Earth's Biggest Mountain, Part 2
Descent of Mauna Loa to the Observatory Trail-head
Thursday, March 1
Given the high altitude of the Mauna Loa cabin and our only moderate level of acclimatization, we all slept relatively well. We awoke to a much improved (in the scenic sense) weather situation. The drab high overcast of the day before had given way to a few wisps of cirrus and the final twinklings of stars within a deep blue morning twilight.
I went outside into the sub-freezing temperatures to capture the sunrise from the top of the world's largest mountain. The view in the direction of the sun was of a broad, nearly-flat plain of snow with a few patches of bare rock. In the far distance, where on a clear day you may have seen the lower elevation's vegetation and the ocean, there was only an endless sea of clouds. As a result, there was no visual sense of being on a mountain or at altitude. It felt more like taking a sunrise picture on an arctic plain than on a tropical island in the Pacific ocean!
The next order of business was breakfast. We were nearly out of water, and so I went out back to the large cistern with our pot and turned the little valve at the spout. A few drops, and nothing more. I rapped the side of the metal cistern a few times to see if I could tell whether or not it was empty, but couldn't really tell. Perhaps the valve was just stuck or frozen.
Morning at Mauna Loa Cabin
Having no water is of course not a good thing. In this case, though, the problem was one more of inconvenience. After all, there was a lot of snow around, and we had more than enough fuel to spend some time melting a bit of it. Melting snow is a tedious and slow process, though, so we preferred to avoid it. I decided at the very least to melt a single pot to get breakfast going. Perhaps after eating and packing up, the morning sun (which was now shining directly on the cistern) would warm things up enough to cause water to flow.
Morning at ML Cabin
Our route back to the trailhead was a gradual descent and not that long (only about 6 miles / 10km), and we had no time deadlines to meet. We therefore took our time eating our breakfast noodles, packing up our gear, and cleaning up around the cabin.
Morning Glow on Caldera
After finishing up in the cabin, we went outside and walked the few tens of feet over to the edge of the caldera time, where we spent some time looking at its immense length and breadth. We could see the highpoint of Mauna Loa, high on the cliffs of the western wall across from us. Down on the caldera floor, the bright morning sunlight illuminated several spots where steam and gas issued forth from the ground. Mauna Loa was only sleeping!
Mauna Loa Caldera Panorama
Mauna Loa is only Sleeping
I went around back to the rear of the cabin to the water cistern. I noticed that there was a small hole up near the top, and I put a cupped eye to it and waited for my eye to adjust to the dim light within. At first, I could see nothing, but as my eye adjusted, I thought I could make out wavy fluidic motions. I rapped on the cistern's metal side, and sure enough, I could see ripples - and not far down from my viewpoint. The cistern was almost full!
Mauna Loa Summit Cabin
I bent down and tried the faucet again, and this time a nice steady stream of water issued forth. So, it had indeed been a frozen valve, and the morning sun had melted it. Good - this meant that in a short while we should be able to filter the six or seven litres we would need for our hike back down. No tedious snow melting!
Soon we were topped up with water and ready to go. The morning sun was warming things up nicely, but fortunately, it seemed as if last night's below-freezing temperatures were still holding fast in the snowpack - it seemed nice and firm underfoot, much better than yesterday's more mushy state, and perfect for easy, fast foot travel. Hopefully it would last for a few more hours - enough time for us to descend to below the snowline.
Brian and Caldera
With much more spring in our steps as compared to the night before, we started off from the cabin, walking back north along the Mauna Loa trail. The combination of being rested, having a lot of bright sunlight, and the ease of walking on the firm snow - all of it made for quite rapid travel. Within forty-five minutes, we had already walked to the floor of the North Pit, 2.3 kilometres (1.4 mi) from the cabin - about twice the speed we had hiked the same stretch the evening before.
Expanse of lava, then sky
Down in the North Pit, we soon arrived once again at Lua Paholo - a "sub-pit" within the North Pit. Today we were much more inclined to stop and have a good look.
Lua Paholo is quite impressive. It is round - about 700 feet in diameter, and has sheer vertical 300+ foot walls around all of its circumference. Unless you were a good climber with a talent for crumbly volcanic rock-climbing, you would definitely be trapped in it if you fell in - assuming you lived to survive the fall, which didn't seem likely.
The center of the Lua Paholo pit contained a huge inclined wedge of rock. It wasn't hard to see that this wedge was a section of North Pit floor that had broken away from the wall at some point in the distant past. In fact, the ground on the very edge we were standing on had suspicious-looking cracks running parallel to the pit. More slices of pit wall were sure to collapse in at some point in the future - but hopefully not this particular bit today!
After finishing with our sightseeing of impressive Lua Paholo, we continued on, crossing the flat, black floor of the North Pit. We were soon at the Mauna Loa / summit trail / Observatory trail junction, and we stopped for a mid-morning snack. This spot presented us with our final views of the summit region - when we started off again, we would be heading down on the Observatory Trail, and would not be able to see it any longer.
Beautiful sky above caldera
As we reflected on our final views of Mauna Loa's summit region, a thought struck me. In our time up here, we had seen just about no sign at all of life (other than ourselves). We had seen no animals, nor sign of animals; We had seen no sign of any sort of plants - not even lichen. I hadn't even seen any insects - although Jenn claimed she had seen a spider at one point. In all of my mountain travels, there's almost always been some tiny sign of life - but here there was virtually none. This fact added to the sense of this place being a good simulation of what it would be like on the barren landscape of another planet. With this thought, I took one last look around at the summit area. This really was quite a neat place to visit. A bit of water, a bit of ice, volcanic rock, sky: the bare bones of a planet, it is.