Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Climbing Haleakala

When Cara said she wanted to go on a vacation I asked her where she wanted to go. Hawaii, she suggested.

Hawaii. I'd only been there once: to Oahu for a conference in Waikiki. Nice riding on Oahu, but I knew we'd not be going to Oahu this time. There was only one island which could be on this agenda.


Why? One word: Haleakala.

Ever since reading the description in John Summerson's book, I knew I had to go. In the rankings, only three climbs in the United States have a rating exceeding 6: Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire (6.45), Mauna Kea on the epinonymous island of Hawaii (6.33), and Haleakala (6.13). Of these, two have bike races. Of these two, only Haleakala is open to general bike traffic. Mauna Kea (and nearby Mauna Loa, rated 5.26) aren't paved to their summits. So of the four, the clear choice is Haleakala.

There are several ways to approach Haleakala. After all, the entire eastern half of Maui sits on the mountain, which rises from deep in the Pacific. At its historical height, Haleakala rose to 13 thousand feet above sea level, but with erosion it now just barely pokes it's head above 10 thousand: 10020 is the official peak elevation. I've ridden over 10 thousand feet before: in Colorado, in the Eastern Sierra. But Haleakala is different than these other climbs in that the climbing is essentially continuous from the beach. Paia, where August's Race to the Sun begins, is a small town abutting the ocean. Like the primordial fish, you could virtually ride your bike straight out of the Pacific and climb straight up the mountain.

I didn't do this. I was starting at the Paia Inn, which is next to Maui Cyclery, the excellent bike shop where the Race to the Sun begins. Elevation was probably 20 feet above the actual ocean, so if the ocean was at sea level (which it typically isn't), then that would be an even 10 thousand feet of climbing. My previous record climb was probably Horseshoe Meadow in the Eastern Sierra, which gains 6200 feet. My longest climb so far this year was the north side of Mount Diablo, which gains 3600 feet. So this climb would be longer than the two, combined, without a rest in between.

I was scared.

I asked for advice to Don, who runs the shop. "Keep pedaling," he said. That was it.

The locals typically do the climb with two bottles, refilling twice along the way. But I wasn't confident of my ability to quickly identify the water locations, and didn't want to have to negotiate with the sub-sized pockets on my Voler Team Roaring Mouse jersey over what precious few clothing items I'd bring for the potentially chilly descent. So I went conservative and in addition to my two bottles I brought my CamelBak Mule. This certainly wasn't the weight weenie's choice but it did eliminate any concerns over hydration or layering.

I really couldn't wrap my head around 10 thousand vertical feet, but I could handle the climb of Baldwin to Makewao. So after a protracted preparation of my Ritchey Breakaway, I set off. There was a block head wind up Baldwin, but I didn't care. This was all about settling in for the long haul. The grade barely touched 7% on this long, straight road, and was usually less.

starting the climb
Starting the climb (Cara Coburn)

Baldwin is somewhat spoiled by all the car traffic between Paia and Makewao. But there's no intersections, so no conflicts, and no hassles from the drivers. The miles passed one by one, and when seven of them did so, I reached the stop sign marking Makewao.

Car drivers would probably turn right here, but the preferred route for cyclists, and the route taken in the race, is to continue. I crossed this stop sign without issue. Here Baldwin turned into Olinda, and got steep, the steepest part of the whole climb. But with the climb barely 1/8th done, my thoughts were up the road. My Garmin grade indicator was hovering around 12%, but I just pedaled along.

Going the other direction I started seeing groups of riders descending the hill who were clearly part of the commercial operations which haul people up the hill in buses and let them ride back. Since they barely need to pedal the whole way, these riders were on comfy cruiser bikes. On their heads were full-face helmets. These groups used to descend from the summit, but after more than one fatality, the National Park Service put an end to all commercial bike operations in the park. The issue is the Park covers only the final 3 thousand feet of the climb, so instead these services take clients up to the summit, the clients take their quota of digital photos, then they get back into the buses and drive to just below the park boundary, descending from there.

There was a rest stop for the descenders at the one navigational challenge in the whole climb, the turn onto Hanamu Road. There's a sign mounted low on the street sign there which says "Haleakala", pointing the way to go, but since it's mounted so low it's easy to miss, and the road is relatively inconspicuous. But with the riders there, I had no problem identifying the road.

This is the one non-climbing portion of the route. Hanamu descends a bit, then rolls a bit to its end. I was a bit confused by the left at Kealaloa Ave, which I hadn't expected, before the second left shortly after onto Highway 377, which I had expected. But the way here was facilitated by the blue arrows painted on the opposite side of the road to help the descenders find their way.

