yellow crystals, so bright in the noon sun that it was painful to look at them. A jewel brighter than gold among the drab expanses of black and gray.
Near this spot, there is a sulfur flow, perhaps like those found by Voyager I in the sulfur volcanoes of Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. A substantial deposit of sulfur was formed, probably, on rocks on the
surface of the flanks of Sulfur Cone, and then a later intrusion of lava welling up underneath heated the sulfur until it melted and ran down the cone like a mini-lava flow. This flow was first noticed by a geologist who visited the Cone in 1967, and was studied again by a group from Arizona State University in 1984, the same year as my last visit. Unfortunately, I was not aware of this feature at the time we were there, and did not see it, although we must have passed very close to it. If I ever make this trip again, I hope to be able to examine it. It might even be possible to visit it as a day hike from the summit, although the round trip would be a fairly long and strenuous one over this terrain at such an altitude.
About two miles below Sulfur Cone we reached the spot where we camped for the first night on both trips down the Southwest Rift. This is a small, fairly level shelf, perched in the red cinder high on the wall of a cinder cone. We called it the "Red Cinder Hilton". When we camped there in 1984, I found a few old paper matches from our cooking efforts 7 years before scattered among the cinder. It did not appear that the spot had been visited by anyone in the interval. This camp offers a broad view over the countryside and relatively soft ground to sleep on, but is exposed to the wind. The evenings were calm, but in the morning it was so windy that we did not try to cook breakfast, but packed up as quickly as possible and headed on down the Rift, electing to defer breakfast for an hour or two to get some distance under our feet, and to find a more sheltered spot to rest and break fast. As always in this
trackless wilderness, from the time we left South Pit until we reached the cindery soil that stretches above the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates development, the footing is exceedingly treacherous.
Almost all of the way is across pahoehoe fields. Indeed, my great anxiety at the time of the first trip was that we might encounter substantial regions of 'a'a that we would have to cross, and a few miles of 'a'a could take days to traverse. However, we were fortunate, and there was only one stringer of 'a'a, a few hundred yards across, that we were unable to go around. The pahoehoe was bad enough, however. Near eruption vents, untrammeled pahoehoe is often just a thin crust with a vacancy beneath it where the gas that bubbled out of the molten rock after a surface crust has formed creates a void between the crust and the body of the rock. Walking across it was nerve-racking. It seemed as if we would break through every third or fourth step in some areas. Usually, this meant crunching through the rock, coming to rest an inch or two lower than expected, a little unbalancing under a heavy pack, but not really dangerous. Once in awhile, however, the drop was four or six inches, and at least once in each trip, there was a sudden collapse into a hole a foot or so deep, with a sharp and painful blow to the shin as one fell forward against the remaining edge of the crust.
With the hazards of thirst, the difficulty of going out for help over such trail-less terrain, the possibility of falling through the top of a hidden bubble or crack roofed with a thin veneer of lava (and people have reportedly fallen 50 feet or more into such hazards) and this ever-present risk of breaking a leg or spraining an ankle in the fickle pahoehoe, and one can see that this is not a hike to recommend to the novice, or even to the experienced, hardy hiker who is normally sane and cautious.
Crunching through the pahoehoe crust on the first trip had abraded holes in the sides of my boots, particularly on the inside of the heel (I pronate). The hard, tough leather in this area had holes the size of quarters worn through it, and the cloth middle layer was shredded. Only the thin inner lining, itself beginning to wear, protected my sox and feet. Before the second trip, I buffed the medial sides of the heels and toes of my boots with sandpaper and applied a layer of Shoe Goo to them, so that they had a tough rubbery coat over the leather. This seemed to work well, and the boots survived without much damage.
We trudge on through the craggy wilderness. Ants crawling through purgatory. Hobbits on the road to Mount Doom. Although it is the turn of the year, the sun is unrelenting and we must swath ourselves with care against its rays. There is no shade, save the occasional sliver in the lee of some pinnacle of stone. We pause for lunch in one such spot. Our refuge is shared by a swarm of tiny fruit flies, Drosophila, though what they can be doing in this landscape, so totally devoid of fruit or vegetation of any kind, is a mystery.
