Reaching the summit: a mixture of agony and ecstasy, although only the agony shows! Note, I'm still wearing trainers.

Mauna Kea: The Hardest Climb in the World

All images by Bruno of Kupau Tours, Hawai’i, unless otherwise stated. Click on any image to view full screen and then use your back button to return to the text. Thank you Bruno for the awesome pics.

I was hunched over my bike, resting my forehead on my handlebars. My heart rate was maxed and I was taking breaths in great gasps. I’d been riding up this single climb for over nine hours already, but the summit was still 4km away, within sight, but 600m above me. So near and yet so far. I wasn’t sure that I could make it. 

I’d put my winter gloves on an hour ago, but my hands were still going numb, starting with my thumbs and then moving inwards, finger by finger, as I gained altitude. Since I hadn’t been out of first gear for the last four hours and didn’t need to brake, this wasn’t really a big issue. I was yawning repeatedly and my legs moved woodenly. As Bruno, my guide had correctly predicted, things had become tricky around the 3,500m mark and my body was simply telling me, in multiple ways, that it wasn’t getting enough oxygen. 

I rode another 50m and then stopped again. I walked the next 100m and then tried riding again, but the road was locked at 15 – 20% and I didn’t get very far before I needed to stop again. It had been a very long day and my self-inflicted torture wasn’t over yet. 

I’d booked this trip some ten months earlier, in search of an idyllic family holiday, where Tom and I could also ride our bikes. Pete Stuart’s article in Cyclist magazine entitled ‘Mauna Kea: The World’s Hardest Climb’ had also been something of a catalyst, confirming that we’d have some genuine challenges to tackle: https://www.cyclist.co.uk/in-depth/3962/the-worlds-hardest-climb-mauna-kea-hawaii

Alongside Mauna Kea (98.5km and 4,192m of ascent), there was also the adjacent Mauna Loa climb (101km and 3,400m of ascent) and Haleakala on Maui – the world’s longest paved climb (without any downhill sections at all), at 60km and 3,000m. By way of comparison, a typical (hard) Tour de France climb might be 20km and 1,500m.

Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa. The Saddle Road lies between the two and if you look really closely, you can pick out the gravel zig zags.

Mauna Kea from the slopes of Mauna Loa. The Saddle Road lies between the two and if you look really closely, you can pick out the gravel zig zags, partially concealed by cloud on the right. The ‘wall’ you’re looking at here is 2,200m high. Pic SGL Collection.

By the time we arrived on Hawai’i, aka The Big Island, we’d already sampled Ohau (terrible place to ride bikes, amazing place to ride waves) and Maui (stunning place to ride both bikes and waves), culminating with a successful but very wet and wild ascent of Haleakala. We felt acclimatised and ready. However, one of our key discoveries was that Hawaii’s weather was extremely variable: the easterly Trade Winds were almost always blowing, sometimes very hard and it rained a lot – and by that I mean A LOT! Add into this the occasional thunder storm and in Kea’s and Loa’s cases the risk of snow and ice and it was increasingly evident that finding a day when the conditions offered any chance of success wasn’t going to be easy.

There was a second, even more defining piece of news: the access road to Mauna Kea’s summit was currently closed due to snow and ice. I was praying the sun would melt this problem away – quickly.

Pete Stuart had strongly advised that we’d need vehicular support for Mauna Kea. There was no access to water for long sections of the climb, plus we’d need a way of getting off the mountain safely and quickly in the event of the onset of altitude sickness. After a bit of searching, we’d found Bruno of Kupau Tours ( https://kupau.com ), a small company that arranges and hosts bespoke luxury holidays. Agreeing to support our Kea attempt seemed slightly off-piste at first glance, but finding help for Kea had proven nigh on impossible, so I was grateful for their offer to assist. Bruno got in touch on the Wednesday that we arrived and checked that we were still intending to attempt the climb on Friday, as originally planned? That prompted a detailed conversation about the weather: Friday’s forecast was for thunderstorms on Kea, which would be lethal on a bald mountain with absolutely no cover at all. A cyclist might as well pin a target on their back saying ‘strike here’. Saturday looked wet and windy, but Sunday looked good, so with amazing flexibility from Bruno, we settled on that as ‘The Day’.

