Short Version: We continued the tradition of freezing our butts off on vacation, and rode up Mt Haleakala in Maui. Because who goes to Hawaii to be warm?!?! 36 miles riding continuously up, to 10,023 feet, where the air is very thin. Then roll back down to sea level and breathe again. Some photos (as usual, if you click to embiggen, they’re embetter):
During a cold snap around Thanksgiving, Ian couldn’t take it any more. He looked at our gobs of frequent flyer miles, and started researching flight options to Maui. So, post-Christmas, we headed out for four days in tropical warmth. To our amusement, another cold snap settled in to Seattle right as we left…
Beaches and tropical paradise are nice and all, but we wouldn’t want to enjoy ourselves too much on vacation, so we looked into the options for bicycling up Mt Haleakala. It’s supposedly the longest paved, continuous climb in the world.
The climb goes from sea level to 10,023 feet with just a couple flat or downhill sections so brief if you blinked you’d miss them. I quibbled with the “continuous” label for the climb because of these, but Ian said I was being silly.
At any rate, it looked like the good options were to rent road bikes from Maui Cyclery, or sign up to do a supported ride with them, their schedule permitting. Their schedule did permit, so we opted for the latter, meaning that an angel named Ed drove up, periodically stopping and offering us and a couple others food, water, and encouragement.
It also meant we could pack all sorts of “just in case” gear for the descent, and then choose what the conditions merited once we got up to 6500′ (Ed had to leave off there because commercial operations aren’t allowed past the National Park entrance, after some people on downhill-only bike tours died…)
Sure, we could have done the ride on our own, lots of people do, but it sure was nice to have the support of someone else taking care of our water and food and gear. The less you have to carry on your bike uphill, the better. Not to mention that Ed was nice, fun, and encouraging. Thanks Ed and Maui Cyclery!
Pre-trip, as usual I dealt with my anxiety about this epic and difficult ride by reading as many accounts as I could of it. The ride sounded really hard–but also like something that I could do. There are a couple brief steep sections (best of all is the final steep kicker at the very end when there is no air to breathe, and you are so ready to be done. That’s a fun little treat…) but the grade overall isn’t that steep. It certainly wasn’t as steep as a bunch of the climbs we did this summer. The trick is that it just keeps going.
For 36 miles.
To over 10,000 feet.
But though I’m not the fastest person on a bike around, I am decent at pacing myself so that I can keep going. That seemed like one of the keys to this ride–calm and steady.
The other key was what I couldn’t control: the weather. At any time of the year, you can encounter gale-force winds, freezing rain, impenetrable fog, or sunshine and warmth. We got the latter. We had about as good weather as one could possibly have for this: sunny, warm, and barely any wind.
To contrast, here is us at the summit two days later (the overnight gusts to 70mph had calmed down, but even the people who work there were noting that it was a pretty windy day):
It was hard to stand up in the wind that day. Much less walk into it. Much less bike into it. As we drove up, we passed several cyclists making the ascent that day–I have huge respect for them. This was an unbelievably difficult ride in calm weather, and I don’t think I would have made it had we been riding up that day.
Meanwhile, two days earlier in calm weather, we picked up bikes at Maui Cyclery (titanium Litespeeds, if you’re curious. In an instance of epic unfairness, my bike had a compact double with great low end gearing, but Ian’s had a triple crankset with even better low end gearing. I really could have used those couple extra gears he had…) and after some time getting set up, headed uphill at around 8:45AM.
And about 5 minutes later, Ian decided his saddle was too low, rode a little longer, decided it really was too too low, and turned around for the shop to get it raised and get a multi-tool in case he needed to adjust it again. The bikes were really nice, but a rental just isn’t the same as your own.
Also, I know that if I rent a bike again in the future for a ride of any length, I need to bring my own saddle. I’ll save you the details.
It’s Maui–it seems a little ridiculous to state that the ride was beautiful. Duh. You go through a variety of landscapes–small town, farmland, forest, grassland, volcanic moonscape, and so on.
