Friday, January 31, 2014

The Maui Report Part I - The Ride up Haleakala

The Maui Report

Part One – The Ride up Haleakala


 To Hell and Back


 Climb to the Sun Highway


I Really Hope the Brakes Work on this Rental!

I’d been talking about it for months.  The ride up the Haleakala Volcano.

There was only really one rule - start and finish at sea level.  

Oh, and don't get eaten by angry lava monsters or fall off the volcano!
The map of my route, plus the elevation chart.  Straight up, straight down.
It took us an hour of driving blind in the dark to find the Paia Beach to start the ride.  There aren’t too many street lights on Maui, so when the sun’s down, it’s dark!  Our hosts at the B&B had packed us a picnic breakfast: yogurt with granola, banana bread, juice and fruit cup.  Delicious and perfect.  Once we found the beach front, I scarfed down the breakfast and got my gear rigged to ride.  Then it was a short trot down to the waters edge to kick off the ride properly by dipping my toe into the Pacific Ocean, proving that I’d started at sea level.  Like I said, it was pitch black and the waves were crashing hard.  With no other sound to soften their blows, it was really intimidating to walk out there in the dark.  (side note: Char and I had to stop and watch the burrowing sand crabs)

I rolled out of the beach lot at 6:38 am, still dark and difficult to see where I was going, praying that the cars rushing down the highway into Paia would see me and not run me over. Hey, West Maui Cycles, how about some lights on your rental bikes?  And, while you’re at it, how about a cyclocomputer so I know how far I’ve ridden and how fast I’m not climbing?

For those that care, here's the ride analysis data.
The first few miles were gorgeous as the sun slowly rose and I could enjoy the tropical paradise around me.  There were old missionary churches, cemeteries, cattle and horse farms along the road.  There was nowhere to look without a spectacular view.  Within the first hour, I had climbed a 1000 feet and was able to look back down the slopes to the ocean where the sun had risen enough to reflect off the water on the north shore.  Just shy of Makawao, another rider caught up to me and introduced himself.  Tyson from Santa Cruz and I would spend the next 5 hours fighting our way to the top of the volcano.
Our goal, still 9,000 feet above us.
We cruised through Makawao, the cowboy town complete with a general store, and hit the first steep pitch of the day.  It was barely 200m but rose straight up the hillside.  My heart rate spiked and our legs burned, and this was only a preview of what awaited us farther up.

In the town of Kula we stopped at the Kula Marketplace, supposedly the last place to get any water before reaching the National Park.  The pull off rested on a 30 foot cliff above the store, and we pondered how to get down to it without breaking our necks.  Tyson took a small winding sidewalk that twisted through some potted flowers and dropped straight down the steep side of the hill.  I hesitated at the entrance, thinking about how badly this was going to end for me, when a kind gentlemen leaned out his car window and pointed out the main entrance about 40 feet down the road.  Much easier for me to go down and then back up again without breaking my skull.

Back on the road, our climbing started to increase in steepness, and we rode into a beautiful dark pine forest.  By now we were at about 4000 feet and looking forward to reaching the half way up point.  I must point out that we were also already 3 hours into the ride and weren’t halfway done climbing yet.  We had also been watching the tour groups of folks riding bikes down the road, waving and gawking at us as we slowly spun up the volcano.  Local tour companies drive paying clients up the volcano, fit them with cold weather gear and full face helmets, then let them coast down the roads.  That was starting to sound like a lot more fun than we were having.

To the west we could see the mountains on West Maui peaking through gaps in the eucalyptus trees.  Tyson asked about those, and I told him that the peak, Mt. Pu'u Kukui, is only about 5700 feet.  We realized we’d be well above that in no time.  Once we rode out of the forest and onto the grass lined switchbacks, I noticed that my heart rate was way above my comfort zone and knew that there was no way I was going to maintain our pace.  I told Tyson to go on, that I needed to throttle back a little.  We parted ways temporarily right at the 5000 ft mark.  I made it to the 5500 ft mark before I stopped to take a picture and stretch my legs out. 

Starting at 1000 feet, someone painted these friendly reminders of how far I had to go.

I never thought I would stop while climbing a hill, but 36 miles is a long ways to go straight up.  Restarting was difficult, the Specialized Roubaix that I had rented had a different balance than my personal Cannondale Synapse.  When I pushed down and stood up to clip in, the front tire came off the ground and I almost found myself skidding off the road and down several thousand feet of volcanic terrain.  It took me a couple tries to figure out how to restart uphill with this new bike, but eventually I had it figured out and didn’t kill myself trying.