Sea level to Mauna Kea summit: 4,192m and 98km.

Sea level to Mauna Kea summit: 4,192m and 98km. It looks small, but that’s 2 x Mont Ventoux, stacked on top of each other!!! Pic SGL Collection.

To really understand the nature of the challenge, you need to know something about the history of the Big Island. It’s the youngest island in the Hawaiian chain and is formed of five volcanoes. Some of these are dormant and others are active. The largest two – Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa – are simply huge. Their peaks are above 40% of the atmosphere and 90% of its water vapour, meaning their summits are often clear, even though they appear shrouded in cloud when viewed from below. They’re large enough to have their own micro-climates, so the general forecast may be nothing like what’s happening on the mountain itself. Even more bizarrely, given they’re opposite each other and their summits are probably only 20km apart, they can be experiencing completely different weather at any given time. There could be a storm raging on one, while the other’s bathed in sunshine and an hour later, this could be completely reversed. Sure enough, the weather forecast that had ruled Kea out for Friday looked good for Loa, so Tom dialled in 290 watts for four hours to take the Strava KoM, riding right around a thunder storm in the process: https://www.strava.com/activities/2041239038

Tom, still in the big ring and about 3.5 hours into the Mauna Loa climb.

Tom, still in the big ring and about 3.5 hours into the Mauna Loa climb. Note the altitude, written on the road in the foreground. Pic by Jack Townsend.

With this in the bag, he decided not to ride Kea – he’d done his research and didn’t fancy the prospect of loose gravel and walking – so I was on my own, but to be fair, I’d never have been able to keep up with him anyway, so this was OK! I was also purposefully avoiding reading too much more about the climb, for fear of talking myself out of it!

Mauna Kea may get more airtime, but the Mauna Loa road is equally stunning. This is what happens if you decide to lay a road over successive lava flows!

Mauna Kea may get more airtime, but the Mauna Loa road is equally stunning. This is what happens if you decide to lay a road over successive lava flows! Pic by Jack Townsend.

Tom, well past 3,000m - he's getting very close to the summit and the air is dramatically thinner.

Tom, well past 3,000m – he’s getting very close to the summit and the air is dramatically thinner. Pic by Jack Townsend.

From my base on the north west shore of the Big Island, Mauna Kea’s summit was 98.5km away and 4,192m above me. Haleakala aside, my previous biggest climb was Italy’s Colle d’Agnello, a 60km climb with 2,200m of ascent. Mauna Kea was almost double that. My route would take me from Hapuna Beach, eastwards across the island. A couple of steep kms on the hotel access road would lead to an easy 12km southwards on the Kona Ironman course before a left turn commenced the climb proper. Ahead lay the Saddle Road – the remote mountain highway that crosses the 2,000m high col between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

Less than an hour into the ride, on the Waikoloa Road, fighting a strong headwind. Mauna Loa looms in the background.

Less than an hour into the Mauna Kea ride, on the Waikoloa Road, fighting a strong headwind. Mauna Loa looms in the background.

After c.70km of varied but pretty much continuous climbing, I’d arrive at the Mauna Kea Access Road, where, laughably, the climb would get much harder. The Access Road is 24.5km long and can be broken down into three sections. The first 10km climbs 800m to a small Visitor Centre, via ever steepening slopes and long 12 – 15% ramps. By the end of this section, you’ll have ridden c.84km from the coast and will have climbed 2,800m from sea level.

At this point, the climb gets even nastier! Ahead lies 7.5km of loose and seriously steep ‘gravel’, although I would later reclassify this as ‘sand and rocks at 10 – 20%’. Bizarrely, 7 km short of the summit, the gravel ends and the tarmac recommences, but in long, ever steepening ramps. With 30 – 40% less oxygen than at sea level, these 10 – 20% slopes would form the very worst part of the climb.

