Sunday, April 13, 2014

Leon Matz and Mike Smith: Bike Climbing Haleakala, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea

Author:  Leon Matz

This challenge had been scheduled for 2013, but a bike fall that fractured my femur in 8 places delayed the plan.  Sitting in the Hospital 1/2013 I wasn’t even sure I would ever ride a bike again besides taking on this kind of challenge. Through the help of a wonderful surgeon, a great physical therapist, a unbelievably supportive cycling group (Puyallup Cyclopaths) and an incredibly patient and supportive wife; I was able to recover and plan such a challenge.


Four years ago I read John Summerson’s “The Complete Guide to Climbing (by bike)” and took on the challenge to climb to the top of all 100 of the most difficult climbs in the United States. Over the last four years, I have been able to whittle the list down to 21 more climbs.At 10:00 a.m. on 4/3/14, my flight to Maui was scheduled to leave. After a 1:15 delay, we headed out. After sitting on the plane for nearly 7 hours, we landed in Maui.  After a quick taxi cab to my hotel in Paia, I quickly changed clothes and prepared for my first climb on the trip.  Baldwin/Olinda Climb is 12.7 mi in length and climbs 4,034 ft. with an average grade of 6%.  Excited to be in Hawaii and off on an exciting challenge, I hit the road and was determined to try and meet my goal of 1:45 to make the climb.  The first 8 miles was mostly straight into a 20 mph head wind. I tried to stay low and worked hard. It took me 1 hour to complete this section.  The last 4.7 mi. was less windy but much steeper gaining 2,000 ft. in that section. I finished the climb in 1:37 - meaning I was climbing the last 4.7 mi. at a 3,243 ft per hour rate.  One of the fastest rates I have ever had. Encouraged that I had climbed pretty fast, I returned to the hotel to have dinner with my buddy Mike Smith. 

With a limited amount of time in the islands, I had scheduled to climb Haleakala ( 10,000 ft over 36.5 mi with a 5.2 % grade with a max of 10%) the very next morning.  Even though I was energized by my fast first climb, I started to realize I had perhaps made a mistake riding so hard.  Up at 5:30 and on the road at 6:05, I started up the same 8 mile section as the previous day.  The wind as equally strong, but I tried not to be discouraged.  At about mile  4,  I went to shift into a lower gear and found that I was already in my lowest gear!  "Oh, No" I thought “this is only a 4% grade, and I am already in my lowest gear.  I am in trouble".   I wasn't surprised when I arrived at mile 8 at 6 minutes slower than the previous day. I not only had the wind to fight, but I also had fatigue to fight.  I clearly had “Strava-cized” myself (one of the dangers of following Strava too close and not using simple logic).  I had set an aggressive goal of 4:30 to climb Haleakala.  It was now clear this was going to be a day of trying to survive and not coming close to my goal. 

Here is a view from about 3,000 feet towards the valley floor
Shortly after this picture I turned onto Road 378 to be greeted with a sign saying 22 miles to the top.  Conor had shared with me how this sign had shocked him.  The sign is just short of 4,000 feet, and I had been riding for 2 hours.  It hit me like a brick to the forehead!  What 22 more miles and 6,000 more feet to climb?!  Can I do it????  I was shocked and dismayed. I had many thoughts about how I had been a fool the day before trying so hard on Baldwin/Olinda Rd.  Why had I let ego get in the way of common sense.  I was paying for that poor decision.  The miles seemed to creep by as I struggled up the hill.  Even though the pitch was pretty constant, around 6%, I labored up the climb.  At about 8.000 ft my breathing became more difficult, and I took 3 short breaks. Leg cramps started too. Luckily I had some Endurolytes to keep the cramps from getting worse.      
A view from the top of Haleakala

At 9,000 ft. the landscape is pretty bare, the view of the valley distant, and the effort to climb very challenging.  I so much wanted to be done with the ride.  Soon, I could see the observatory on the next ridge; and my thought was "I am almost there".  The road curved away from the observatory and continued for another mile.  The last 1/3 of that mile was the worst of the whole ride hitting pitches of 10-12%. I struggled up that last section on the little reserve of energy that I had left. Finally, I am there!!! My time was 5:15 not even close to my 4:30 aggressive goal and distant to Conor's 3:23.