The one-time fluidity of the Mountain is quite evident here. Looking over the great, slightly humped plain that is the shoulder of Mauna Loa, we can see the rock as a flowing stream - a mighty Mississippi of a flood, waves and rapids, strong currents and eddies, enormous in size, with the whole stream miles in width and flowing off over the curve of the mountain toward the Kona Coast and the sea. Along the highest point of the ridge, which is often difficult to distinguish because of the gradualness of the slopes to either side, are the cinder cones, pinnacles and ridges of spatter, cracks and vents that mark the sites of recent eruptions. These do not always form a single line, but sometimes run in parallel, or form a line for some distance which then ends and resumes along a distant parallel, or just vanishes altogether for awhile.
By this point, at least, our packs were decidedly lighter, as we rapidly consumed our water. Water is a constant obsession on a trip of this kind. The old maps show Hawaiian trails crossing the Rift, with
sleeping caves and water holes sometimes indicated. These are infrequent however, and the landscape is so featureless at the scale of the USGS topographic maps, and the eruptions along the Rift Zone have so frequently remodeled the patterns of cones, cracks, and vents that it is nearly impossible to locate any of these caves, even assuming that recent eruptions have not buried them under a fresh veneer of lava.
Even with an average of 2 1/2 gallons of water apiece, it is necessary to conserve water carefully, just in case of delays or injuries. There is no water to spare for washing clothes or skin. Every ounce must be conserved. It is important to plan the menu with this in mind. I try to avoid foods that will be very greasy and leave a film on the pot. I cook and eat out of the same pot, and when I am finished, I pour a few ounces of water into the pot, wipe my fingers clean on the seat of my pants, and use them to rub any food left clinging to the pot into the water to make a nice soup, which I then drink. This is repeated until the pot is clean. It slakes the thirst and gets the fingers even cleaner too! The cup and spoon are treated in similar fashion. Not a drop is wasted. Such precautions may seem extreme to those who have never experienced a real thirst, but to those who have, they will not seem extravagant.
A mile or so above Alika Cone, there is a belt of difficult terrain to cross. This is a pahoehoe flow that has been compressed and crumpled until it resembles the refuse of a junk-yard - as if old cars, refrigerator doors, discarded shipping pallets - had all been tumbled together and embedded at odd angles in a foundation of concrete. Strong ankles and a good sense of balance are useful here. Once this hazard is passed, it is time to look for a site for the second night's camp. We are not far above South Kona now, and near the zone of the daily evening showers that water the coffee plantations below. Rain seems to threaten nearly every evening, but at this altitude there is rarely more than a light shower.
On the first trip, we stayed to the left after passing Alika Cone and had a painful scramble through rough and treacherous pahoehoe until, late in the day, we reached the paved roads of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. The second time, we crossed a low line of vents and cones to the right and found older terrain that had not been buried by a recent flow, but was mainly composed of ash and some soil in which a bit of grass and some shrubs could grow. There were goats here, and jeep roads pushed up from the ranch lands below, so our travel was much quicker and easier. We were well down into the HOVE lands by nightfall. The roads in this development are paved, but in most of it houses are few and well separated, and the weeds are threatening to hide the pavement. The roads run on the diagonal, so that the most direct course down to the highway involves zigzagging back and forth, taking one diagonal for a distance and then turning at a right angle to descend in the other
It is about 10 miles from the top of the Estates to the highway. In some spots, the roads have cut through many lava tubes, so there are caves that can be used as shelter from the rain, which is heavier as we descend the mountain. We finally sought shelter in one of these, although for some reason, we did not unpack our packs and spread out our ground cloths or sleeping bags to get comfortable, but spent the night sitting up and dozing. Having reached pavement, it seemed that the hike was over, and that it should not be necessary to make the effort to set up a decent camp! So we didn't.
I always experience a few days of great tranquility after a hike like this. It is as if we had spent the time in a religious retreat or in meditation, and have acquired a new and loftier perspective. In part, the necessity of concentrating exclusively on the needs of survival - food, water, shelter, and covering the distance - forces one to recognize the utter triviality of so many of the things that worry us in the usual daily round. The vigorous exercise, solitude, and silence probably contribute too. With 6 decades behind me now, I probably lack the ambition or hardihood to attempt the Southwest Rift again, but I
will never forget it. And who knows? The Long Mountain may not be finished with me yet.


  1. that is quite an elegant writeup, what an adventure

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed the eloquent account.