This guest post is from Jonathan Musgrave, a reader who lives out in Colorado. This is an inspiring, truly epic ride, one for the bucket lists. I’m green with envy! You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @orijonal. Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing this with us.
My journey to Haleakala began on a frigid early August climb up Fremont Pass near Copper Colorado. Somewhere along the climb, I met a chatty rider who had traveled to Colorado many times for this ride, the Copper Triangle, from his home state of Hawaii. I ignorantly joked that climbing the Rockies must be a big difference from the flat riding he was used to back home. He laughed politely, and began telling me about Haleakala.
Haleakala means “house of the sun.” It is a massive volcano that rises straight out of the Pacific Ocean to form 75% of the landmass of the Hawaiian island of Maui. The peak is 10,023 ft above sea level, with another 19,680 feet of mountain hidden beneath the ocean (at 29,703 total ft, Haleakala is 675 ft taller than Mt Everest). According to legend, the demigod Maui roped the sun and forced it to shine in this place longer than anywhere else on the island (research has confirmed that the mountain does enjoy an average 8 minutes more sunlight than the rest of the island). What makes this particular volcanic mountain different from others is the road to the summit. It is the longest, steepest paved road and the shortest distance from sea level to 10,000 ft on the planet. When Aaron registered the domain steepclimbs.com, he had to purchase the rights from the demigod Maui (fact checking is currently underway on this tidbit…).
It just so happened that this year marked my wonderful wife’s 30th birthday. In lieu of gifts, she prefers trips for her milestone birthdays, so the big ‘three-oh’ meant a return trip to her favorite destination, Maui. Having just scheduled the vacation weeks before the Copper Triangle, and only a matter of days before I announced the surprise to my wife, I knew during that climb up Fremont Pass that I would ride Haleakala on our trip in November.
The road to Haleakala’s summit starts in the sleepy beach town of Paea. Renowned for its close proximity to the 120 foot waves of Jaws, the town’s most famous resident Willie Nelson, and the “culture cloud” that follows Willie –- Paea is the Boulder, CO of Hawaii. I was fortunate enough to rent an Orbea Orca bike from Go Cycling Maui, a local shop owned by Donnie Arnoult, former Colorado resident and host of the annual Cycle To The Sun race up Haleakala.
Donnie felt like a friend before I ever shook his hand. Over the phone he helped me reserve a bike from his shop and gave me ample and accurate preparation info. In person, he was like an old college buddy talking about bike gear, and giving me fresh apple-bananas he picked for me that morning off the banana tree in his front yard. According to Donnie, it is not advised to attempt climbing Haleakala without eating at least one apple-banana (named because they “contain the deliciousness of both an apple and a banana in one wrapper”).
I made a conscious decision to ride this at a purposefully casual pace. For one, I was attempting a bigger climb than I had ever done before. I also had only one shot at this climb –- if I blew up half-way through the ride, there was not the luxury of attempting it another day. More than anything else though, I was doing the ride unsupported –- I was on my own for hydration, nutrition and tech, so I carried everything I would need. Because I tend to ride hardest when I ride by myself, executing this deliberate pace would take some discipline. Before the ride, I completely removed speed from my Garmin’s display. The only screen I had to look at contained elevation, average pace, distance and grade.
House of the Sun. The name implies constant rays of sunshine. Having completed the ascent up Haleakala, I feel like “House of the rain, clouds, fog, vog, and some sun” would be a more accurate handle (though it just doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, and I would hate to anger a demigod). Names aside, the climb is a veritable tour of ecosystems featuring beaches, sugar cane filled plains, rainforests, hardwood forests, dry high plains, and lunar-like volcanic wasteland.
“It’ll feel like you have a midget standing on your handlebars blowing delicious oxygen directly into your mouth.” They were the words of wisdom my cousin Mark begat to me as he described the difference between riding at a mile-high vs. riding at sea-level. He was right. The first seven miles were very constant 4-5% grades that felt just like riding in the Rockies, and that midget was firmly affixed to my handlebars. The oxygen was delicious. My heart-rate was low, legs had full power, and I was feeling great. Here, the road was like riding through a green tunnel with 12-foot walls of sugar cane on each side. I had to consciously avoid staring at their mesmerizing rhythm, swaying and bending in the trade winds. Along the way, Velominati had stamped their emblazoned cog in the bike lane with elevation milestones every 500 to 1,000 ft – each one of these was occasion for a mini party in my head. These intermittent reminders to keep breathing, drinking and eating, made me feel like a coach was riding along with me.