A very tired Leon poses and refuels before heading down to Paia
By the time I reach the top, the clouds have moved in and the decent will be challenging in a few places as mist blocks a view of the road. It took me 1:30 to get down.  Getting off the bike was "WONDERFUL"  I was an exhausted cyclist who had been humbled by Haleakala. I felt disjointed the rest of the day

Mike Smith had arrived on Sunday.  After having a couple of days of rain, he climbed Haleakala on the Wednesday prior to my arriving.  He had some intestinal problems but still managed to have riding time of about 5:15. Not bad for the 3rd most difficult climb in the United States.

 Saturday was our travel day to the Big Island.  The trip went pretty smoothly except for Mike hurting his back loading bikes and luggage.  Upon arriving in Hilo, we picked up our SUV and headed to Uncle Billy's Hotel for some rest and relaxation as Mauna Loa was planned for the next day. As we prepared for bed, Mike and I heard birds chirping so loudly that we both put in our earplugs.  Later I found out there were actually frogs called coqui.  They make a mating call called "Ko-Kee" that sounds like birds. The  story is that a few years back the frogs had hitched a ride on some plants that the local Walmart had imported from Puerto Rico and have now spread all over the island.  The coqui frog is Puerto Rico’s national animal. The sound  of the coqui is like a two-tone bird chirp.  One of the first impressions one gets from the frog's song  is that it is some exotic night-time bird. The coqui sing this mating call until dawn, harmonizing with the  tropical sound of crickets and surf that grace the Hawaiian nights. The hotel apologized for the sound and provides all guests with earplugs to use.


Mauna Loa is a mammoth mountain and a mammoth bike climb. The mountain is a massive volcano covering over 1/2 of the Big Islands 4,034 square miles.  Mauna Loa  rises to 13,680 feet from sea level.  Measured from its flanks on the ocean floor the mountain reaches 30,080 feet to the summit. Sixty miles long and 30 miles wide. Mauna Loa is the largest volcanic mountain in the world and the third largest shield volcano in the solar system, smaller only than volcanoes on Venus and Mars.  It has erupted 39 times since 1832, the most recent being 1984.

The Mauna Loa bike climb is 45 miles and 11,091 ft. of climbing with a 4.7% average and a supposed 9% max.

Waking up early the next morning Mike was in pain and was not going to be able to climb Mauna Loa with me. With a day of rest I hoped for a good day on the bike. I started riding at 6:15 and road 1.3 miles to get to the start of the climb.  Mike went back to sleep with the plan to drive the SUV in support  of me after getting a couple more hours of rest.  About 3 miles into the route, I hit a pitch of 7% and even though I was trying to not work too hard I stood to increase my speed and both my quads starting aching.  I also noticed my heart rate was staying in the 140's instead of 150's where it typically would be with that kind of effort. This usually means I have not recovered from the previous ride(s) and my body wants more rest.  Not a good sign when you have 42 more miles and 10,500 feet to climb.  Thank goodness the weather was clear and only a slight headwind was hitting me.  I tried to not get discouraged and tried to focus on being smooth and giving   consistent effort.   At about mile 15, Mike joined me with the vehicle.  I was very happy to see him even though I was pretty discouraged with the progress that I was making.  My daughter, Kim, called while I was giving Mike some of my extra clothing.  I told her I was doubtful I was going to make it to the top. I was riding slow, felt tired and had a mighty long ways yet to go.  Numerous blogs have described the ride out  Saddle Road as easy and nondescript.  I found it neither.  There were numerous spots that the pitch jumped up to 16-17%.  The overall grade was not steep but these steep parts took a lot of effort. Views of snow capped Mauna Kea were incredibly beautiful.  I saw one car unloading a big camera and a tripod to get a picture.