So yes, Mauna Kea would be a long and ludicrously high climb, but the real sting would be the gravel, mixed with the steep gradients of the upper road and the lack of oxygen. I knew I could make it to the Visitor Centre, but above that, nothing was certain.

I exchanged a final few notes with Bruno, (crucially, the summit road had been cleared of snow and ice and was open again), cleaned the chain on my OPEN U.P. and fitted my 40mm Clement (now Donnelly), gravel tyres. I went to bed on Saturday night nervous and slept badly.

7.00am, Sunday morning, 30th December: I was sitting outside the hotel lobby drinking coffee when Bruno arrived and introduced himself with a warm smile and a reassuringly firm handshake. “I feel good about today” he said. I was grateful for his positivity, but not sure that I shared his optimism, given what lay before me. Hawaiian culture says that Mauna Kea is the navel connecting the Earth Mother with the Sky Father – the gateway to the heavens so to speak. It was hard to feel confident, looking up to the summit, so far away and so high above me. I asked him whether he’d ridden the climb himself? “Yes” he said “and I’ve run it as well.” Glancing at Bruno, I could believe it too – he looked like the epitome of an endurance athlete and I felt a little stab of extra pressure, not to let him down. He’d shuffled his plans to support me and I felt that I needed to respect that flexibility with a really strong effort to succeed. During one of our brief stops later, I discovered that he’d also completed the Kona Ironman six times, a passion that had finally prompted him and his partner Gabi to emigrate from their home in Switzerland to Hawai’i, some ten years ago.

Bruno checked my planned route (there was only one potential variation, but with Swiss precision, he was leaving nothing to chance) and then asked me about my expected timing. I explained that I was conservatively thinking five hours to the Visitor Centre (84km and 2,800m) and then five hours from there to the summit (14km and 1,400m), plus an hour for stops. I was allowing 11 hours and besides, sunset was in 11 hours.

Early in the morning, with a very strong headwind. Note the old lava cone in the background. Amazing scenery surrounds every part of this ride.

Early in the morning, with a very strong headwind. Note the old lava cone in the background. Amazing scenery surrounds every part of this ride.

Hapuna Westin is a lovely resort, but the 1.5km to the TT course of the Kona ironman featured two ramps around 18%, resorting in the use of my lowest gear and making me question my choice of hotel! 4,192m above me, Kea’s summit was crystal clear. Behind me, waves crashed onto the beach. I turned left out of the hotel onto the highway and made good, wind assisted progress for 12km, to the Waikoloa junction. Turning left, I started the climb proper – and the prevailing easterly trade wind almost stopped me in my tracks. This was getting interesting earlier than I’d expected. I’m a big guy, but even I was getting moved around and having to work way harder than I would have liked. Strava would later confirm that for the next six hours, I was working around 100% intensity, destroying my hopes of conserving energy until the upper portion of the climb.

I’d agreed to see Bruno every 45mins or so, where I’d eat a little food and refill my bottle. I mentioned the wind at our first rendezvous and he simply smiled and said “this is all part of the challenge Guy”. Thankfully, the wind was never worse than on those early slopes and the upside was that I was kept cool, rather than melting in the near 100% humidity and 28 degree heat.

Heading upwards, with the lower slopes of Mauna Kea straight ahead. Unlike most climbs, you can see the summit of Mauna Kea at almost all times.

Heading upwards, with the lower slopes of Mauna Kea straight ahead. Unlike most climbs, you can see the summit of Mauna Kea at almost all times.

 

Nearing the Saddle Road, at around 1,500m.

Nearing the Saddle Road, at around 1,500m.

 

The Saddle Road, at 2,000m. In Europe, we'd call this a col, but we probably wouldn't be riding through lava flows!

