Flying into Maui, the first thing you see are the tops of the volcanoes on each of the Hawaiian islands. An awesome sight, they appear as massive domes that stretch high above the clouds. Descending, as the plane passes through the cloud layer, one is struck by how far below the ocean and island still are. These are big hills, and as a cyclist psychologically preparing for a ride to the top of Haleakala, it is an acute signal of what kind of ride it is going to be.
The road to the top of Haleakala rises from sea level to the summit at 10,000 feet*, which is more than 1/3 the prominence of Mount Everest and equates roughly to the altitude gained by mountaineers ascending from Camp I (the fist camp above the Ice Fall and Base Camp) to the summit of the world’s highest peak.
The day of the climb dawned with near-ideal conditions on Saturday. Bike Number 1 spent the night in our apartment on the lovely Rose Compound (where we were guests of unbelievably gracious hosts) and as I ate breakfast, Gianni set about preparing the bike and rider for what lay before us: air in the tires for the bike, estate-grown and roasted espresso for the rider. (Gianni, his VMH, and the Roses have life figured out, by the way.) Final preparations were made, and we headed to the coast where I was to start my warmup by riding into Paia, where the climb officially starts.
I was blissfully unaware of the difficulty that lay before me, and more than a little too optimistic. Altitude has never bothered me and, having done big, long climbs all over Europe and the United States, I understand my limitations well enough to know that gradient is a more serious obstacle for my large frame than is length. When it came to gauging my effort, I figured that since I can comfortably sustain 20 or more kilometers per hour up a 6% grade, I figured that, based on Haleakala’s reported 5.5% average, I could easily do the whole climb at 15kmph, meaning I should have a sub-4 hour ride in my legs. The only unknown, in my naive mind, was what effects a 60 km climb to 10,000 feet would have as the air thinned on my way up. That particular unknown has been answered beyond a shadow of a doubt.
My strategy for the climb was to set at a solid pace at the bottom, fast enough to give myself a cushion for my inevitable slowdown near the top, but not so fast I would fire of the Guns of Navarrone too soon. I set off like a puppy being taken to The Farm, full of confidence and optimism, and with absolutely no idea of how hard Pele was about to bitchslap me. The first quarter of the climb is steady and did nothing but bolster my confidence, with a pace higher than I expected. Things were off to a good start.
In retrospect, I have established the theory that after Hansel and Gretel escaped the Gingerbread House, they made a trip up the volcano, but rather than leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, here they left a trail of wasps along the route, left there to be inhaled by the poor sods who attempt to ride up. The wasps are few and far between at the base, and steadily increase in density as one nears the top. The last 200m of the ride is almost entirely made of Yellow Jackets.
With the completion of the first quarter of the climb comes the turn onto Crater Road, the switchback-laden road that rises all the way to the summit. Most climbs are passes – meaning they approach a saddle or low-point on a ridge in order to cross into an adjacent valley. Crater Road is a sinister beast that goes right for the jugular, leading to the very summit of the mountain. Not terribly steep but very exposed, the wind whips around the side of the mountain from all sides, giving the rider a headwind in almost every direction and steadily sapping any strength from the legs.
By 5,000 feet, after 30 km of climbing and with the ride almost half over, I was completely wasted and the climb became a death march with me staring mostly at my rear axle and being saved only by The Rules emblazoned upon my right thigh. I lost count of my elevation somewhere after 6,000 feet and I retreated into a dark, dark place where unholy thoughts of hatred frolicked, pain tasted bitter on my tongue, and time moved inperceptably. I bargained with Merckx. I bargained with myself. I vowed never to ever do this climb again, if only I could reach the top.
I was rocked back to reality at 8,000 feet when the guns cramped so badly I had to lay on the side of the road for a few minutes to massage some life back into them. The ride from 8,000 to 9,000 feet took a year off my life. At a certain point, I noticed I was making all manner of strange noises that I would prefer I never make again. The last 1,000 feet to the summit, though mentally the easiest, was spent Communing with Butterflies and cursing everyone’s name I could think of. Cruelly, the last stretch to the very tippy-top is viciously steep and most unwelcome. I came terrifyingly close to falling off for a lack of speed and strength.
Can’t wait to do it again. I’ll go sub-4 hours for sure. Enjoy the film and photos of the ride.
Video: Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala
Photos: Frank vs. The Volcano: Haleakala
*The elevations in this article will generally be referred to in feet as this is how the roadsigns along the road are measured and, while it breaks with the convention set forth in Rule #24, these measurements have been forever burned into my brain. 10,000 feet is 3048 meters.