Sunday, June 26, 2016

Conquering Monstrous Mauna Kea

I've been a recreational cyclist for the best part of 20 years now, ever since Mike Lowrie suggested I use my commuter mountain bike for some actual mountain biking.

Over those two decades, my fitness levels have gone up and up, and while I'm able to acknowledge some decent achievements on and off road, I've never felt particularly well-rounded, due to my dislike of descending.

Luckily for me, while I suck at the glamorous side of the sport, a disproportionate amount of time in any hilly bike ride is spent going up, not down.  And, despite my apparent physical unsuitability for climbing (contrast my 85kg to Chris Froome's 2015 TdF winning weight of 67.5kg at roughly the same height), mentally it suits me just fine.

In fact, better than fine.  I absolutely love going uphill.

Defining the Challenge

Wellington's a fine place to live for a climber, although while there are short hills in abundance, it's tough to find anything that takes much over half an hour.

A few hours north is New Zealand's only sealed hors categorie climb - the Turoa Ski-Field access road climbs 1000vm in a luscious 17km.

The term hors categorie is one used at the Tour de France to describe the hardest "beyond category" climbs, and in 2013, I made a trip to France, stringing together a 4800km route that traversed 13 HC climbs, and a further 13 each of Categories 1 and 2, to notch up about 80,000vm in a sweet 28 days of riding.  True to form, the climbs were far and away the highlight of the trip.  Some were gruelling, but if anything, that just made the experience richer. 

In preparation for Le Cycle-Tour de France, I learnt a little about the various methods for ranking climbs.  As (possibly urban) legend has it, the Tour de France categories were originally determined by what gear a Citroen 2CV could drive up the climb in, and HC was awarded if it couldn't get up at all...  Modern methods vary in sophistication and sense.

Strava multiplies distance (in metres) by average gradient (in percent), and then awards HC if this number exceeds 80000.  (The mathemetician in me thinks this is a bloody silly way of describing it, since if I'm not mistaken, it's simply the elevation gained times 100...)., a massive database of climbs around the world, generates a ranking based on three components:  a quadratic function of height gained, divided by distance travelled (including the square of the height gained is intended to account for growing fatigue, so that a 200vm climb is more than twice as hard as a 100vm climb), a linear term in distance (in this component, a 10km climb is twice as hard as a 5km climb), and a term which kicks in for climbs that finish at more than 1000 metres above sea level, aka, bonus points for altitude.  The three components are presumably weighted thoughtfully so that adding them up makes sense.

On my trip to France, the highest point I reached was 2744m above sea level, on the Col Agnel (or, if you're looking at it from the Italian side, the Colle dell'Agnello).  This was a glorious climb, which started at around 300m, and was about 70km to the top, at which point I was getting slightly light-headed every time I got going again after a photo-stop.  The hardest ranked, using climbbybike's model, was Mont Ventoux, a 1622vm climb (7.2% over 23km), which got a score of 162.  Turoa (6% over 17km) clocks in at 96, and even that is hard work.

Looking up Alpine and Pyrenean climbs on was where I first learned about Mauna Kea.  According to them, ascending from the town of Hilo to the summit of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island in the state of Hawai'i, is a whopping 4191vm ascent (6.1% over 69km) with a score of 369.  I was about to head off to France, and it wasn't there, so it was relegated to my subconscious...

The beautiful (self-proclaimed, but rightfully so, in my opinion) website that is served up a reminder in late-2014, when Norwegian, Martin Hoff documented his own ascent of Mauna Kea.

By that stage, my home life had changed dramatically, and trip planning now had to factor in one or more companions from my blended family. 

Over the ensuing year or so, I would occasionally joke to my daughters about banging them into surf-school while I went mountain climbing.  They didn't bite, so instead, Sarah and I pulled the Honeymoon card a couple of months after our November wedding, and preparations for a trip for two to Hawai'i began.  It seemed obvious to me that this challenge should not dominate the trip, and so it was necessary to slot it in, rather than build the holiday around it.

