High Altitude Hawai’i

Rising 13,803′ (4207 m) from the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Hawai’i’s tallest dormant volcano, Mauna Kea, reaches well into its own unique high altitude environment. Measured from its base on the ocean floor, it is the tallest mountain in the world, about 33,000′ (10,000 m) in height.

A frozen Haleakalā silversword. PC: Lyle Krannichfeld & Pueo Gallery

You may never have thought to find a high altitude environment on the tropical island chain, but Mauna Kea is just one of four peaks that summit over 8,000′. The next three are Mauna Loa (13,679′), Haleakalā (10,023′), and Hualālai (8,271′), with Haleakalā (“House of the Sun”) on the island of Maui and the other three on the Big Island. Each of these dormant volcanoes is home to species of plants and animals found only in Hawai’i, many of them only found around their respective peaks.

Sacred lands, whose access was once restricted to only the divine rulers of Hawaiian society, Mauna Kea now hosts 13 observatories and research staff in addition to its foreign and local visitors, many of whom make the historic pilgrimage to the summit from sea level in a matter of hours via an access road established in 1964.

Visitors to Mauna Kea are advised to acclimate at the Visitor Information Center which sits at 9,200′, although a particular length of time is not specified. In addition to the more intuitive precautions regarding pregnancy or heart and respiratory conditions, visitors in Hawaii are also warned against making an ascent within 24 hours of having been SCUBA diving, which may not be so obvious. You can find this and more helpful tips consistent with current high altitude research on their Public Safety brochure, which includes information about symptoms of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, featured in a previous article, and very common in the Colorado high country).

Poliahu visits Haleakalā. PC: Lyle Krannichfeld & Pueo Gallery

In addition to the hypoxic conditions, Mauna Kea and its aforementioned counterparts are also prone to the dryness and weather systems we see in Colorado, with snowfall above 10,000′ as recent as the past few days, a visit from Poliahu, Hawai’i’s own goddess of snow, and the subject of songs and hula dances in her honor.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not on a computer, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

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