Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Haleakala's Summit Wilderness: High Winds & Other Fascinatingly Dangerous Weather

Planning on driving up to the summit of Haleakala volcano on Maui anytime soon? Not so fast, tweeted the National Park Service yesterday: "Please use caution when visiting the summit today. We are currently experiencing sustained winds of 40mph." Today the summit has been closed due to high winds and ice. Whoah!

As if the constantly changing weather patterns in the volcano's summit wilderness -- white-out fog, lashing rain, blistering high-altitude sunshine followed by sudden bone-chilling drops in temperature -- weren't enough to contend with. You'd best come prepared to do battle with the elements up here at nearly 10,000ft in elevation.

But that's exactly why hiking and backpacking in the wilderness of Haleakala National Park is such a thrill. A minute is long enough for the clouds to shift and reveal a brand-new vista of rainbow-colored cinder cones. A brief tropical rain shower can send lacy waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Even driving up the summit road after starting from sea level is its own adventure: the pre-dawn fog covering the narrow ribbon of asphalt can be so soupy that cows grazing on the open range can look like ghostly aliens or disappear from view.

At the summit visitor center, leave your car behind and start trekking down the Sliding Sands Trail [PDF trail guide] into the volcano's erosional valley (erroneously referred to as a crater, even though it wasn't formed by an explosion). Any smart hiker will be carrying at least: 

  • Warm, waterproof layers of clothing, for example, a fleece pullover or hoodie and a Gore-tex shell or plastic poncho, because at this elevation temperatures can drop below freezing (yes, even in Hawaii!)
  • A flashlight or head lamp in case you get caught trudging back up out of the volcano after dusk, since climbing back up the trail can take twice as long as hiking down
  • A hiking pole to balance yourself on slick, muddy and rocky trail sections while reducing wear-and-tear on your knees
  • Plenty of water and sunscreen because the high-altitude sunshine can dehydrate and burn you before you even realize it's happening
  • A first-aid kit and pocketknife to treat those minor irritations like blisters or skin scraped by a chunk of lava, or to stabilize a more serious injury until you can hike out to get help (no, those nene aren't going to fly out and carry a note to the ranger station for you)
  • Map, compass and GPS so that even in white-out conditions you can avoid getting lost and wandering off-trail; over lava rocks and cinders, the trail might only be marked by cairns, which can disappear in dusk or fog

Got a tip for hiking safely on Haleakala or any of Hawaii's other awesome volcanoes? Let us know by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

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Photo credit: Haleakala National Park (Michael Connolly Jr.)