Monday, January 18, 2010

4926 Miles Traveled + 12 very difficult and important miles

Maui, HI
Very overcast with drizzles, completely clear above 4,000 ft.

Clearly I have no foresight, because today’s intensity makes yesterday seem tame. Today, we climbed into the eroding valley of the mountain/volcano Haleakala, also known as a crater, then back out again. Sounds easy right? Well, that’s what we thought before we walked twelve miles with almost 7,000ft elevation change. We began at 5:45 this morning, and were packed into the car and on our way by 6:30. We drove a windy 38 mile road from sea level to 10,000 ft, one of the highest elevation changes in the shortest distance in the world. Near the shore it was drizzly, but up that high we were several thousand feet above the cloud cover, so no rain for us.
Denny and David told us that this hike was so remarkable because of the transitions from different areas based on the relative elevations and humidity. We were told that we would start at the top, where it would be about twenty degrees and possibly snowing, walk down through a desert, then a rainforest, and then finally up again to a semi-arid area. Basically… our entire biomes trip in about 6 hours. We were dressed in some serious layers. Also, we were told that a liter and a half of water would definitely be sufficient.

When we arrived at the summit it was about fifty degrees and even though it was just past eight, the sun was beating down like no other. I was in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect myself from the sun, and I thought I was very clever. (again, no foresight) The only wildlife in sight (this should have been an indication) was an invasive bird species from Afghanistan called the Chukar. We had to go in separate groups, but we soon caught up to one another. The walk down was very steep and alternated between insanely sandy and insanely rocky. At the top, there were absolutely no plants. Suddenly, in a matter of feet, we began to see the “silver sword.” It’s a small succulent with a white powder that is natural sunscreen for the plant. Then there are some yellow flowers, a few dry bushy plants, and surprisingly, bracken fern.

Other than the few splotches of plants on the more humid side of the mountain, it looked like Mars. Much of the landscape was covered in reddish rocks and sand. We walked and walked and walked. And then we walked some more. And then we walked an extra loop to see “Pele’s Paintpot,” which is an extension of the erosional valley where sand had blown away to expose multi-colored minerals streaming down the side of huge sand dunes and lava cones. It was quite remarkable.

Then we walked some more and came upon a small cabin available for rent, with some non-potable water (those with filters filled up), and stopped for lunch around 1:15. The sun was burning hot, and there hadn’t been a single tree during the entire hike. Becky and I sat fantasizing about the upcoming rainforest and how amazing it would be to see trees and the huge mossy beds that Denny had described. When Denny arrived to eat his lunch, we asked how long it would be till we got to the rainforest, and he said quite hesitantly, “Well… it’s more of a… dry rainforest.”

It turns out that this year had been significantly dryer than it had been during the last Biomes trip, and the beautiful cloud forest that had kept up moving was now completely nonexistent. Instead, we had another four miles through more bone-dry landscape. And three of those miles were switch-backs when we went from around 6000 ft back to 9000 ft. And as a group, we were running out of water.

Doubtless, this was one of the most beautiful and shocking hiking trips I have ever taken. The ruggedness of the terrain coupled with the stark differences between the humid and the arid sides of the mountain were absolutely amazing. But it was hard to focus on the closely coupled completely polar climates when you had to constantly look down to make sure you weren’t about to lose your footing and tumble several thousand feet to your death below. Also, the intense chafing from my long sleeve shirt really didn't feel so nice. The switchbacks alternated between the cool, breezy side with small trees and tons of gorgeous ferns, and the dry, hot, breezeless side overlooking the huge valley.

We all ran out of water about a mile before the top. I don’t think I have ever been thirstier in my entire life. The first moment I saw the cars parked at the top, I made a noise that made Matt turn around and check to make sure I was still in one piece. We all arrived back at the parking lot, took a group picture, griped at Denny about misleading us about the rainforest, and then went to a traditional Hawaiian restaurant called “Da Kitchen.” I scarfed down a bowl of noodles and three different drinks, then we went grocery shopping, and then finally home to shower and relax.
It was a completely intense and sublime day.

Jan 18, 2010

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