The safest place in Hawaii during a tsunami

I spent the better part of my Saturday hoping that Hawaii (and everywhere else in/on the Pacific) didn’t get blasted by a tsunami. Eric Harr — CARE representative, IronMan, journalist, and Twitter-fiend — posted a video of his view from the relative safety of the Four Seasons in Kona.

This got me thinking about the time I hiked on Mauna Loa. There’s no chance of a tsunami getting you up there, but the lava, the boredom and the lack of water might.

I dusted off an old column about the hike…

Life, Death, and Lava
(I wrote this in 2002. It was one of the first pieces I ever tried to publish. I think I got paid $15 from some long-forgotten website for it.)

mauna loa summitI scream. Silence.

That’s how it is on Mauna Loa, one of earth’s most active volcanoes – no one can hear you scream.

A fly lands on my arm. I am lonely so I talk to her. No response. I imagine that she is relieved to have found another living thing. She flies away. Surrounded by death, again I am alone.

Mauna Loa is the most massive feature on the face of the earth. From nearly 40,000-feet beneath the Pacific, Mauna Loa, Hawaiian for Long Mountain, rises 13,000-feet above water. The weight of the mountain depresses the sea floor three miles.

It takes two days to hike the 18-miles to the Summit cabin.

The beginning of the trail is a worn, dirt path that winds its way through scrawny trees surrounded by small pathetic ground cover. Volcanic rock, rounded from weathering, hints at the power beneath. With each step there is a little more black and a little less green, a little more death and a little less life.

The sun has dropped into the ocean and a cool mist begins to fall. Hypothermia is not something I thought I’d have to worry about in Hawaii, but I’m becoming a little concerned.

I enter the Red Hill cabin shivering and climb into my sleeping bag, trying not to think about the emptiness outside and of that within.

My knees protest as I come to my feet. This second day of hiking is becoming monotonous. The summits of mountains, and the climbs to them, often provide us with sweeping views and broad vistas, but this is not the case here on “Long Mountain.” It is so big that when on it, all that can be seen is “It.”

Mindlessly, I follow the rock cairns marking the trail, a walking machine trudging along up the enormous shield volcano. I curse the crumbling-under-foot, sharp-edged lava known as ‘a`a. It causes my ankles to roll and threatens to cut me if I fall. I much prefer the smooth rolling pahoehoe.

My existence on Mauna Loa is reduced to gibberish: when I find a stretch of Pahoehoe – “Yoohoo!” and when I am forced to cross a patch of ‘a`a, “Uh-oh.”

SPAM is a staple food in Hawaii and, for some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to subsist solely off various flavors of the canned meat during my hike. There was chicken SPAM for breakfast and Ham SPAM for lunch. I couldn’t tell the difference.

When I reach the Summit cabin, my legs heavy from the altitude, I can’t help but dread another meal of SPAM.

It’s a Mauna Loa mountain miracle when I find a MRE left behind for emergencies. Is this an emergency? Heck, yeah! I eat the MRE and leave behind the SPAM, a food that I believe has no purpose other than emergency sustenance.

With my stomach full and my morale high, I walk to the edge of the caldera where I sit dangling my feet over the edge. I kick loose a lava rock that falls 150-feet to the caldera floor where it shatters like glass.

I count the number of places on the floor from which steam rises. I reach nine when a wall of white mist rolls through the caldera. Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843, most recently in 1984, and to watch the white mist block out my view is somewhat unnerving; even if it’s only a cloud.

Lava, tectonic plates, and hot spots, are forces that have been at work for billions of years. I sit pondering my twenty-two and what logic led me to walk up this god-forsaken hill.

Hawaii is one of the world’s most magical places with its steep-sided, lushly vegetated cliffs, and valleys carved by streams ending in magnificent waterfalls. Hawaii is paradise – at least most of it is – and here I sit, staring at lava, sick of lava.

Mauna Loa, along with Mauna Kea, and currently erupting Kilauea, formed/are forming the Big Island. First erupting at the sea floor one-million years ago, it took Mauna Loa 500,000 years to break the ocean’s surface. Eventually through erosion, atmospheric seed dispersal, and displaced birds carried by the wind to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the island, like its’ sisters, was turned into a tropical paradise. Without the lava nothing would exist. It is a testament to the persistence of nature that a force that initially yields death, and from where I sit appears to have nothing to do with the living, ultimately births life.

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I sit alone watching the sun creep towards the black barren horizon, a fly on the arm of Mauna Loa, pondering life, death, and lava.

kristina says:

Hi there, did you know that in mid 19 century a Scotish victorian lady called Isabela Bird had reached the summit of Mauna Loa? She was quite a character, her acount of Hawai during that time and her quite extraordinary life is in the book ‘A Curious Life For A Lady’ by penquin. Its having just read about her jurney up the mountain that i searched the web for picks and info on this volcano and came across your blog. Thank you for such an informative account. It matches hers amazingly! By the way her biography makes a fascinating read. I recomend it 🙂

Kelsey says:

I haven’t heard of her book. Wait, someone else was crazy enough to hike up Mauna Loa?!?!

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Let your voice be heard!