Ski Mountaineering

Skiing Pu'u Keonehehe'e
(A Private Trip)
Feb 5, 2005

Reiner Stenzel

"Where in the world is Pu'u Keonehehe'e", you will probably ask. Well, it's one of the many cinder cones of Hawaii's largest volcano, Mauna Kea. Although at 19 degrees latitude, you can ski in the tropics! If you want to do some unusual ski trip, read the story below:

The occasion was a family gathering in Kona, Hawaii. When we arrived on Feb 3, a tropical rain storm arrived as well. It was pouring day and night. Flash flood warnings were issued for the island. It was not the time for the outdoors. But after it was over, you could see one of the most beautiful sights: Snow covered volcanoes above the blue see, black lava fields and tropical vegetation. For this occasion I had packed my short skis into the suitcase and rented a jeep for a few days. Ten years ago, I had skied on Mauna Kea and always wanted to come back again. This was the occasion!

On Sat, Feb 5, my son and I left from Waikaloa north of Kona and drove via Waimea to the Mauna Kea Road. Well, too much snow is not too good: The road was closed at the 9,200' level and the Ranger at the Visitor Center mentioned 6 foot snow drifts on the road and that nobody was on the summit. There were two options, give up or hike up. Of course we hiked, first on the Humu'ula Trail through lava fields and then XC in the snow.

We had only half a day since my son had a return flight in the evening. A bid for the summit (15mi rt, 4,600') was out of question and too risky because billowing clouds were rising up again. Thus, we aimed at a closer, snow covered cinder cone, Pu'u Keonehehe'e, at the 11,600' level.

From its crater rim we had a spectacular view over mountains, clouds, island and ocean. Mauna Kea's summit area has many cinder cones which were all deeply covered by snow. One could have spent many days skiing there. To the south was snow-covered Mauna Loa. Its slopes are gentle and maybe not as exciting for skiers. But it is an active volcanoe whose lava flows through underground tunnels south into the ocean, attracting many visitors to the Volcano National Park. Measured from the ocean floor, Mauna Loa is 56,000' high!

The best snow on Pu'u Keonehehe'e was on the inside walls of its crater. Thus, we skied right into the hole. The snow was wet and big balls were rolling down but there was not enough snow depth for serious wet snow avalanches. It was fun to carve tight turns with my 60 cm "Firngleiter" skis. Since they are all-metal skis it did not matter to ski over a few lava rocks on the way, but falling was not allowed since the porous "ah-ah" lava is brittle and razor sharp. We also took some video clips of our skiing .

After doing a few runs down the crater we headed back down. We enjoyed to ski the long outside slopes of the crater. Further down the snow got wetter and thinner and it became a challenge to turn around the many rocks. We met others who climbed up but without skis. Clouds began to move in and it was time to reach the cars before another Pineapple Express arrived. We had a short but great time skiing on Mauna Kea. So, if you ever have a chance to visit the big island in winter, bring your skis and have fun on Mauna Kea!

Skiing on Mauna Kea, Jan 3, 1993

This is another short report about skiing on Mauna Kea. On Dec 29, 1992, we did an exploratory trip to the summit. Since much of the upper mountain road is a dirt road we rented a jeep. It is a day trip from Kona. Although the scenery and the views were splendid we found no snow on the 13,796' summit. In the next few days a storm moved over the island. When it was over, we went back to the snow-covered summit. We were not alone since many locals came up and snowboarded on short surfboards. There is only a short window of good snow after a storm. The snow becomes rapidly crusty from the intense sunlight and cold wind. But it was fun to parallel with short skis on the smooth slopes of a volcano.

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