377 is a wider, more heavily trafficked road which goes into the Maui Upcountry. Still, though, it's very nice riding, with a wide shoulder. Climbing steadily, I reached the 3000 foot elevation sign. Progress. But I'd decided I wasn't going to think too much about progress until I'd reached 4 thousand feet, which would mark the longest climb I'd done in 2011.

Soon after I passed paint on the road: "Feed Zone". This was clearly the first of likely two feed zones for Race to the Sun. It would be the perfect place for two fresh bottles did I not have the Camelbak.

The next and final turn of the route was the left onto Highway 378, Crater Road. As I expected, this was very well marked, with a sign identifying it as the route to the summit. There's no missing this left.

The next sign I saw was a bit sobering: "Mile 0". Crater Road is 22 miles of continuous climbing, and all 22 of those were ahead. This climb ranked up there in total climbing with anything I'd done, and I'd already been riding, and climbing, for well over an hour.

There's a few cattle grates on the road to the top. At the first, I saw some kids on skateboards hanging out at the side of the road. I wasn't sure what to make of that: were they hitch-hiking to the summit for a ride down the hill? That would be fairly extreme. Whatever they were doing there, they expressed approval at my crossing technique, which was to speed up a bit going into the cattle grate then move my weight back to get it off the front wheel, letting off the pedals just as my rear wheels were going to hit it. But these were fine grates, no issues.

I was looking forward to the 4000 foot sign because that would be confirmation this had been my longest climb this year. And soon enough there it was. Normally I'd feel better about having climbed 4000 vertical feet, but here it was just permission to begin thinking about how much I had left.

Next to the 8 mile sign I saw a man and a woman standing next to their tandem at the side of the road. "Only 14 miles to go!" I shouted enthusiastically and without irony. Close to 22 miles into the climb, I felt the end was near. "Only?!?" he responded.

The miles ticked by and, every 500 vertical feet, an altitude sign marked my climbing progress. These were occasionally augmented by road paint presumably for the racers. A few times there was even a message to "Breath" in blue paint. At 6000 vertical feet, I knew I was approaching not only my longest climb of the year, but my longest ever.... and at 6500 vertical that sealed the deal (okay, there is Climb to Kaiser, but that's really multiple climbs covering its over 8000 foot elevation difference from start to the turn-around).

Soon after I saw one of the "Descend Haleakala on a Bike" vans parked by the side of the road. A group of motorcycle-helmeted riders was lined up, straddling their cruiser bikes. Someone, presumably working for the company, was checking to make sure they could coast a few meters down the hill before launching them on their descent of close to 7000 vertical feet. I knew I must be close to the park entrance.

And there it was. Three cars were lined up at a ranger kiosk ready to pay their fees. I figured maybe I could cruise by, look as if I didn't need to pay, maybe try some of that Obi Wan Kenobi "weak minds" mind control, and they'd let me through. No such luck... they called me over.

I got off my bike and walked in my cleats to the kiosk, rudely cutting in front of the lead car. I hoped to get this done quickly. However, perhaps I could have done so if I'd just tossed $5 at them and gone on my way, but since I'd be coming up here again the next day with Cara, and since we wanted to visit the park again later in the week, a pass made more sense. So I instead paid $25 for the annual pass. This took several minutes, during which I couldn't resist expressing my feelings about cyclists being asked to pay 3 times as much, per person, as an SUV with 6 people. It just seemed yet another example of the park services catering to car drivers.

Finally I had my pass and, after apologizing to the hidden occupants of the vehicles I'd cut off, I continued on the hill. The short rest coupled with little adrenalin boost from the conversation with the rangers really helped me here, and the accumulated fatigue from the long climb to this point seemed to have disappeared. Less than Mount Diablo remained, and I knew I could climb Mount Diablo.

7000 feet ticked by soon after. No paint on the road for this one: the parks don't allow road markings by event organizers, as I learned the hard way from having missed a turn at Climb to Kaiser my first time there.

As I climbed, I admired not only the incredible view of the distant shore, but also how the vegetation had so drastically changed. The trees had disappeared, replaced with bushes. And as I climbed further even these became more sparse.

I saw another altitude sign. Which was that? I thought maybe 8000, but looking at my time, surely I'd gone further.

And indeed I had: not long after the observation building came into view, and past that the observatory. It was a decent distance, but not 2000 vertical feet. I was in the end game.

I tried to ramp up the effort a bit here but at close to 10 thousand feet this is fairly futile. There's just not enough O2 available. So instead I continued on with my endurance mode.

The visitor's center appeared on the left, but the observation building was still ahead. Obviously the Strava climb didn't end at the visitor's center, so I continued. The road here became substantially steeper: I watched as my Garmin grade display went up to 12%... 13%... 14% before retreating again. It felt around 12%, but that wasn't a problem with my 36/26 low gear. But the clock was ticking.