The Saddle Road, at 2,000m. In Europe, we’d call this a col, but we probably wouldn’t be riding through lava flows!

Nearing the Visitor Centre at 2,800m. The road has steepened considerably and I'm now working hard.

Nearing the Visitor Centre at 2,800m. The road has steepened considerably and I’m now working hard.

I only had three things showing on my Garmin screen: elevation, power and speed. I was trying to keep my watts between 180 – 230 and largely succeeded, but I was slower than hoped – probably by about 3km/h, meaning that I didn’t reach the Visitor Centre until just before 2.00pm, almost two hours behind schedule. I was averaging just 12km/h. I’d kept my stops short, so this was simply the impact of the headwind.

Working hard, just below the Visitor Centre.

Working hard, just below the Visitor Centre.

 

I'm about to leave the tarmac and life's going to get 'interesting'!

I’m about to leave the tarmac and life’s going to get ‘interesting’!

I took a quick break at the Visitor Centre and agreed the plan with Bruno – he’d stay behind me for the first few kms of gravel, until we saw how I was coping. I let my tyres down to 40psi and lowered my saddle by 5mm. Most people bring mountain bikes for this part of the climb: big fat tyres and super spinny gears. In contrast, I was on 40mm tyres and my lowest gear of 38×42 might or might not prove to be enough. Bruno had my trainers ready, in case I needed to walk.

I’ll let you into a secret: along with cobbles, gravel/off road is my favourite surface. I grew up mountain biking, so I have a deep-rooted affinity with rough stuff and I’d even go so far as to say I’m quite good at it (one of the few times on this ride when being 83kg probably helped). Sure enough, I cleaned 6.5 out of the 7.5km of gravel, despite the fact that it’s basically sand, mixed with rocks, some of them well embedded and others loose, added to which, the constant 4×4 traffic has churned the surface into a never-ending series of shallow dishes, making forward progress even harder. Passing 4×4 drivers (you’re not allowed beyond the Visitor Centre except in a 4×4), came in all types. Some slowed down to minimise the dust their wheels threw up, giving me a thumbs up or a shaka and even offering me water and checking I was OK. Others sped by, covering me in a fine volcanic dust, clearly oblivious to what it must be like to ride a bike up this. I was moving around all over the road, seeking the firmest surface that I could find, but the vehicles seemed happy to tolerate this.

Mauna Kea's 7.5km gravel section. It's a big wide trail, but it consists of sand and loose rocks. It's not really 'gravel' at all! This shot really shows how steep it is - there are multiple ramps between 10 - 20% and the corners in particular become increasingly steep and difficult to ride.

Mauna Kea’s 7.5km gravel section. It’s a big wide trail, but it consists of sand and loose rocks. It’s not really ‘gravel’ at all! This shot really shows how steep it is – there are multiple ramps between 10 – 20% and the corners in particular become increasingly steep and difficult to ride.

The clouds were now below me and the scenery was becoming epic, although I was concentrating so hard on finding the best line I barely noticed it.
Above the clouds. At this point, I was still riding well and enjoying myself, but things would soon change.

Above the clouds. At this point, I was still riding well and enjoying myself, but things would soon change. Note the dishes in the gravel, created by 4×4 traffic.

The final km of the gravel section was the worst and once I’d lost traction there was no getting started again. The corner soared above me at c.20% and I knew I was going to have to walk. Bruno was on hand with my trainers and I trudged up the road, pushing my bike. Ever walked up the face of a sand dune? Now imagine doing that pushing your bike: that’s the final km of gravel on Mauna Kea.

Cresting on of the numerous gravel ramps. Each ramp seemed to get progressively steeper.

Cresting one of the numerous gravel ramps. Each ramp seemed to get progressively steeper.

 

Maintaining traction, but only just.

Maintaining traction, but only just. Ramp ahead…

Just out of shot is a 20% ramp and I'm about to switch bike shoes for trainers...

