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Climbing Up Haleakala

2005-01-16 14 min read Tours marco

On Second Try

joomplu:10827Wednesday had been a horrible day for a bike ride up Haleakala. Gale force winds had been hammering the islands, accompanied by heavy rains. Power lines were down in Kihei, trees fell crashing to the ground, and the noise made it impossible to sleep.

Guess who chose that very same Wednesday for an attempt to climb Haleakala? Yours truly. Nothing discouraged me, and I even made it all the way to over 5,000′, just to be pushed back by the storm, unable to manage even one more inch against the winds. I felt betrayed by my mana, as they say here, and froze myself down the mountain, slowly trying not to slip on the drenched street.

What a surprise on Friday, when it already seemed impossible to get up again. I checked the weather forecast, and the winds were expected to be down to an acceptable 20 mph. I collected all my gear, avoided the mistakes of the first try, and left home.

Watch Out!

Ah, yes, the mistakes…

  1. Rise early, leave early! All books tell you the convective cloud cover starts forming in the late morning hours. I tried beating it by starting at sunrise (6:30 AM). I didn’t quite know that the convective cloud cover form only if the temperatures are high enough and the winds are really down. Check the weather first! If it’s colder than usual, think about leaving later! If it’s warm and no winds are expected, think about starting at sunrise. Never start before sunrise.
  2. Pack light, you’ll have to carry everything up 10,000 ft! Good advice in general, but you will be travelling through 6 climate zones, ending in “subzero freezer”. Pack as many layers as you possibly can carry! Take a gallon of fluids with you. Take winter gloves and toe warmers. Be a sissy, you won’t regret it.
  3. Leave from Kahului harbor, to take a snapshot of yourself right on the side of the ocean before you go. Good idea, but the Kahului harbor is not the best area to leave your pretty rental car, and Haleakala highway is one of the major commuter arteries. It really doesn’t feel safe leaving from there. Consider leaving from Pa’ia, a charming little town somewhat closer to the mountain, just 6 miles from Kahului. There you can take your picture on a veritable beach, you can take an almost empty road, and you’ll make up the steeper grade by watching amazing scenery.
  4. Don’t read the weather forecast. As we all know, the climate of Maui is remarkably constant and temperatures vary very little. Do not leave your hotel room without checking the weather forecast, especially the wind velocity and direction. It may not change your mind, but it surely helps to know what you have to expect.

Leaving Kahului

I dare any Chicagoan to visit Kahului and not tell me it deserves the title of ‘Windy City’. I have never been into town without a fierce wind blowing right in my face. You see, Haleakala and the West Maui mountains constrict the dominant Northeast winds to the valley between them, and wind speeds pick up right where the bigger volcano ends.

Additionally, the wind shadow of Haleakala ends right before town. Once you go up the mountain, you can literally see where the rain stops falling: a brown triangle connects an imaginary point South of town with Ma’alea on the other side of the isthmus.

Long story short: again I had to fight with a rainy and windy start. I intelligently stripped down, knowing this wasn’t cold, and rode slowly up the highway. No picture at the pier, of course, lest the camera get wet. Around the mile marker 5 the grade starts getting a little steeper. A biking book I had bought claimed that ‘the steepest part is between mile markers 5 and 6’, and I thought to myself (and the rain): “Cool, if this is the worst, I will be able to ride up in two hours!”

At Pukalani, around 1,000 ft high and about 9 miles from the car, you turn right into town and start the real climb. Pukalani is about as pretty as anything else in the pouring rain, so you won’t mind if I skip a more detailed description. Just go straight up (“follow the pain”). I was wondering how much my guide book author had really biked up the mountain, since Pukalani is already a lot harder than the famous 1 mile stretch we just left.

Highway 377

You cross Haleakala highway to get to Haleakala highway (don’t ask!), pass a school and start winding your way up highway 377. You’ll pass beautiful meadows, gently grazing cows and horses, while a million cars are coming down the mountain, disappointed by the sunrise experience. A mile up on 377, and you’ll be at an intersection with the route that leads to Pa’ia. After that, you’ll see the miriads of downhill bikers in their amusing bunny suits.

Now, Maui is the adventure island in Hawai’i. Every hotel, every resort, every condo complex seems to have an adventure/activity planner with a hundred things you can do. Some of them are real fun (helicopter ride! a must do!); others are a bit boring (bubble head dive – three thumbs down!); some come with so many exclamation marks attached that you really want to try.

