I was a meat popsicle on a Hawaiian volcano

  • Friday, February 14, 2014 4:52 PM
    Message # 1498461

    Jan 31 2014 - Haleakala

    "Haleakala is simultaneously the longest paved continuous climb in the world as well as the shortest ascent from sea level to 10,000 feet in the world. Though not terribly steep, this is a long, grinding climb that will reduce a strong rider to a whimpering lump." Velominati

    Criminy, who writes this stuff?  Let’s do the numbers: 10000 feet of elevation gain in 36 miles.  That does sound scary.  I’ve never climbed steadily for 36 miles before.   The good news is that the average gradient is an easy, consistent 5%.  It surprises me that such a relaxed grade will get you so high over so short a distance.  There’s certainly nothing even remotely resembling this back home, where grade profiles resemble a Great White’s dental films.

    It’s rained 6 out of 8 days during our Maui trip, so I have to settle for one ride in paradise.  Of course, it’s gotta be Haleakala.  It’s on everyone’s bucket list.  People come from all over the world to attempt it between Mai Tai’s and whale watching. 

    If you do your homework, this ride could easily be done unsupported, but I just want to ride and not have to think about anything else.   Serving the guys-like-me market is the bread and butter of Maui Cycling, which has a perfect bike-and-guide package. The vibe at the shop is relaxed and improvisational, like they’re making it up as they go along.  Sitting at the base of the climb, at 10 feet above sea level, the shop also happens to be the start of the bottom-to-top Strava segment.  This ride isn’t a favorite of the locals- they’ll tell you there are better rides on Maui.  But they understand why people want to do it, and it does keep the cash register ringing…beeping…whatever it is that cash registers do these days.

    Three different people at the shop warn me about how cold it can get at the summit.  They outfit me with arm and knee warmers, winter gloves to add to the windbreaker stuffed in my jersey pockets.  As we set off from the bike shop in Paia, it’s warm and humid, and the concept of cold weather seems a distant abstraction.

    My guide is Greg Oravetz, an ex-pro, who was on the Coors Light team from 1989 to 1995, where he was a teammate of famous dudes like Davis Phinney and Greg Lemond.   If you’re a fan of cycling from that era- and who isn’t? - you’ll have heard of him.  There’s plenty of stuff on the web about him, like this cool old picture I found of him.  He knows a lot of people, knows a lot of stuff, and has plenty to say and stories to tell.  Like many cyclists I’ve met, he’s done everything and been everywhere,  the kind of guy who makes me wonder what the heck I’ve done with my life.  Honestly, I don’t know, which is why I started writing this journal.  Anyway, he’s good company.

    We’re rolling at 8:20AM.  Greg sets a pace that’s perfect for me, as if he’s ridden with me before.   His pace is steady, the grade is steady, and but we’re not going steady, because we’re both happily married.  As we talk, the scenery rolls by and the sun shines.  I love upcountry Maui- lush, verdant, bucolic, luau, hula girl, Jack Lord, Don Ho.   I’m marking the journey not by distance, but in elevation.  It’s not about the miles, it’s about the feet.  

    1600 feet (7 miles):  We pass through the town of Makawao, where Greg lives.  He tells me that at this point, many riders come to the realization that they’ve started out too fast, but I’m feeling fine.  Leaving town, Greg warns me that there’s short, steep section.  The gradient barely rises into double digits.  Are you kidding me?  You call this steep?  Come to Sonoma, pal, and I’ll show you steep.  As it turns out, Greg used to train in Sonoma County with Greg Lemond.

    3200 feet (13.5 miles): We stop in Kula to fill some containers and drain others.  There is a layer of overcast overhead.   As we continue our ascent, I can occasionally see the sun trying to burn through a thin spot in the clouds, but the clouds refuse to yield.

    5000 feet:  We are riding into the clouds.  Some patches look threateningly dark.  Around 6000 feet, Greg, thinking we we’re dealing with the usual inversion layer, says that hopefully the cloud is only a couple thousand feet thick, that eventually we’ll rise above it.  That’s why there’s observatories up there, because you’re above the weather, dig?  That’s where people shoot all the spectacular pictures you see on the web.  I’m looking forward to a transformative vision, and if not, I’ll settle for a memorable view, which I’ll never remember unless I remember to take a picture.

    7000 feet (25 miles):  We stop for a picture at the park entrance.  I’m beginning to feel the strain a bit.  Maybe it’s the altitude, or perhaps 25 miles of steady climbing is taking its toll.  It doesn’t worry me much, though.  If I’m pacing myself well, I should be feeling it by now.

    8000 feet:  I’m starting play mind games with myself.  I tell myself that the remaining climb is the equivalent to one trip up Mt Tam.  Then I ask myself, “Is that supposed to make you feel better?”  I resort to my usual trick: “This road is flat compared to Sonoma Mountain Road.  Only a wuss would call this a climb.”  That helps.  So does Greg; following his wheel gives me something to concentrate on rather than how I’m feeling.   The guy is a human metronome.