As I hit the parking lot of the observation building I felt a brief wave of euphoria. I'd done it! But not quite yet, as a paved pedestrian path still went up to the building itself. I was going to take no chances with the Strava segment. I steered my way around the pedestrians and rode up the steep path. Now I was truly done. A glance at my lap timer showed I'd come in just under 4 hours: 3:53:11 by Strava's reckoning.

Not surprisingly, the tourists at the observation building were impressed with what I had done. A few even wanted to take my photo. I just passed on the advice I had been given: "keep pedaling". It works.

After admiring the view, and sending text messages to Cara, I began my descent. Not much to say about this, although the tailwind assist I got on Baldwin for the final miles into Paia and back to Maui Cyclery was fun.


TCM said...

truly incredible. i like the description of the skaters and of the vegetation change. on a hot day i wonder if there is a risk of brake failure... but i guess you pump the brakes, coast for most of the descent, and also sit up to create more drag. otherwise would all your potential energy at 10,000 feet turn into thermal energy within your brake pads? i suppose the air passing over the brakes helps keep them cool, unlike in a car (and of course a car has much more mass)... haleakala is like climbing black mountain 5 times in a row... ouch... well done!

djconnel said...

Thanks for the nice words! On the braking: I think the descent has a gradual enough grade that wind resistance can do an adequate job controlling speed without brake heating. I only really needed to brake for corners, and so the rims had time to cool between those. What's toughest on rims, I think, are roads at least 9% or so with frequent turns where you pretty much need to brake constantly to keep your speed within safe limits, and the difference between target speed and terminal speed is much greater.

Alexander said...

Nice report. I did this climb in April by tagging along to Donnie's organized ride so we had a little group with support pickup carrying water and food! The rest stops however slowed me down a bit. May be I'll do this ride again non-stop to get actual (not riding) time <4h.
The last steep part was pretty hard after all the climbing (I had 34/27 gearing). You don't use breaks much on the descent but holding a tuck for an hour was hard.
One crazy idea I have now it to climb it twice back-to-back ;-)

djconnel said...

Donnie is a really nice guy. It would be fun to do the ride at a relaxed pace with him.

On the descent my time was quite unimpressive, but I wasn't in a hurry, admiring the view down even more than up, where I was focused on the physical challenge.

Funny you mention the double: I'd thought the same thing. I wouldn't do it solo; that would seem "stupid-hard", but as an event ride it would be quite a do-able challenge: a bit over 150 miles and around 20500 feet of climbing. Even with 5 hour ascents that can be finished in summer daylight without problem.

Dave said...

Hey guys,

Enjoyed your post-I love reading and discussing all things cycling, Maui, and Haleakala! Just wanted to mention I rode the double yesterday, it's been on my mind lately for some reason and my wife and I are on island for two weeks...I usually do the Haleakala ride once or twice whenever we're over here but that's usually in the fall when I've been training/riding all summer (we live in Park City, Utah so don't ride during the winter). Prior to this trip my long ride this spring was 1.5 hours/2500 feet of vert. Rode one Haleakala last weekend at moderate pace (4 hours ride time, my fastest is a 3:23) and with a bad forecast for wind (we come here mainly to kitesurf) I decided to try the double. Started at 5:30 from Paia, did the first one by myself, then my buddy Chuck tagged along as moral support for the second one. Finished at 5pm in absolute pouring freezing rain on top, so no possible way to do the second descent, my wife thankfully picked us up and drove down (Donnie at Maui Cyclery said he'd never heard of anyone doing two full doubles, the few who finished the second climb also got a ride down). I was feeling pretty good considering, had plenty of daylight and would definitely have ridden down but there's a strage weather pattern with kona winds and the clouds/rain lasted all the way down to sea level and it was 40 degrees at the top. Anyway, it was hard as hell, especially without training for it, but glad I checked it off the list.

djconnel said...


I am in awe. I am not the slightest bit tempted to try and repeat your truly impressive accomplishment. Just doing three Mount Diablos, each around 1/3 of Haleakala, was hard enough for me. It was nice having a friend to lend moral support.


Dave said...

Hey Dan,

Not really sure why (mid-life crisis? Lack of wind for kitesurfing?) I did the triple this past November...started at 11pm, finished at 7pm the next day. I don't really recommend it but it hadn't been done before so figured I wasn't getting any younger, might as well do something memorable. The first climb under a full moon and on a deserted mountain was pretty cool; the first descent was frigid and miserable. The third climb (a couple buddies joined me for moral support) was unspeakably hot and humid. But the sunset from the upper mountain made me forget (almost) the pain.

Hope you've had some epic cycling experiences lately too!