My picture hardly shows Mauna Kea's incredible beauty

Most of Saddle Road (the road that runs between the two sides of the island) is mostly 5-6% with some flattish areas but with a couple sections of double digit grades. Mike leap frogged me on the way to the turnoff to Mauna Loa. It was great being able to carry only one bottle and no extra food or clothes. At the turnoff which was at mile 28, I had gained 6,500 feet and was very, very tired but after a 10-15 minute break I headed out on the 1 lane road with 17 miles and 4,600 feet  of climbing yet to do. I wasn't sure I was going to make it but was going to at least give it a try.

The massive Mauna Loa is behind me as I head to 11,000 ft. surrounded with lava fields

The road turned out to be different than any road I had ever ridden on. It was as if someone took a ribbon and snapped it in the wind and created a million ripples. The overall grade over a mile is pretty constant but it varied from 1% all the way to 21%.  It was continually speeding up on a flattish section of say 30 yards followed immediately by a 30 yard climb where I had  to stand to get over the top and then the process is repeated over and over  again.

Here is a short sample of what I have been trying to describe

I continually had to shift down to gain some momentum and then back up when the pitch started to steepen. Having to stand up and slow pedal over the top of these little hills was very hard and tiring.  Thankfully the wind was not very strong during this section and the wind was mostly a cross wind. During this 17 mile section I only saw 8-10 cars thankfully. Once my Garmin read 11,000 ft. of elevation gain, I knew I didn't have too much farther to go. The altitude and the extreme effort I had to give to finish the ride had me shaky and unstable.  I was so grateful for Mike to be there with the car so that I didn't need to try and ride back the 45 miles. It probably wouldn't have been very safe.  Mauna Loa is #2 on Summerson's list of the most difficult climbs behind only Mt. Washington.  Mt Washington is a 7.5 mile climb over 4,695 ft. with an average gradient of 11.9% and a 22% max.  Mt. Washington is incredibly steep and difficult, but I was having a hard time accepting that 2 hours of suffering up Mt. Washington would be more difficult that the 6 + hours of suffering I just went through.  I will have to wait and see.

Hear I am at the end on the paved road on Mauan Loa exhausted and happy to climb off the bike and call it a successful day on the bike. I am now only the third person to climb Mauna Loa from Hilo and download to Strava. Conor is one of the other, however Conor finished the climb almost 2 hours faster. 6:23 is a long time to be climbing.

On the day after doing Mauna Loa, Mike and I went to scope out Mauna Kea.  After looking over the last 4 miles of the 6.2 from Saddle Road, it was clear to me that I probably would not be able to finish the climb with my 34x32 gear ratio.  I know most of you have never even needed this low of a gear.  Prior to the trip Mike purchased a mountain derailleur and a mt. cassette to have a 34x 36.  That afternoon I visited the locaI bike shop and did the same.  Mike and I had dropped off some food and water at the turnoff of Saddle road for the last 6.2 up Mauna Kea.  This proved to be a wise decision.  In talking to the guys at the bike shop, they had shared that in the race Sea to Stars about 70% of the riders typically get off their bike and walk the last couple miles.

On Wednesday at 6:05 Mike and I left the hotel and started our ride through town. It took us 3-4 miles to get to the start of the climb. It was 68 deg. and little wind. The road was wet from the night rain but no rain in sight now. 

The first 9 miles were pretty gradual climbing around 5 % grade with wide road shoulders.  In the next section, the shoulders became very  narrow and there were short sections of 12-17%.  The third section had no real steep sections and had a big shoulder. The 30 mile climb to the turnoff for Mauna Kea took Mike and me 3:28 (about 7 minutes faster than my time Sunday even though we rode another extra mile or so).  We were both tired but determined to finish the climb.  After a quick stop for food and water,  we headed up the feared 6.2 mile climb to Mauna Kea.  Some blogsters think this is the toughest 4 mile section of any climb except for Mt. Washington. The first 2 miles only gain 450 feet.  Mile

