“You’ve got the sun, you’ve got the moon, and you’ve got the Rolling Stones.” — Keith Richards
It’s the silence that grabs you first; not quite the silence but the howling wind that sweeps the top of the crater – musical tones that whip through the cracks in the volcanic rocks, edging out a whistle. And then, more silence; not quite silence.. now it’s your footsteps – the deliberate crunch underfoot, the uneven slosh of depleting bladders. And then, even more silence; not quite…not yet… now you hear just your heart beat – first in your chest, then in your ears, and behind your eyes. And finally the silence ignites you – holds you tight, sets you ablaze and all noise, static and time slip away – and then… you’ve finally arrived: Haleakalā.
Maui is an island full of contradictions. While most travel to this Hawaiian oasis for the surf and turf, there’s a lot more to see if you’re willing to look around. Overlooking the row of hotels that sit on the south coast, there are active Volcanoes that stretch far into the sky with some of the most diverse microclimates in the world.
Millions of years of eruption, contraction and inspiration left the island with two primary volcanoes – the West Maui Mountains and the East Maui Volcano ( Haleakalā ). Both are worth exploring and lift up the hula skirt on an otherwise tame damsel. Forty million years is a long time for a courtship so you better be ready the very second the lady consents.
The Waihee Ridge Trail in the West Maui Mountains is a good place to be introduced to the dynamics of the island. While sunny on the way up, you’re very quickly introduced to clouds, rain, mud and all manner of treacherous footings. It’s still worth visiting; bring your mud-gear or you risk serious injury on a wet day. While not as runnable as the Kula Forest on the other side, it certainly has the ability to clear at a moment’s notice and show you a view all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Green hills eclipse the ocean in a majestic array of colors and smells that explains in one breath where rainbows come from.
The approach to Haleakalā requires a great deal of patience. While the volcano looms large over the entire island, it’s this ever-present daily menace that makes its proximity deceptive in space, time and miles. Most travelers will start early; very early – the idea is to either be at the top when the sun wakes up or when the sun goes to bed. The number of tours that leave under cover of darkness is very long – everything from bike rides all the way down the paved highway to 3-day hikes through the crater – it’s all there for you if you get the timing right. Sleep is not your priority. Awe is your priority.
Driving yourself isn’t a bad option. It gives you the freedom to both navigate the twisty
turns up the side of the mountain and visualize tumbling over the edge of the road, ass over teacup in a blazing inferno of insufficient reflexes. Mostly, though, it takes time. You have to remember that the top of the mountain stands 2 miles ( 10k feet ) above sea level and you’re not exactly going straight up – low gears and hundreds of switchbacks later you arrive at the entrance to the National Park ranger station. Tip the innkeepers; they’ve been busy making sure your stay is first-rate.
Hitchhiking is another totally 100% legal way to get to the top. Parking after the entrance to the National Park means in practical terms that you can end at your car and not have to work your way back out of the crater when your expedition is complete ( also be sure to pay – it helps keep the park pristine ). Parking at the Halemau’u Trailhead or Hosmer Grove further down are also good choices – the key is leaving early enough to find a hitch up in the morning before most people end their day. Locals are fine; tourists got problems.
Batten Down The Hatches
It pays to be lucky when it comes to the weather. Like most mountains, the weather can change dramatically and without warning. Clouds can roll in and create conditions that will chill you to the bone. Preparation is key.
For our journey, after a week of clouds squatting on the summit we finally found a window: the weather was perfect – dry, salty, sunny and exposed – no rain. Hydration is certainly a factor at elevation. You not only lose water faster at that elevation but your effort level burns more calories in a shorter period of time. Have a plan for emergency provisions. There are zero water fountains on that hill so if you don’t bring enough water you die. You will die. Simple.
From the beach, it’s often the case that clouds look like they are blocking visibility at the top but at 2 miles above sea level you are mostly above the cloud line. The last few hours of our hike, the clouds still rolled in and chased us back into our cars – rain followed shortly for the hours of driving that took us back down the switchbacks back to sea level.
This was our first approach. Mistakes would be made. Sins forgiven. We made the rather naive decision to park at the top – “let’s just make sure we get there“. This essentially meant we were committing to going into the crater at elevation and having to back track out of the crater returning to elevation later in the day, when the sun would be high and we’d be more tired and dehydrated. To wit, the main “sliding sands” trail was exactly that – black sand from the volcanic ash – so hiking up this trail was going to be doubly harder than running downhill at the start of the adventure.
Even though this required more effort on our part, it seemed sensible enough as this way we wouldn’t be able to get lost. Equally, you lose all sense of distance and perspective in the crater ( open spaces help you lose and gain perspective – go figure ) that we really wanted to get a sense of “time on feet” over raw distance. Physically, most of the damage was going to be running downhill anyway ( quad-crushers ).
Due to time constraints, we only got as far as the Silversword loop before we had to turn around. It’s hard to cover a lot of ground if you like taking pictures (we do!)- with the surface resembling the moon, maybe Mars, its slow work to capture all of the various beautiful vistas, fauna, and flora. The entire landscape cultivates a sense of awe that is hard to describe or replicate. Twelve gorgeous miles that won’t be easily forgotten. Repeat after me: Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum
It’s important to remember that at 10K feet there is 30% less oxygen than at sea level. I’ve read somewhere that you need oxygen; it tastes good. Real good. My first experience running at that elevation in Colorado was a disaster – this time, I really felt comfortable; a really different experience – very nice to see that my overall fitness and aerobic capacity has shifted in four years. Think its clear that true aerobic gains takes years to materialize – just consistent training over time really is where true performance gains can show up.
I’m not sure if it was the elevation, dehydration, or the Nene droppings in my Cliff Bars or the hallucinations that shake me awake in the daylight – this was THE place to connect to earth, THE place to connect to the sun, THE place to connect with being DISCONNECTED. And every damn day that I have to run down a concrete street is a heartache in my stride – a deep longing to reopen my eyes and by magic re-deposited back to this place, baking in the Maui sun with moon dust on my shoes and a far horizon calling me westward.
Bits and Pieces
- Macadamia Nuts – A killer trail nutrient. The best kind of calories and dense fat – for the weight, it can’t be beat.
- Patagonia Houdini Jacket – STILL, the best trail windbreaker for the weight. It folds into it’s own pocket and keeps you warm when the sun goes down – it just might save your life. 3.6 oz – that’s insanity.
- BUFFS – They double as head, neck, and/or face protection from the sun. Pretty much standard for desert travel.
- Shoes – Salomon Sense Mantra (3) still my go-to for trails at this point. They will be discontinued at some point and I will be sad. That said, they are now CHEAP AS SHIT.
- Always have a travel companion – Claire kept us going once again when things got tough ( OK, we were just taking too many pictures )
- Back To Start – most runners have never used this feature but most Garmin watches have a handy feature that allows you to back track via compass. It’s an excellent way to ensure you’re heading in the right direction.
- Here’s the link to the Colorado race in case you just NEED some elevation this side of the rockies.
- We TOTALLY MISSED the Haleakala “Fun Run” by a week – just a 40 mile run around the Volcano with you and 30 of your closest friends. “20 miles single track 8 miles road the rest is dirt/lava rock road bed” – What?!?!