The logistics took time to sort out, but as the months of 2016 flew by, slowly but surely the pieces in the puzzle fell into place.

Sarah, herself now an avid and incredibly capable cyclist, was keen to do some riding in the warmth, just as much as I was.

We planned to spend the first four nights of the trip on the island of Maui, sans car, before relocating to the Big Island, a moniker commonly used to avoid confusion between the name of the state, and the name of the island, both Hawai'i.

Getting Ready

One of the many challenges of the climb, is the fact that roughly 8km of it are unsealed.  Curiously, these are not the final kilometres - something that fascinated me until the clerk at Harpers Car and Truck Rental explained that the final six kilometres are sealed to keep the dust down, so that the various deep-space telescopes at the end of the road don't get their views messed up.  Harpers appear to be the only rental company on the island whose insurance policy does not exclude the access road.

We booked a 4WD ute for our third day on the island, bristling ever so slightly at the notion that we'd be a two-car family for the day. As much as I would've liked to ride it unsupported, I was happy to manage away some of the risk through Sarah's company, and, I wanted her to be able to get to the top of this mountain too, albeit behind the wheel of the car. 

Bike choice was really difficult.  Hoff's attempt was on a road bike running a 34x32 granny gear (not enough, he said), and 32mm tyres (also not enough).  Every other ride on our trip would be on the road, so despite it addressing each of Hoff's concerns, I was keen not to compromise the rest of cycling by taking a mountain bike instead of the roadie, and I certainly wasn't going to travel with two bikes.  

A nice well-specced cyclocross bike would probably have been a pretty good choice, but my quiver doesn't include one of those.  Instead, my repurposed Giant CRX commuter bike got the nod.  It needed a few tweaks (drop bars, and a new drive train), and once done, it was scarily close to Hoff's bike, with the same gearing but a marginally fatter (and knobbly) pair of tyres - I had an old pair of 700x35mm Schwalbe Sammy Slicks in the garage, which the ample clearances  on the CRX would accommodate.  Due to the high chance of the need to walk (as well as the overall picture of the trip), I'd be rolling MTB pedals.

As the day drew nearer, my confidence levels were all over the place.

I wasn't worried about my fitness - the recently successful Everest ride had surpassed my expectations.  But, the 9000vm of that ride were 96 repeats of a climb with a difficulty score of about 23, and it was somewhat hard to compare that to a single climb with a score of 369!

I happily recalled the week I spent mountain biking in Colorado which included riding at altitude.  My body had coped well, though the high point was around 11,500 feet (3500m), somewhat shy of Mauna Kea's 14,000 feet (when in Imperial Rome, do as the Romans do), and further, I'd been sleeping at altitude, which surely helped with the acclimatisation.

While I was willing to extrapolate very mild symptoms in Colorado to at worst moderate symptoms on the final section of Mauna Kea, my research into the altitude was alarming.  According to various tables and calculators I consulted, the air pressure at the summit would be about 60% of that at sea level (with the exact difference depending on the temperature). That's a LOT less oxygen...

Concern about my gearing was pretty much constant, but I felt I'd done all I could with the compact 50/34 crankset, the long-cage derailleur and 11-32 cassette.

Weather anxiety finally kicked in when Sarah and I drove over Saddle Road the day before the climb.  We passed the turnoff onto the Mauna Kea Access Road, which marked the half way point of the following day's ride, vertically speaking. The combination of the low cloud, rain, and the car's reported outdoor temperature of 58F was meaningless to me, but it was a damn sight less than the mid-80s we'd seen down at sea level.  Once home, the internet told me it was 14C, which wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but given the double elevation of the summit, still had me really concerned.  I checked the weather forecasts, and slept wondering how my body would cope with the predicted 35 degrees at sea level, and the mere 1 degree at the summit. Time would tell.