3 gaines 300 ft.  The wind was calm and the sun was out and sweat started rolling down our faces.  From mile 3 to the top it  is very steep. You gain 1740 ft. for a 580 ft. per mile.  "The Climb" gains 194 ft. per mile. The gradients varied from 5 % to 18%. Some blogs that Mike and I read said 21% grades but we never saw it on our Garmin although we were concentrating on turning the pedals over not checking the Garmin. The pitch was unrelenting. Even with the 36, the effort to turn the pedal over was challenging. Concentrating on controlling my breathing became a real challenge. Our goal seemed to not get closer.  When I finally could see the buildings I was elated.  I finished the 6.2 mile climb in a satisfying 1:01 and Mike came in about 5 minutes later.  We did it!!!!  After a short rest in the warm sunshine we started our descent to the Hotel.  


We now understand why Summerson rated these three volcanic climbs as numbers 2, 3, and 4 on his list of the most difficult climbs in the U.S.



Mike and I did find time to explore two of the famous falls in the Hilo area – this part of our trip was very relaxing.
This is a picture Mike took from the top of Haleakala
Picture of Mike and I and the visitor's center on Mauna Kea 9,300 and the end of the paved road.
Prior to heading to Hawaii to take on Haleakala, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea Mike and I read as much as we could about people who had climbed each of these volcanoes. By and large they were very accurate and very helpful in taking on such a difficult challenge.  If you are considering riding up all or any of these climbs here are a few ideas that may be of help to you.
Suggestions for Climbing Haleakala
1. Be prepare for a heavy head wind especially the first 8 miles or so. It is not very steep heading out of Paia but the wind is pretty predictable.  The wind generally is less of a factor after 8 miles.            2. Be mentally prepared for a long, long ride.  The pitch never becomes too steep but it is very constant with very few spots to recover from the effort. Be patient. Most people can probably make it from Paia to the visitor's center with two large 32 oz. bottles. There are places to stop for food but carrying your own I think is a more reliable way to go.
Suggestions for Climbing Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea
1. John Summerson's book on climbing has you starting in downtown Hilo on Waianuenue (#200). This an ok. place to start the ride if it is a Saturday or Sunday morning. Avoid this route other days since it is very narrow with no shoulder and as of 2014 the road was not in good condition. Instead ride to the beginning of road #2000.  It has a very nice wide shoulder.
2. Both climbs are very long climbs. Mauna Loa has no place to get water or food for all 45 miles to do the climb. Mauna Kea has some food and water at the 9,300 visitor center. You either need to have a sag  wagon or you need to drive to turnoff for the climbs and leave some water/food. This is 25 miles from Hilo and at 6,500 ft. Most people can make it that far on two 32 oz. bottles. There is a rest area at the base of the turnoffs and we left some food and water in the bushes the day before our climb and that worked well.
3. Saddle Road can be divided in four segments. The in town route tor he start of 2000 is a mix of bike lanes and some narrow streets.  Early in the morning they are not to difficult to negotiate. The  next segment of about 6 miles has wide shoulders with no real steep pitches. The  third segment of about 6 miles is a two lane road with little or no shoulder.  The pavement is good but it does have some sections that has short pitches of 12-17%. The last segment is a 3 lane road with a nice wide shoulder  with not steep pitches in fact the last 3 or so miles is 2-5 %.
4. For Mauna Kea you may want to consider having at least a 34 x 32 gear option.  The last 3 miles of the climb averages over 11% with 17% sections. Mike and I went to a 34 x 36 and were grateful to have that gearing.  We are in our 60's and we don't have superior leg strength so it was a good choice for us.
5. Weather can be a real key to success in climbing either summit from Hilo. Picking a dry day is obviously very desireable but not always easy. Hilo receives a great deal of rain.  Wind can also have a huge effect on a riders success in completing both of these climbs. The winds tend to be calmer in the mornings so try and take advantage of it.  Both of these climbs are long Mauna Loa is 45 miles and Mauna Kea 35 so start early and make sure you are back before it gets dark. These are both very isolated climbs.
6. If you have any questions feel free to contact me at  Best of luck!

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