Categorized | Featured, News

Care and caution urged for snowy fun


Mauna Kea summit as seen from Waimea.

Mauna Kea summit as seen from Waimea Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. (Photo by Baron Sekiya/

 KARIN STANTON/ Contributing Editor

Sure, it looks like fun. The snowy slopes of Mauna Kea are an inviting winter wonderland, but they also can be dangerous.

The storms before Christmas dumped several inches of the white stuff on the 13,796-foot mountain that reached down to the 11,000-foot level and it’s still deep enough for a good time above the 12,000-foot level.

The hotline (935-6268) reported the road was open to the summit Tuesday morning, with temperatures in high 30. Drivers are asked not to park on the cinder road, but drive all the way to the pavement in order to minimize traffic jams on the narrow cinder road.

Thousands of residents and visitors, as well as regularly scheduled summit tours, have ventured up the mountain to join in the frosty fun.

“The local people love it when it snows, love to come up and see it” said Ron Koehler, general manager for Mauna Kea Observatories Support Services. “From sliding around to skiing and snowboarding … and it’s very popular to fill up a pick up truck and drive back down to the beach. There’s a lot of snowmen.”

Koehler said a truck bed full of snow lasts a surprisingly long time.

“Ice has some very interesting properties,” he said. “Go test it. Dump ice cubes on the lawn and see how long they last.”

Snow, however, does melt and that is one of the reasons the summit access road has been closed on and off since the snow first fell. 

“When you have warm days, it melts and then freezes over again during the night,” Koehler said. “We really wait until the snow melts before we open the road because we have very little enforcement up there and can’t even restrict it to 4-wheel drive.”

Koehler said no major incidents or injuries have been reported.

“In general, the public behaves themselves. They’ve been very good,” he said.

He urged drivers to use caution on the slippery roads and be aware of braking use during the descent.

Koehler also reminded parents that the altitude can affect young children and it is not recommended they travel to the higher slopes where the oxygen is thinner. Parents especially should watch that children do not fall asleep, he said, “or there already could be a problem.” (See tips and guidelines below.)

Koehler said this much snow covering this much of Mauna Kea is remarkable for December, as the mountain typically gets more snow in February and March.

“We had some in early December, but not a lot. Then again the week before Christmas. It’s more for December than we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “It was pretty deep down to 11,000 feet. It’s been loer down before, but not as deep.”

Although there is no more snow forecast in the immediate future, Koehler said, “who knows what is going to happen” as winter progresses.

Meanwhile, island tour companies are enjoying the extra excitement snow brings.

Chris Colvin, sales and marketing manager for Hawaii Forest and Trail, said the sunset summit tour is the company’s most popular tour and sells out every night.

“Some people are shocked by the snow,” he said. “Most people think of Hawaii as sun, surf, palm trees and golf, so it’s nice to be able to surprise people.”

Others, however, are not impressed.

“For some visitors, it was snowy where they just left, so they are just not that into it,” he said.

Down at Kings’ Shops, the mountain seems to loom right over the parking lot.

Warren Higuchi, manager at Whaler’s General Store, said he enjoys the snowy view.

“There’s quite a bit actually,” he said. “It reminds us that the holidays are here and some of the local guys here rush up to play in the snow.”

Higuchi, who has been an avid skier for 16 years, said he has not made the trek up this year.

“My skiing is big resort skiing. I like big runs and not spending most of my time worrying about how I’m going to get back up.”

He does, however, enjoy watching Big Island visitors awe at Mauna Kea.

“The visitors, when they come here they don’t expect to see snow in Hawaii and they don’t realize how tall that mountain really is.”

It rises 13,796 feet above sea-level, but easily tops 30,000 feet when measured from the ocean floor. 


Experts offer the following guidelines when visiting Mauna Kea’s summit:

* Protect your heart – If you have a heart condition, do not ascend the mountain without checking with your physician. Your heart’s arterial vessels dilate with prolonged exposure to the high altitude. This increases the flow of blood to the cardiac muscle, so you should carefully monitor your physical activity and pulse rate, and pace yourself. Even light exertion at a high altitude may increase your pulse rate to more than 100 and put more demand on your heart. Altitude medicine can help this problem, but if you have cardiac artery disease, too much exertion could lead to a cardiac incident.

* Effect on respiration — Your respiratory rate will also increase. This may cause hyperventilation, which results in light-headedness and a general body tingling sensation.

* Protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation — At high altitudes, there is less of an atmosphere to filter out the harmful ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn. You may receive first-degree and even second-degree burns after only 15 minutes of unprotected exposure. As a precaution, wear sunscreen during the daytime, and watch out for white patches on your nose and ears. To protect your eyes from ultraviolet rays, wear dark glasses during the daytime.

* Other effects on your eyes — You may experience eye pain, decreased tolerance to light, and decreased night vision.

* Children under the age of 16, pregnant women, people in poor physical condition, and those with heart or respiratory problems should not travel above the Visitor Information Station.

* Don’t smoke — If you smoke, abstain from smoking for at least 48 hours before your ascent to allow the amount of carbon monoxide in your blood to decrease. The blood supply to your lungs will then increase, as will your breathing capacity, unless your lungs have been damaged by tobacco.

* Drink plenty of water — It provides your kidneys with enough fluid to work properly and avoids dehydration from pulmonary water losses. Your kidneys will dump their excess water and sodium to concentrate your blood, hastening your adaptation to low oxygen levels.

* Dress for cold weather and be prepared for sudden weather condition changes.

* Avoid gas-producing foods — Foods such as beans, onions, and cabbage may cause intestinal gas to expand, resulting in flatulence, bowel distension, and even pain at high altitudes.

* Headaches and impaired mental abilities — At high altitudes, your blood vessels dilate to increase the flow of oxygen-carrying blood to the brain. This may cause a pounding headache. Medication prescribed by a physician may partially compensate for this, but you should still be alert for other effects of decreased oxygen: impaired decision-making, memory, and mathematical ability.

* Do not scuba dive before ascent — Breathing at sea-level pressures allows nitrogen gas in your bloodstream to dissipate readily by exhalation; this process is greatly reduced at high altitudes, so you should not scuba dive for 24 hours prior to ascending the mountain. If you scuba dive below 50 feet within 12 hours of ascent, you risk formation of nitrogen bubbles in your joints and brain, a dangerous condition known as “the bends.” You should not ascend the mountain for at least 48 hours after you have dived below 100 feet

— Find out more:

University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy:

2 Responses to “Care and caution urged for snowy fun”

  1. Keahi Pelayo says:

    Thanks for the heads up.

  2. Kerwin Louis says:

    Thanks for the Jan. 1st update! We’re heading up to celebrate the new year!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.