The Big Day

We woke to the clearest skies of the trip, and it was a welcome twist.  I had my usual bowl of porridge (oatmeal?) and then it was time to leave for Harpers.

I'd organised gear the evening before: I'd mounted the Sammy Slicks onto the bike, had a pile of things to wear at the start, a bag of additional clothes which I anticipated needing before the ride was over (most of which I'd have left home in had we still been in Karori), and assorted tools and food.

On the 20 minute drive into Hilo, we caught our first fleeting glimpses of the summit, and it struck me how high in the sky it was.

The rental process was interesting, and included an attendant recording the underside of the ute using an ipad and a nifty trolley-mounted mirror.

If you scratch this, we'll know it!

Originally, Sarah was keen for me to drive to the edge of town, but when we found ourselves on the road I'd ride from the foreshore, it was surprisingly benign, and she suggested I get underway immediately.

We parked about 200m from the start, and I got the bike off the tray of the ute.  I had one bottle of water and another of powerade on board, three bars in my pocket, a pump and tube, and my cell phone.  Given the nature of the ride, and the local laws, I decided to go sans helmet.

Inhaling a banana, I rolled down to the lights at the bottom of Waianuenue Avenue, did a cheeky u-turn, and then I was off.  Moments later, I passed Sarah for the first of a few dozen times.  Although only 8:30am, it was already 33 degrees.

Aside from the heat, the conditions were stunning:  the road surface was as smooth as the best I'd ever ridden in New Zealand, the prevailing wind was in my favour, albeit only a light breeze, and the gradient was a very consistent and agreeable 4%.

I played leapfrog with Sarah...

... but made good progress to the outskirts of Hilo.  This took just over 25 minutes, at a climbing rate of 931vm/h and an average speed of 21km/h.  It was all downhill from there, metaphorically speaking.  

Then I was onto Saddle Road.  The surface remained top notch, and I had a great shoulder to ride on.  From time to time there'd be a steep ramp, but for the most part, the gradient was steady and suited me well.

50 minutes in...
I was getting great views of the summit, and despite the immense size of the mountain, I was surprised to be able to see the observatories at the top so clearly.

As the first hour ticked over, I'd managed about 900vm, and just over 20km - about a third of the distance, but less than a quarter of the elevation.  Nonetheless, I was pleased with my progress.

Big country, small man
The second hour wasn't quite as productive as the first - 807vm and 16.2km - but the approach to the Mauna Kea Access Road sped things up a bit, by virtue of virtually flat road.  I even used the 50 for a while.

I made the turn with just over 2h20 on the clock.  Approximately two-thirds of the distance covered, and just under half the elevation.  It was very strange to think I was now at the base of a climb twice the elevation of the Turoa Road, but only 7km longer.  Not to mention that I was already halfway up that skifield, in terms of current elevation.  The scale was, and still is, truly mind-blowing. 

The Access Road was still beautifully smooth, though the tail-wind was now a cross wind, and the summit was obscured from sight.  From time to time, I'd scan the mountain for signs of the upper reaches of the road, only ever catching glimpses. 

The scrappy bush that had lined Saddle Road had made way for grasslands, and neither offered much shelter from the sun.  Occasional walls would see my speed drop away, and it would get stiflingly hot until the gradient eased and I managed to get the airflow back.  I was surprised to note the temperature had only just dropped below 30C despite the elevation.

Mauna Kea Access Road
By this stage, I'd drained my two bottles (900mL of water, and 750mL of powerade).  I'd also demolished two bars that we'd picked up at the supermarket the day before.  Sarah was doing a mighty fine job and when I passed her, I put in requests for the next pass, or received, without stopping, whatever I'd previously asked for. 