“Bike Down a Volcano!!!” shouts the flier, showing pictures of happy, smiling models high-fiving after a successful run. Well, the guys I saw were nothing of the sort. Clad in ignominously ugly bunny suits, they seemed to be all middle aged and bored to their finger tips. They look like a low-tech Martian invasion force composed of aging school children with the assignment to cogitate while balancing. The troupe leader will usually wave at you (the lone biker going uphill), the members of the pack will mostly ignore you, focusing instead on their front person.

Highway 378

You see enough of those until you hit the six mile mark on 377. There you turn left from Haleakala highway onto Haleakala highway (don’t ask, again!). Thank goodness the weather improved considerably, so that my decision to wear only the bottom layer on the ascent pays off. The shirt (a surf shirt – what an excellent replacement for obscenely expensive cycling gear!!!) dries off in no time, while the altimeter tells me we are already way above 3,000′. Temperatures are lower by about 10F up here.

This new highway starts in something of a township, Kula, which winds out after a mile or so. It still presents you with the famous Cloud’s Rest Protea Farm, which graciously sells food and drink in addition to the famous flowers. I pass, of course, since I have everything I need with me. I do see a guy, though, standing under the pergola, sipping a coffee and eating a banana.

Highway 378 starts in a winding motion, with switchbacks following each other for about seven miles. Initially, you won’t mind, because houses, hedges and finally a eucalyptus grove (courtesy some ATV trekking company) protect you from the wind. At mile marker 3, though, the friendly shield goes away and you have to manage to climb against the wind.

At the mile marker 5, things start getting steep and windy. I think back of my book, and remember the number, and evidently the author had said something about this mile marker. Considering it’s the third time we pass a mile marker 5, I start thinking the friendly author may have cheated a little and only done this last section of the highway (bad enough, it’s two thirds of the climb!).

At some point I got used to the rythms of the switchbacks: right turns would send the wind speeding me uphill, left turns would force me to face the wind head on. For some mysterious reason, the builders of the highway seem to have decided to build the Northwest sections steeper than the Southeastern ones, although I might be mistaken there.

Wait a second! I have proof positive of their evil intentions! After mile marker 7, still in the steepest section, a stretch of three miles goes straight ahead into the wind, shooting right into the clouds. Fortunately, after mile marker 8 the grade eases up and you can actually shift gears and go faster. This lasts all of five minutes, but it’s good enough to make you wish you were down again on a flat road.

I was getting cold by then. The clouds were spewing a nasty drizzle, and the regular wind had picked up. I was up two thirds of the way, and the temperatures at 6,500′ above sea level were after all some 20F cooler than in Kihei. Gone was the uncertain rainbow, flatter here than we are used to on the ground (it’s physics, I’ll explain if you want me to).

A cattle had looked at me menacingly from their rumination location. All of a sudden the head calf decided to dart across the street, followed by a mini-stampede of four charging right to my bike. I had the smarts to continue riding, since they were seemingly scared by me and would avoid me. One calf came so close, I could smell his breakfast.

Park Entrance

I didn’t mention the cattle guards, did I? Forgive me. They put a few of them in there, and their cattle must have the largest hooves on the planet; the grates are so distant from one another, I saw my whole bike disappearing through them to the handle bars. So I slowly inched on foot, trying not to slip on one of them.

A turn, a grove, and there we are. Park entrance. The lady at the booth was the sweetest thing you could imagine, making me feel the hero of the moment, telling me what to watch out for, where to find stuff and how the park entrance fee ($5 for bikers at the time) was valid a full week, and would work for Kipahulu, too. She really charmed me when she asked if I lived there. I said no, but I wished I did, and she said that maybe that’s going to happen, too. Hope she’s right! I’ll visit her and bring her a big bunch of flowers (and a hot coffee, too) if she is.

To your left, Hosmer Grove campgrounds. The only reason I would even contemplate staying there is to have a better vantage point to go and see the sunrise (which is a majestic experience, if the weather’s right). A mile later, the visitor center. Restrooms and (hear!) a heated lanai, accessible to bikers. I warmed myself up a little and ate a protein bar, when Kevin showed up. California boy through and through, he regretted having stopped cycling after an accident and was reminiscing with me about the good old times when he had done the ride in no time with a group of Cat 2 friends of his from Santa Monica. Cool dude, he managed to stay in shape even after a bad leg accident.

I leave, and this guy waves at me. He is shooting ahead, and I try to catch up. For a long while it works, but then he accelerates, no doubt because he saw me trailing him. It was good, though, I got to increase the pace. I had been slacking a lot, without a bike computer and with that damned rental saddle that was forcing me to stop for a minute every other mile.