“Right at the rodeo.” I repeated these simple instructions from Donnie a thousand times until I reached the only right turn on the route. The consequences of missing the turn are an agonizing 1,700 ft of additional climbing. After passing through the town of Makawao (mack-a-wow), I easily spotted the sign for the rodeo and made the turn. For the next 7 miles I continued my journey through the various ecosystems of the mountain and arrived at the town of Kula, my only scheduled stop. A fresh Camel-bak of water, 2 bottles of electrolyte drink, a few photos later and I was off.
Immediately after leaving Kula, I took final turn into the Haleakala State Park. A 10% constant grade up a relentless series of switchbacks was waiting to welcome me to the park. My time on the trainer was paying off, my legs felt great, and I powered up the hills at a brisk pace. Soon I broke out of the last wooded forest of the climb, and I realized the profundity of the name “house of the sun.” The rapid switchbacks finally ended, and I enjoyed 5% grades in a long straightish traverse across the NW face of the mountain.
Throughout the whole ride, I watched packs of visitors on bikes coming down the mountain. Think your dad, his dad, and a swarm of 20-30 tourists ranging from the Deep South to south-east Asia on full suspension mountain bikes simultaneously grabbing two fist-fulls each of squeaky mechanical disks. They didn’t seem to understand why I was riding up the mountain. I could see the compassion in their faces as they looked at me, and assumed I was separated from my group and going the wrong way. Velo infractions aside, they were a welcome source entertainment and even passed on the occasional cheer of encouragement.
Just past 6,500 ft, the ride took on an entirely different character. I passed through the toll gate for the park and paid my $5 fee. Immediately I began a new series of broader, steeper switchbacks and started pedaling into a cloud of vog. Donnie had warned me about this stuff; it’s a fog created by the sulfer dioxide issuing out of active volcanos on the big island. Trade winds carry the stuff north-west for the other islands to enjoy. Though normally affecting only the kona (southernly aspect) of the other islands, Donnie’s vog tracking iPhone app indicated that the wind direction today would create a vog problem on the climb – potentially decreasing the breathable oxygen by 35%.
Vog is nasty stuff to cycle through – think being downwind at a bonfire meeting an army of commercial-grade humidifiers ganging up on you. The high altitude was familiar to me, but the added oxygen loss from the vog zapped the power from each stroke I took. By 7,500 feet, I was through the vog, and both breathing and muscle strength was restored. The temperature had fallen from 80 degrees in Paea to around 60 degrees here.
From 8,000 feet to the summit, I was enthralled in the otherworldly views of my surroundings. Looking down on the vog and cloud layer gave me an ethereal feeling I couldn’t shake, and on every side I saw a landscape forged in volcanic ruins. It really felt like being on another planet. There were very few cars up this high, and the road had just been repaved –- like the ice right after the Zamboni at intermission. There’s no question that 8,000 to 10,000 feet was the most challenging portion of the ride. Grades are usually steepest at the tops of mountains, and this was certainly no exception.
The signs for 9,000 feet and 2-miles to go came in such close proximity that it startled me. Thankfully the 9k sign was out of place, and the 2 mile sign was correct. Nonetheless the torture of the last 500 feet and 2 miles was intense. The very summit of the mountain is concealed until the last turn with .6 miles to go, but if you haven’t been up the road before, you’ll probably assume the space-station-looking observatory visible from the 2-mile sign is the top. I had aspirations of cranking out those last few miles, and even making a challenge out of the “last brutal effort” Strava segment at the end of the road, but instead I was I was more focused on just completing the climb than I was setting a land-speed record.
The view from the summit was humbling. To the East, you can see for the first time, a wasteland of brown and orange cone shaped mini volcanoes protruding from the volcano’s crater. To every other side you can see the expanse of the Pacific Ocean beneath a ring of clouds. Further to the South the two highest peaks from the big island are visible – each is over 13,000 feet. My wife who had enjoyed a well-deserved day at a nearby spa met me at the top for a small lunch and to enjoy the beautiful view.
The descent was a once in a lifetime experience – 36 miles of carving switchbacks and beautiful views. More than anything else, I was warmed with a sense of accomplishment and pride as I ate up every vertical foot I had just recently conquered. Back in the shop, I was welcomed with backslapping hugs and cheers from Donnie and about five of his surfer dude friends. It was like coming home! Most of the major rides I have done in Colorado have been part of an event, and the event jersey felt like an award I had earned. This could be no different, and Donnie helped me find a jersey from this year’s Cycle to the Sun ride to take home as a souvenir. I’ve only been cycling for 7 months, but I know that this ride is one that will always have a special place on my mental trophy shelf.