Mauna Loa over my right shoulder

While the road from Hilo to the turnoff had averaged about 4%, the average from the turnoff to the summit was 9%.  And sections of that were much more.  "The steepest mile" came just before the Visitor Centre, and was a very nasty 13%, touching 19% in places.  By now, I was almost equivalent to the summit of Mount Ruapehu, and I was starting to notice the thinner air.  I was still able to climb out of the saddle, but the going was getting very tough.

With just under three-and-a-half hours on the clock, I made my first stop.  I'd just passed the Visitor Centre, at the 56km mark.  I had 12km left to ride, with an altitude gain of about 1300vm.

I noticed my tyres were rock hard - presumably they too were noticing the thinner air - and let out some pressure in the hope of improving traction on the gravel.  I was feeling a bit addled, and clumsy.  I mounted up, and immediately realised I'd overdone it, and made use of the pump I'd been hauling for the one and only time.

The first metres were pretty tentative, but I was happy to discover a relatively firm surface, and that my tyres were biting well.

Not as flat as it looks
I knew this section was 8km long, and boy did they count down slowly.   The gradients weren't at all even, and while the mellower sections were nice, the nasty average gradient had to come from somewhere.

Initially, I managed the steep sections well, but any aspirations I had to stay on my bike were soon dashed.  Sarah and I had ridden up Haleakala on Maui together the previous week, and I'd been surprised not to notice any effects of altitude even at the 3000m summit.

Here though, I was well aware of it, and I can only surmise that the action was all on the demand side, rather than supply, i.e. I was noticing it here because I was having to work so damn hard.

The views over Saddle Road to Mauna Loa were spectacular, and it was interesting to note how quickly the Visitor Centre complex started to look small. 

There was a little bit of traffic on the road, including a very vocal couple in a 2WD car that gave me a lovely holler when they passed going up, and again coming down.  A Park Ranger slowed, and asked me if I was on my own.  He seemed pleased when I told him Sarah was just up the road.

Big road, little man
Clouds were starting to build up in the west, and it was crazy to note that for the most part, they were below me.  

Low cloud?  Or high mountain?

Sarah had been handing me a half bottle of drink, and every now and then, I'd have a slug.   Whereas normally I'd down about a quarter bottle in one long pull, the first time I'd tried that above the Visitor Centre, it had taken me a fair while to get my breath back.  It was now sipping only, with 5-10 seconds between sips.

The inevitable occurred, and I was forced to dismount.  I've always loved Dave Sharpe's turn of phrase "tactical walk", and I'd love to claim it here, but the truth is, I couldn't manage the gear any more.  The gradients were implicitly the worst, but even so, I could barely manage 4km/h walking speed on these stretches.

The walking felt very unnatural, but it granted progress which would otherwise not have been possible.

The 8km on the gravel took almost an hour-and-a-half, but beyond them were simply a different kind of hell.  The first one of 6km was lovely and mellow, and then it was back into the double figures.

At sea level, hell, at 2000m, the gradient would have been totally manageable out of the saddle.  But, at 3500m above sea level, the resources needed to support my upper body on my arms were considerable.  With very careful management, I found I could cope with half-a-dozen pedal strokes, achieved by dropping my cadence to next to nothing, and pausing in between each stroke.  But, I couldn't do this anywhere near often enough.

My third alternative, walking being the second, was to use the entire road, lessening the average gradient by lengthening the path travelled.  My cadence was still well below 60rpm, which in turn is well below my natural cadence of about 90.  The strain through my legs was immense, but the metres slowly ticked by.

Riding it like it was in NZ, then the US, then NZ, ....
I was still walking from time to time.  I was interested to note that getting on and off the bike was the most demanding movement I'd make, walking and pedalling included.  So much so, that I'd have to pause for a few seconds, stock still, before getting underway.  Throwing the leg over the bike in one nice fluid motion was out of the question.  I had to come to a complete halt, pause, throw the leg over, clip in, pause, pedal, and very much the same in reverse. 

