Haleakala Sufferfest 2007
Maui has the longest and highest continual climb in the world, sea level to 10,000′ in 36 miles with an average gradient of 6%. It’s a wonderful, underused climb because great as the road surface, temperature, and views are, Maui is well off the route for most cyclists. I did this ride 20 years ago on my trusty steel Bella, 42 x 23 gear with no helmet, wearing a wife-beater cotton shirt (to stay cooler) and lycra non-bib shorts. And toe clips!
I felt lucky to pull it off back then, as at 200 pounds I’ve never been, nor will ever be a climber, but stubbornness and an appetite for suffering can conquer all. It was a suffer-fest. I was so dazed at the summit I nearly knocked my wife out cold by closing the car hatch on her head. And I swore I’d never do it again – but in 2007 at age 52 I found myself living on Maui with a Merlin, 39 x 26 gearing-everything upgraded and improved -except the main power plant. The body was not lighter or improved or upgraded in any way. I dared to wonder if this escapade was repeatable, or worth repeating. What follows comes from my notes, rendered immediately afterward, from bed.
To climb I must descend to the coast and spin along the coast towards the town of Paia, the unofficial starting point. The dawn patrol surfers at Ho’okipa are sitting on their boards in the early morning light waiting for the next swell. Early in the morning is a nice time to be cycling on Maui. Too bad I never do it. Paia is where it all starts. This dusty ex-sugar town is just waking up, cars and trucks going all directions. At the single light in the middle of town, a left turn puts me on Baldwin Avenue and the UP begins.
Baldwin Avenue is a curvy climb of a road that departs the coast and works up the lowest flanks of Haleakala. Sugarcane fields eventually give way to pineapple fields; it’s a narrow winding road I’ve ridden up many times over many years. Already the voice in my head is full of doubts, no off switch available. But the legs feel good, it’s not hot yet, and it is a perfect day to be doing something this crazy. It’s unfortunate for me that climbing is a solo activity. I climb at my speed, I can’t keep up with faster people and I hate climbing more slowly than my limit. There is nothing for it.
The body is on autopilot so the brain freewheels away. “Did Britney really carve 666 on her shaved skull? Oh Britney, what the hell happened to you? Did you get dropped on your dome when you were a baby?” I work on The Unified Field Theory a bit, note the need for gun massage; “Swedish massage, man, I need Swedish massage, not Danish or Finnish, it must be Swedish…” and my hump, my hump, my lovely lady hump song loops around and around. It could be worse- my brain is a sponge early in the morning, easily soaking up the worst radio nonsense and torturing me with it throughout the day.
Makawao is next, a cowboy town, or used to be -but it still works that cowboy thing. Baldwin Road turns into Olinda Road. You don’t really know how the legs are until you do the 18% grade out of Makawao. I take it as easy as possible, saving the guns.
Large horse and cattle pastures replace the cropland. Hawaii is so beautiful that what I am seeing could be one long color saturated hallucination.
The single flat section of the whole ride lasts about two minutes. It also contains one hill that the pods of “downhill” riders have to walk up. Riding down the volcano is big business on Maui. Scores of vans loaded with tourists and fat-tired bikes trundle to 10,000′ and an experienced leader guides them down to Paia. Said guide keeps everyone safe, slow and alive (ugh, no thanks).
The pastoral back road dumps me onto the Haleakala Highway, the two-lane ribbon that takes everyone all the way to the summit. The fun truly begins here as the grade increases, rising through more pasture and the first of the shady fragrant eucalyptus groves. Ahhhhh, sweet sweet shade, I love thee. All this has been ridden before so I can turn the volume of the doubting voice way down.
The route tours through Upper Kula residential neighborhood. Beautiful hedges of Technicolor flowers flash on the right. Every other vehicle heading up is a commercial van loaded with people about to get on rented bikes and coast down 37 miles. Cowards.
I turn left up onto Haleakala Crater Road. More nice homes and a lavender field appears, stunning, purple and out of place. I ride through the last of the eucalyptus groves, the last decent shade, then I’m above tree line into huge open swaths of cattle range above all towns and neighborhoods. The road starts a long series of looping slightly banked switchbacks. Simple numeric calculations have become rife with mistakes: “I passed that 3500′ sign at least 20 minutes ago, that means at 6mph I…was that 3500’or 4000′ ?” The unified field theory is a distant memory.
The snap is gone from the legs, nothing but mindless slogging upward, 6mph. When I get to 5000′, that’s halfway (jesus, I’m doomed) “Take it mile by mile,” the doubting voice consoles me, could this be the exit strategy?
Traffic really dropping off, occasional downhillers coasting down, I make no eye contact with them. Severe doubt is entering the mind. “I’m old, maybe I really can’t do this kind of stunt. Bail by 6000′, call it over. Plan beers anyway. Shit, that’s only the 5500′ marker, not 6000′.” This slog is crawling, barely halfway, not good.
Broom wagon provides more liquid for Mr. Sweats Too Much. I see myself in the car mirror, massive puffy sweaty face, not pretty. OK, this is one reason (of many) I’m no pro- this is killing me. On the razor’s edge of nausea, drinking unholy electrolyte, forcing down 1st gel. Oye, shoot me in the face.
The road traverses across the flank of the volcano. There is respite from the sun as it climbs into more woods. Clouds form above, barely any wind, ideal conditions for a better rider.
I stop at the ranger station where I have to pay $5 for this nonsense. Guns still feel useful, surprisingly. This could work. Wrists, feet, back- all starting to complain. Drop into the 23, stand up, ride out of saddle, shift to 26, stay in saddle. Clouds above; I ride into a weird quiet cloud world. Visibility is 30′ just like my brain. Too wasted to taunt downhill riders. Zero math skills. I cannot figure the miles left from the mile marker at the ranger station.
OK, 8000′, I’m doing this mother, any pussy can do 2000′ of climbing. Truly lost in the fog. Is this steep? No, not bad. Four-plus hours of the slog, 5 mph, up to 7 mph once in while. More evil drink solution is taken on. I’m still on razor’s edge of puking something back up. More fog, arm and leg hair all dewy, ice warning sign on the road- I’m glad that’s not a problem today. Legs are still delivering force to the pedals. Is it getting lighter up there? Have I missed the 9000 feet sign in the fog? Maybe the lazy park service people didn’t put one up? Bastards, I will punish them…
Sunlight- blue, brown, white; I’m riding up out of the clouds like a diver coming to the surface in turbid water. The colors are stunning.
Above the clouds, the 9000′ sign finally goes by. All righty then. Who can’t do 1000′ of climbing? System showing signs of going to failure. Is that Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea on the Big Island? I’m climbing above the sea of white clouds.
This is killing me.
Brown volcanic tuff everywhere. A few silver sword plants (not flowering) thrive up here, nothing else green, just uniform brown brown.
Let this end. Truly smoked, I have earned my pints and pizza. There is the broom wagon driver-photographer-wife urging me up to parking lot and shooting some photos, oh these should be winners…
Swing into lot, dismount, it’s over, but at what cost? An outrageous panorama, air very dry, I’m finally almost dry and warm but so toasted. And I swear I’ll never do that again.