Just out of shot is a 20% ramp and I’m about to switch bike shoes for trainers…

What comes next is even worse. It shouldn’t be – the surface turns back to tarmac – but it is. The gradient locks into an average of 12% for the final 7.5km, although my Garmin never registered anything much under 15 – 20%. I can honestly say it’s like attempting to climb the Mortirolo, or the Zoncolan, but at 4,000m. You have to cope with a sudden and unexpected oxygen deficit and everyone reacts in different ways. For me, it was a journey into the unknown. I’d Everested the Cime de la Bonette (summit at 2,802m), but that was no guide to how this felt. This was fundamentally hideous.

I switched back to cycling shoes when I rejoined the tarmac, with just 7.5km to the summit, but this proved to be optimistic!

I switched back to cycling shoes when I rejoined the tarmac, with just 7.5km to the summit, but this proved to be optimistic!

I’d ride for 100m and then stop. I’d changed back into my bike shoes, but quickly reverted to trainers. I could still pedal wearing these and it was clear that I was going to have to walk as much as I rode. My heart rate was maxed, my legs felt wooden and my hands were slowly going numb, starting with my thumbs and then working inwards, finger by finger. I’d already added knee warmers, winter gloves, a hat, a warm jersey and a shell, but this wasn’t really a cold issue. It was an oxygen deficit issue and my heart was simply prioritising which bits of my body would be supplied with oxygen.

My breath came in gasps. Bruno confirmed that in his experience, a well trained athlete tended to hit this wall somewhere around 3,500m, which meant that for me, the entire final 700m and 5km or so were completely desperate.

Generally, mind over matter works and I’m adept at chimp management, but this was no longer a head game. Yes, I could force myself to keep moving forwards and upwards – and I did – but this was now primarily a physical challenge and altitude was slowly beating me, no question at all.

I was yawning uncontrollably – again, my body’s way of telling me that it simply didn’t have enough oxygen for what I asking it to do.

The question was, could I reach the summit before either altitude or darkness shut me down. I voiced this concern to Bruno at our final stop and he smiled and said “you’ll make it Guy and besides, my car has headlights if necessary”.

There was one positive to the self-imposed torture that I was now undergoing: I’d gone through the gravel section much faster than expected and therefore, it was only 4.00pm. I told myself that all I had to do was the equivalent of four laps of Whiteleaf – a local berg that’s just over 1km long and gives 127m of height gain. Surely I could do that in two hours (back home it would take just 40 minutes)?

But at the same time, I was reminded of Pete Stuart’s article, in which he confessed to thinking he might not make it, even just 200m from the summit.

The metres have never ever ticked by so slowly. My Garmin seemed to have stopped recording distance, but the altitude data looked spot on. Even just moving it forward by 10 metres was an effort. Bruno told me that I could all but see the summit and that gave me added encouragement. Surely I could make this?

My hands were now useless, but it didn’t really matter. There was no need to change out of first gear and I didn’t need to brake either. I felt slightly wobbly and my legs were wooden, but I was damned if I was going to stop now. I’d keep going upwards for as long as I possibly could.

Somehow, at 5.30pm, I rode onto the very summit of Mauna Kea. Bruno was there and took my bike from me. I showed him how to press stop and save on my Garmin (I couldn’t do it) and he loaded my bike into his boot. The summit was busy with people who had driven up to watch the sunset and then maybe gaze at some stars and someone came up to me and asked if I’d ridden all the way from the Visitor Centre? I simply said “no, from sea level” and he looked at me in slightly stunned silence.

Reaching the summit: a mixture of agony and ecstasy, although only the agony shows! Note, I'm still wearing trainers.

Reaching the summit: a mixture of agony and ecstasy, although only the agony shows! Note, I’m still wearing trainers. Behind, you can see the various lava flows on the flanks of Mauna Loa.