    9000 feet:  We’re swimming through an atmospheric ocean.  Visibility is maybe 100 yards.  We’ve passed a few scenic overlooks, but there’s nothing to see but the inside of a cloud.  I’d be really cold if I weren’t working so hard; as it is, my fingers are in full Raynaud’s lockdown.  The exertion is tinged with an odd tang.  It just feels…different.  The altitude, perhaps?   I’m breathing T’Pau’s words: “The air is the air.  What can be done?”  Where is Bones with his Tri-Ox compound when you need him?

    10000 feet (35 miles):  The wind is fierce, its icy fingers penetrating me as if I were insulated by nothing but two thin layers of Lycra and body fat.  As we approach the upper parking lot, Greg cramps; I yell, “Attack!” and surge by him.  Take that, Mr. Ex-Pro!  We ride up a paved path that leads to a concrete and glass observation room, jump off our bikes and run inside.  Thankfully, it’s like three degrees warmer in there.   I look out the plate glass at the rivers of gray mist driven by the howling wind. 

    Yo Adrian!  I did it!  It seems strangely anticlimactic.  There’s no relishing the accomplishment or savoring the moment- all I can think about is getting the heck outta here before hypothermia becomes a serious problem.  Haleakala has not turned me into a “whimpering lump”, just a shivering one.  I came here came for a spectacular climb to a spectacular natural wonder.   I’m sure it is spectacular, if only I could see it.

    Inside the shelter, visitors look at us like we’re crazy or just plain stupid.  Greg stretches his cramping legs.  I slurp a GU to provide fuel for the furnace.  We pull on our extra clothes and dart outside into the icy gale for a hasty picture in front of the elevation sign.  We begin the descent knowing it’s going to be only one thing: miserable.  Our salvation lies in getting down the mountain as quickly as possible.

    Where we’re protected from the wind, it’s really cold; where we’re exposed, it’s scary cold.  In good conditions, this would be an epic descent, but the road is wet and so are our brakes, so we have to check our speed and ride gingerly.  Constant braking and the twisting road necessitate that we ride in the drops.  Our bikes are visibly wobbling because we’re shivering so violently.  After only a few minutes, my shoulders and neck are killing me, which is not a problem I usually have.

    7000 feet:  We’re at the lower visitor center.  We stumble into the lobby, complaining of the cold to the park ranger who greets us.  “Are you asking for help?”- she says it with the tone of an official inquiry.  She wants to be clear about inquiring after our welfare.  We wouldn’t be the first hypothermic cyclists to get hauled off this mountain in an ambulance.  Donny, at Maui Cyclery, told me that when someone leaves in the morning with one of his rental bikes headed for the summit and fails to return in the afternoon, it’s often because they’re being rewarmed in an emergency room.  Greg and I head to the men’s room and take long turns in front of the hand drier.   After about 10 minutes, we resume our descent.  I’m feeling a little better, and take heart that as we lose altitude we gain warmth, that before long we’ll be out of the cloud and in the sun.  Yes, things are looking up at last.  Then the downpour starts.

    Although it seems interminable, it probably lasts just a few minutes- but long enough to leave us thoroughly drenched.  We become unhinged, and yell strange primal screams of defiance, of despair, of cold, of general outfreakage. 

    Around 5000 feet, we drop out of the bottom of the cloud.  At last, a view!  Blue skies in the distance, the isthmus spread out below us.  It’s warmer here.  At 4400 feet, an hour after we began our descent, we stop a roadside coffee stand and sit at a metal table in the sun.   We linger there, recovering.  I spread the palms of my hands out on the warm metal tabletop.  Eventually, circulation returns to my fingers, my shoulder and neck stop hurting, and I stop shivering.  Warmth, blessed warmth.

    The rest of the ride is a treat.  Reversing our ascent, it all looks entirely different to me, as if we are on different roads.  I must’ve been concentrating during the climb; now I’m free to take it all in.  I sure would like to have a house here.  How many other people have thought that?  Probably everyone who’s been here.  Before I know it, we’re back in Paia.  It took 4 hours to get to the top; an hour and 20 minutes to get back down.

    I hang around the shop for a bit, change clothes, shoot the bull, pay the bill.  I hand Greg a $20 tip- is that enough?   Those guys are right- there are better rides.  There must be.  Actually, they’ve given me my next bucket list ride- the east island loop, through Hana, Kipahulu and the upcountry.   Greg tells me it would take 6.5 to 8 hours.  I must, nay, will do this, preferably before I die.

    As for Haleakala, no amazing vistas, no otherworldly summitscape, no epic descent.  I’m glad I did it, but it sure would’ve been nice to see something other than fog for half the ride.  As far as I’m concerned, Halekala needs to get its aloha back.

  • Sunday, March 22, 2015 9:57 PM
    Reply # 3262076 on 1498461

    Great story, Matt!  Well told!

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