Mustering resources
Sarah was clearly nervous about my state - she's noticed I tend to get snippy when I'm tired.  She'd regularly ask if I needed things.  I kept turning down food, since I knew there was no way I'd be able to move and eat at the same time, and I felt compelled to keep moving.

She pointed out I had a bag of Gu Chomps in my touring tool kit - they'd been there for about 3 years, in case of emergency - and this was the most worthy situation I could think of!  I opened the bag and took two out and popped them in my mouth.  I was looking forward to the sugar and caffeine kicking in.  With that in mind I went in for more, but my manual dexterity wasn't up to the task and one hit the deck.  Determined, I had another crack, and got two more on board, chased down with some water.

Perhaps feeling like she'd dodged a bullet of sorts, Sarah shot off up the hill.  I was fascinated to note how I'd lost my voice somewhat, and wondered if that was on account of the altitude, or simply the effort.

If I'd stopped to think about it, I would have savoured the moment I passed through 3,724m, the height of Aoraki/Mount Cook, and the highest point in New Zealand. 

Big view, tiny man

The last two kilometres consisted of a big zig-zag.  I had high hopes for the gradient easing at that point, and approaching the first of two switchbacks, I thought I might be in luck.  Initially I was, and enjoyed the single-figure gradient for a bit, clocking a maximum speed of a whopping 13km/h, well up on my average of 5km/h for the section.  

Zig-zagging with all my might

The Park Ranger passed me, and gave me the most wonderful smile and thumbs-up, 10km and about 2 hours since we'd last interacted.  He and I both knew I was close.

At one point I threw my head down towards my bars - hanging my head in dismay I suppose.  This triggered a very alarming tingling right through my lower back and legs, and I made a note not to do that again! 

I was hoping to experience the free power that always seemed to come in the last seconds of the last interval on my indoor trainer, but alas, it wasn't to be.  The road conspired against me too, and the last kilometre averaged 10%.  Stubbornness, and liberal zig-zagging were the only things that kept me on the bike after the gravel. 

The last metres
There were two pairs of bemused looking tourists at the top, and they silently acknowledged my apparent effort.   The road flattened, and I followed it right to the very end, before finding a spot in the sun to sit down.  Far from needing the base layer, gabba, armwarmers, and coat waiting for me in the car, it was still 15 degrees, and up until the last half an hour, had even been in the low 20s.

At rest, finally
Off the bike, I finally had the resources to grab and eat the 200g bar I'd carried from Hilo - a minute's worth, perhaps?  Having been hard against my back, it was warm and gooey, and slid down very quickly indeed.

Sarah arrived moments later, and I steeled myself for the obligatory bike loft!  With the actual summit of Mauna Kea in view, and the cloud bank below us, I held the bike above my head for 10 seconds, an effort which I duly paid for once the bike was back on the ground.

As physically drained as I was, I'd pretty much lost my mind too.  I rode 100m or so to the car, and got changed into warm, dry clothes.  Sarah asked if I wanted to drive, and I suggested it was best that she do it, and then we left.

It didn't dawn on me until later that I'd forgotten to admire the view.

We stopped at the Visitor Centre for a hot drink, and to see what souvenirs might be on offer, settling for a pair of socks for Kaitlyn, and a sticker which might end up on my bike.

I drove from there, and was pleased to note that my brain had started coming back in tandem with the oxygen level.

When we got home, one of the first things I did was re-read Martin Hoff's cyclingtips article.  Every sentence now had context that had been absent before, and I was bemused to note that he might as well have been writing about my own ascent, even down to the crushed water bottles we discovered at the bottom of the hill.

Succumbing to decent air pressure

I titled my strava ride as the "Hardest ride of my life", and it was no exaggeration.  The effort required to keep moving had been something else, and the perceptions granted by my oxygen-starved brain had definitely made things feel worse than they possibly were.

The full ascent had taken almost exactly six hours.  And it really had been a ride of two halves.  I'd almost made it to the Visitor Centre at the three hour mark, and by that stage had ridden 53 of the 69 kilometres to the summit.  The last 16km took the second three hours.