I climbed into the passenger seat of Bruno’s 4×4 and said, haltingly, that I thought we should go down quickly, but then almost immediately suggested we wait – now that I was stationary, my hands were coming back to life and I was quickly feeling much better. We lingered, watching the sun turn the entire sky to fire. The cinder cones of the summit turned red and the sun reflected off the clouds, far below. I doubt I’ll ever see a better or more satisfying sunset than that one and in fact, the entire summit area and the view back down the road was mind-blowing.
I was too tired to get a good shot of this, but with a sunset such as this one, even my iPhone did a fair job!

I was too tired to get a good shot of this, but with a sunset such as this one, even my iPhone did a fair job!

I’d summited in 10hrs 30mins, with little more than 30 minutes of stoppage time, but my tyres and gears had proven slightly inadequate for the final few kms – I concurred with Bruno that a mountain bike would have made it more palatable.

Heading back down the gravel road with Bruno. It's raining in the clouds, almost 2,000m below us.

Heading back down the gravel road with Bruno. It’s raining in the clouds, almost 2,000m below us.

So, is this the world’s hardest cycling climb? I’m not really qualified to judge, but I’ll be quick to believe anyone who says it is. It’s the hardest climb I’ve ever come across, by a fair margin.

I’ll go back to Mauna Kea one day, but not on a bike. Instead, I’ll drive a 4×4 to the summit and explore a little – on foot. I’ll watch the sunset, gaze at the stars and remember a truly ludicrous day on my bike.

I owe thanks beyond words to Bruno of Kupau Tours. His knowledge, support and positivity were outstanding and despite the severity of the challenge, I felt I was in very safe and professional hands, which allowed me to focus on simply riding my bike. Thank you for helping me to realise a dream.

Thank you Bruno!

Thank you Bruno!

As ever, I also owe thanks to those who helped me reach this particular summit – ASSOS LDN and ASSOS of Switzerland for creating clothing capable of tackling a challenge like this and Bespoke Cycles for preparing my OPEN and Tom’s Mosaic for these particular adventures.

Aloha from Hawai’i and Mahalo Bruno for your help!

SGL, Dec 2018.

Tips/Observations:

  • Most ascents are made from Hilo, rather than from the Hapuna/Waikoloa side of the island. The Hilo route is shorter (70km). You’re more likely to get a tail wind from Hilo, but you’re also more likely to get wet from that side of the island (it rains a lot in Hilo). I asked Bruno where he thought it was best to start from and he said Hilo (I was already a long way up the mountain when I asked him this ;-).
  • In my humble opinion, don’t ever attempt this without a support vehicle. Descending the gravel would be nigh on impossible (it’s sand remember) and there is a fairly good chance you may need a rapid extraction, whether due to altitude sickness. or a sudden change in the weather. Having a support car gave me the confidence to push on, even when things were beginning to get marginal.
  • Use a mountain bike above the Visitor Centre, with big, fat, knobbly tyres. Take the smallest gears you can possibly find.
  • Be very flexible on your exact ride date and arrive on the Big Island with as wide a window of options as possible: I was there for five days and only one was workable. We had similar problems with Haleakala (rain) and Mauna Loa (lightning).
  • I think climbing Haleakala and Mauna Loa before Kea helped: not enough to acclimatise to the altitude, but they’re long climbs and somehow, I think they’re additive preparation. Both would be outrageous climbs anywhere else, but compared to Kea, they almost felt easy!
  • Make sure you have access to plenty of warm clothing from the Visitor Centre onwards.
  • Almost all of my route prior to the Access Road had good, wide shoulders, so even though they’re pretty significant roads, they felt pretty safe (to me, at least). The shoulders are covered in small stones and broken glass though, so if you run road tyres, make sure they’re tough ones! The Access Road doesn’t have a shoulder, but is pretty quiet and I felt very safe on it. I used blinker lights until the Access Road and wore visible colours.
  • Start early – 7.00am ish. I felt that I was racing sundown. Keep your stops to a minimum. I took four five minute breaks and lost a few more minutes changing shoes and trying to breathe!