When I say the tallest mountain I’m going to guess that at least 95% of you automatically think of Everest! For a long time that’s what I thought of too. That’s until I found out about a giant volcano located on the Big Island of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is believed to measure in at over 10,000m tall!! So why haven’t you heard of this monster of a mountain in the middle of the South Pacific? Well it might be due to the minor detail that only 4,207m of this volcano are above sea level with the further 6,000m stretching deep into the ocean.
I think it’s up to you if you want to call it the tallest mountain in the world. For me the risk that comes with climbing Everest is to great to bear and it’s not something I’m planning on attempting in the future. So Mauna Kea is it and I’m totally claiming it, I CLIMBED THE TALLEST MOUNTAIN IN THE WORLD!!! I might have even screamed that exact phrase when I made it to the top.
It’s nothing compared to Everest but if you are planning on hiking to the top don’t be fooled into thinking it’s going to be a walk in the park. I’m talking a 18km round trip with 1400m elevations gain and high altitude conditions. If these stats have got you feeling a little queasy there is the option of driving the 4WD track to the top (a 4WD vehicle is essential). The drive should take about 2 hours to get to the top, this includes stops for acclimatisation. Altitude sickness is a big risk when you’re ascending at the speed of a car so make sure you make regular stops to catch your breath and take in the incredible views along the way!
Hiking the trail (18 km return + 1400m elevation gain – difficult)
On arrival register your hike at the visitor centre by filling out the form and placing it in the box next to the visitor centre entrance. For experienced hikers with a good level of fitness expect the hike to take about 8 hours. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to make it back before nightfall. I’d recommend starting the hike early in the morning between 5 or 5:30 am this will allow you plenty of time and you’ll also get to witness an incredible early on in your hike.
Start by following the road for about 400m until you see the start of the trailhead off to your left. Keep an eye out for trail signs for the first 2kms as the trail can be difficult to find. After this the trail is well defined and easy to follow. The hike is long, tiring and the effects of altitude definitely kick in about 4 km’s into the hike. The burning in your muscles and shortness of breath is always hard to deal with but taking it slow and resting often is a big help. When you’re about 1 km from the summit you’ll see a sign veering off the trail to Lake Waiau. Located at 3,970m it is one of the highest alpine lakes in the world and the perfect spot to stop and have a snack.
Once you’ve refuelled it’s time to make the final push for the summit of Mauna Kea. Not far past the lake the trail comes to an end and you need to follow the road the rest of the way to the top. Once at the summit you’re greeted with a vast alien like landscape dotted with observatories owned by countries all over the world. The top of Mauna Kea is one the worlds best star gazing locations thanks to the very little light pollution it receives!
As with all hikes what goes up must come down. I feel pretty confident in saying you’ll be absolutely buggered after your 10km slog to the top and the thought of hiking down will be pretty painful. There’s two options for descending from the top. You can either follow the trail back which will be 10kms of steep slippery downhill gravel track or you can follow the well defined, less slippery 8 km 4WD road down. I chose the second option and it was still a killer on my knees and feet but I’m sure it was much better than if I’d chosen option one!
On your return check in with the visitor centre staff to let them know you’ve arrived back safely.
The hike is long and the conditions are difficult so make sure you’re fully prepared for any situation.
- Take plenty of warm clothes, regardless of the season, it will be cold at the top.
- Wear a hat, long sleeves, long pants, sturdy hiking boots and sunscreen.
- Make sure you have adequate food and water – there’s no where on the mountain to fill your bottle so you need to carry enough water to last.