The view from 5500 feet.  In the distance, Mt. Pu'u Kukui at 5700 feet.  To the right you can barely see down to the north coast near where I had started before sunrise.
As I continued on, I made a promise to stop roughly every 1000 feet of climbing.  That gave me a goal to work towards and prevented me from exhausting myself and failing.  I held out past the 6500 mark until I hit the ranger station at 6700 and paid my $5 fee.  Most depressing and bitter park ranger ever.  He needed a yogi bear in his life.
Lonely rider, Tyson, making his way up the volcano.
When I reached the park visitors center, at about 7300, Char was there waiting and she switched my water bottles out and I took off right away.  

Warning for the local Nene bird, of which I did see one while climbing but was too tired to get a picture of.
With only 3000 feet to go, I should have been happy but the climb just continued to get more difficult.  The altitude started working into my head, and several times I wondered if I was going to pass out, throw up or start giggling to death.  It got really weird around 8000 feet when I looked down the mountain and saw that the clouds had moved in and were almost chasing me up the volcano.  I swung my leg over my back to stand beside it and almost fell over.  My thighs were quivering, my calves screaming and I was a little dizzy.  I forced water down my throat, and stretched as best I could. 

Being chased up the volcano by the cloud layer was disconcerting and I started worrying about my descent.
I stopped again after passing the 9000 foot marker.  There was a pull off for cars that I chose and stretched out my legs again.  The shaking was less severe and I was thinking a little clearer.  Or, perhaps, altitude sickness was setting in and I couldn’t tell how bad off I was.

At 9700 feet, I pulled into a large parking lot where Tyson was pulling on his cold weather gear.  He’d only made it about 10-15 minutes ahead of me.  Sitting on the sidewalk, we realized the actual summit was another .8 miles uphill, the steepest pitch on the entire ride, so he took off to make his summit bid and I got dressed for my attempt.  Somewhere around 8500 feet it had cooled off significantly, but I hadn’t really noticed until I stopped.  Now, I was freezing.  All the cold weather gear I had crammed into my pockets suddenly seemed like a great idea, even if some of it was damp from sweat or humidity. 

Char took this picture from the summit, of Tyson and I resting and pulling on winter gear.
The last climb to the summit was by far the worst and best part of the entire ride.  It’s only 8/10 of a mile, but is also one of the steepest pitches, over a 14% grade, and sucks the very last bits of energy and hope right out of your body.  However, you know it’s all over and you crest the hill grinning like an idiot as you pass the 10,000 feet sign.

Depleted but exhilarated that I was finished climbing.
The view awaiting me at the top.
Char was waiting for me in the parking lot and stared at me like I was an idiot when I picked up the bike to carry it (while running) the additional 23 feet up the stairs to the true summit of Haleakala.  At the time it made sense to me, and I have no idea where the energy came from to do it.  Four days later we would drive up the volcano and the same stairs would leave me breathless and dizzy from walking up.

We even took some glamour shots to prove I had survived and not fallen off the volcano or been eaten by a lava monster.

I stole food and water from Char and began my descent.  I had looked forward to this part all day long, but now wasn’t so sure.  It was cold.  Really cold.  The moisture from the clouds combined with the speed of my descent cut right through my gear and my whole core was frozen.  I’m sure that I was borderline hypothermic on the descent, and at one point was shivering so badly that the bike started bouncing on the road.  The switchbacks meant that I had to brake hard and bleed off speed constantly, and my hands started to cramp.  I expected to begin warming up as I passed through the thermal layer at 5000 feet, but no such luck.

It wasn’t until I’d made it back to Makawao that I felt warmth creeping back into my body.  Then the descent leveled out and I had to pedal to keep up with traffic.  Of course, that was probably the best thing for my body and I pedaled my butt off, easily outpacing several cars trying to follow me down.  The more I pedaled, the warmer I got and the more energy I seemed to find.  I soared around open sweeping turns through fields of sugarcane finally stopping to downgrade my gear with a couple miles to go.  It had taken over five and a half hours to climb, but less than an hour to descend.

Once back in Paia, I ripped off my shoes and picked up the bike for the walk down to the shore.  People were sunbathing, surfing and relaxing along the shoreline, and I probably looked like an idiot, but nothing would stop me from finishing in style.

From 0 feet to 10,000 feet elevation, 72 total miles.  No lava monsters.

I burned over 4000 calories during the ride, so I was promised I could relax and eat/drink whatever I wanted at that night's luau.

It wasn't until a few days later that I would come to terms with the enormity of my ride up Haleakala. On our drive to Hana on the far east coast I would gaze up at the volcano in one of the few moments that it wasn't shrouded in a cloud layer.  Staring up at the naked rocky ridge at 10,000 feet from sea level, I suddenly questioned my own sanity in attempting to climb it in the first place.  I was able to snap a shot of the volcano after sunrise during the marathon that captured some of the majesty for me.  But the greatest emotional impact came from driving up the volcano later that week, and staring down at the expanse of the island and realizing just how far above everything we were at the top.

Stay tuned for the second part of the Maui Report, where Char and I go on a 50 mile ride in search of fish tacos.