Final Ascent

The switchbacks were much wider here. Each section would be one or two miles long, then twist and turn, and then another section would start. All of this in the clouds, with what was now just a sprinkle of drizzle. Bearable. Once in a while, the sun would beckon through the clouds and project a smudge of a rainbow to the West.

Finally, the parking lots and overlooks of the top started coming into view. First the Halemau’u trailhead, where I had parked my car a few months prior, before going on a cruel seven hour tour the force. Then Leleiwi overlook, the perhaps most amazing view of the crater. Finally, Kalahaku overlook, where I hadn’t stopped before, but where the clouds were definitely going to nix a stop right now.

I had hiked up this section, and remembered it well. The grade got flatter and flatter, and I knew I wasn’t going to face the wind again. A gust lifted the fog from the observatories and I knew I was getting really close. Then the visitor center, where I did a round to calm down my legs in anticipation of the worst ascent of the whole trip: the few hundred yards to the summit.

The Summit

To get to the top, you have to climb Pu’u Ulaula, the Red Hill. That’s another cinder cone just like the other former vents you see all over Maui. It’s steep, in a sense you’ll only understand after 10,000 ft. The wind start howling in a really mean way, and you fear it’s going to blow you off the bike while you can almost hear people talk on the summit.

You manage to get to the parking lot and admire the silversword. I was lucky enough to see one in bloom right there. I confess, though, that their flowers are really nothing to charm you. I passed by and took the handicap trail to the summit house, slow from chill and respect for pedestrians.

The summit house is a polygonal building that allows poor frosties like you and me to view the landscape behind protective windows. The National Park Service actually did a splendid job with their descriptive panels, as they have done with all National Parks in the State. Big kudos to those guys, they impressed me at Kilauea, at Kipahulu and now again at Haleakala!!!

Rick and Jim

In the house, I saw the dude standing that had so brazenly taken off. He was on the sunny side, and I moved to the chilly side, since it was the only place where nobody was standing (duh!). A dozen people started talking to me at the same time, asking me where I had come from, how long it had taken, and if I was paid to do so. I was shivering a little, but seem to have made sense. Everyone mentioned they had passed me on the way up, and that they had felt a gigantic pang of pity for me. Good thing.

Next thing you know, another biker shows up. I start thinking what I’ve done is maybe not so unique, but it turns out the two guys are together (only that the first one was MUCH faster). We start chatting and exchanging route information, talk a bit about biking, banter merrily about with the curious Georges and Janes. I move over to the sunny side as the fast guy tells me it’s warmer. They change into warm gear, while I pretend my stuff is dry. We check the thermometer (41F), sit idly around.

Then we take my camera and shoot a few memento pictures outside. I start realizing the chill is getting to my bones. Rick and Jim, as they introduce themselves, did a fabulous 4 and 4:30 (hours). Great job!


Rick and Jim leave after leaving contact information (I have to send them their pics, since they had no camera). I decide I could use a little more warmth and sit about for another ten minutes, and leave then. I wished I had gone down with them, they had mentioned a few interesting bike rides they had done, and maybe I could have joined them.

Zipping down is easy. Except it’s not easy on your freezing muscles. Luckily I was prepared and continued pedaling even when I was too fast to make any difference. The motion keeps the legs warm and they don’t start shivering.

I stopped again at the visitor center to suck up some heat (another reason I knew I would have lost R&J anyway). Then it was time for the eternal descent. It got wet soon after the center (where it had been only foggy to then). You can jump over the cattle guard downhill without major trouble. Then I hit 377 (didn’t stop at the Protea Farm), turned right, went down, through Pukalani, shooting down to Kahului. I don’t remember much of the descent – it was so fast and … well … boring.

It got warmer, though. And not far from the car, I found a Starbucks with a real 100% Kona coffee to warm my body and my soul.


On top of the mountain, I told everyone: ‘once is enough!’ Now that I am down, the only thing I an think of is how little I feel tired, and how much faster I could have gone with my own bike and a little more discipline.

There aren’t many places where you can go 10,000 ft constantly uphill and not freeze to death on top. Haleakala is amazing, and the Haleakala ride a unique way to bond with the mountain. All of a sudden numbers have meanings, and I can tell you exactly at what height the grasses turn to bushes, and the bushes finally to the summit tundra.

You gotta do it yourself to believe it. Riding up Haleakala is the true adventure. I am proud of myself for making it all the way. The good kind of proud, the one that makes you feel more part of your universe, joyfully humble in the face of a mountain that allowed you to win because it liked you. I say thanks to all the great people I met; but more so I thank Haleakala for giving me a second chance.