Perhaps had it not been for Strava, I might have been disappointed with my speed.  But, I'd managed to post the sixth fastest recorded ascent, well down on Kevin Metcalfe's somewhat incredible 4h46, but one of only 45 records in the database (Hoff had been the 17th when he made his attempt in 2014).


I would very much like to do the climb again, and I do think I could go faster.

I was lucky with the weather conditions, both on the day, and leading into the attempt.  It was great to be able to climb in warm air - I wonder if the heat was mostly radiating off the dark road?  But, the significant bonus was the amount of rain that had reportedly fallen in the prior weeks.  This meant the gravel section was for the most part firm.  It would be worth trying to recreate this, maybe by heading there soon after the end of the rainy season.

The bike I rode was not ideal, and I realise now that it wasn't really optimal for any section of the course, and if anything, I'd erred towards setting it up for the easiest stretch (knobbly tyres aside).

I think mountainbike gearing is essential, and should make a huge difference on the top section, i.e. the one where you haemorrhage time if your gearing ain't right.  I used my 50 for all of a few minutes, and I don't think you'd lose much without it.

I ride a Yeti Big Top with a carbon fork on it, and while the alloy frame might be a bit hefty, I think it would be a better choice within a one-bike constraint.  Better still would be something like the ARC-C: a nice, lightweight carbon frame, with a carbon fork, and 29er/700C wheels with a pair of 35 or 42mm semislick tyres.

Had I bothered weighing my bikes before I'd gone, I might have made a different choice.  As ridden, the CRX was 9.8kg (21.6 pounds), versus the Big Top (with a carbon fork and 2.2" Stan's Crow tyres, triple crankset and 24-36 granny gear) at 10.5kg (23.1 pounds).  I've no doubt had I ridden the Big Top, I would have resented it for the first half of the ride, and gone considerably quicker on the second half.  I do wonder what the greener grass would have been then...

I'd definitely ask for support again.  I was stationary for 7.5 minutes out of the 6 hours (about half of which was faffing with tyre pressure at the start of the gravel), and Sarah's aid certainly helped achieve that.  You could probably get away with carrying some drink powder and refilling bottles at the Visitor Centre, but I do think the primary issue is safety.  In particular, I wouldn't have trusted myself to ride down the hill, even in the glorious conditions I was fortunate enough to experience.

I would have needed a long recovery at the summit to reduce my disorientation, and during that time I would have undoubtedly cooled down a lot, and short of hauling up a lot of clothes, probably would have been a freezing wreck within a few minutes of starting the descent (though, I am fascinated to know what its like descending at 4000m - aerodynamics presumably matter considerably less with 60% of the sea-level air pressure...!!!).

Seeing Sarah regularly was also a morale booster ("Need anything?"/"Just your love"), and having a magnificent set of photos sure beats a few wayward selfies (which would no doubt peter out as the climb dragged on...).  A special thanks to her for admitting me this somewhat selfish pursuit in the middle of our honeymoon.

The Big Island was not the riding mecca that Maui was, that's for sure.  But it was fascinating in other ways.  I could see myself going there with the whole family, and only one (suitably geared) bike.  The focus of the trip would be the Volcanoes National Park, sunset or sunrise at the summit, turtles at the beaches and snorkelling over coral gardens, and when the weather conditions were just so, a half-day repeat mission up Mauna Kea.

As far as I'm concerned, this one goes in the win column, but the hill is still well and truly on my radar...

Next time I'm up there, I'm going to savour the view, that's for sure.  You certainly work hard for it!


  1. Jeepers bro, you sure take on some massive challenges! Great work and great words, as ever. Well done on such a good ride.

  2. Bro, that's incredible.

  3. You're amazing (and maybe a bit mad!). I felt like I was riding it with you - maybe I should some day.