Not only is the landscape around you beautiful, but pretty soon, so are the views out over the landscape. The beginning of the ride is a pretty gentle ascent (most of the ride is a pretty gentle ascent–but in the beginning, it still feels like a gentle ascent too), but it’s steady.
Before you’ve really even done much of the ride, you’ve already ascended a long ways, and can see northwest out past Paia to the ocean, the view already looking like an aerial photograph. Whatever tropical magic it is, the angle of the light, the temperature of the water, whatever, the ocean is that magical tropical blue, and the breaking waves that are so impressive close up are just a pencil line of white outlining the coast.
And a little bit further on, you can see across the isthmus connecting the older mountains of West Maui and the newer mass formed by Haleakala, all the way to the ocean on the southwest. And the peaks of West Maui start to look about eye-level.
Another fun part about the ascent was that, until the 6,500 foot mark, you can wave at all the groups of downhill cyclists, and feel pretty bad-ass that you’re biking in the other direction. This downhill Haleakala cycling is a big tourist attraction on Maui.
Some outfits pick you up at your resort at 2AM, drive you up to the summit to watch the sunrise (and nearly freeze to death), then drive back out of the park to 6,500 feet, and put you on some sort of upright cruiser or mountain bike with squealing brakes and a full-face motorcycle helmet, and follow a guide back down to sea-level. Other tours omit the sunrise, and just let you off at 6,500 feet at a more reasonable time of day.
Some people love it. Some people have gotten seriously injured or killed doing it (hence the Park not letting them start their rides from the summit any more). Instead of completely bad-mouthing the experience, I’ll just say it’s not my thing.
But thanks to these tours, there’s a lot of awareness of cyclists on the road to Haleakala. And the guides know what it means when you’re biking the other way–they cheer you on as they lead their group down, as do some of the people on the tour. Occasionally I gave in to the impulse, and cheerfully called out to them “you’re going the wrong way!”
But scenery, views, and other cyclists aside, it’s a daunting climb. Normally when I get to the half-way point of a climb, I start to feel a sense of accomplishment, and get more optimistic about it, as I can start telling myself that I’ve already completed more than I have left to do.
But when I passed the 5,000 foot mark, I had a hard time convincing myself that there wasn’t so much left, comparatively speaking. After all, the remaining 5,000 feet still counted as a REALLY BIG CLIMB!
For perspective, Haleakala is somewhat comparable to climbing Hurricane Ridge, one of my big rides of the summer, twice. Without any break in the middle for descending back to the bottom. And the second time, you’re already really tired, and now you can’t breathe either.
From about 5,500 feet to the Visitor Center at 7,000 feet, I was really feeling the magnitude of what I still had left to do, and not feeling like I was making much progress. And the switchbacks in that section are a bit steeper overall than most of the rest of the ride. I never went to my dark place on this ride, but this was the hardest section for me.
At 7,000 feet, something flipped for me. I only had three 1,000-foot climbs remaining, which seemed completely doable. 1,000 feet is still a chunk of climbing, but it’s a chunk that is conceptually manageable–and only three of them. That I could do!
And I did. One key for me to those last 3,000 feet was focusing on a couple hundred feet at a time. That’s not much climbing, and it makes a measurable dent in each 1,000-foot chunk.
Another key was never to push so hard that I needed to take a deep breath. Because the air just wasn’t there. Which wasn’t a problem–as long as I didn’t need to breathe that hard.
So, yeah, I didn’t set any land speed records over those last 3,000 feet…
Through all of this, I could also look out and down onto mountains of West Maui, and even the clouds. It was an incredible sensation. Mind-blowing doesn’t even get there.
So yes, biking up Haleakala is a pretty insane thing to do, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a reason to do it. It’s not the same in a car–as I know because we drove up two days later. You get the same views, but not the same opportunity to study them and their evolution, nor the sense of ownership and accomplishment.
At any rate, we made the summit. The last little kicker of steepness wasn’t as bad as I worried. I won’t say it was pretty getting up it, but it was more of the same slog of just-keep-going, but even slower.
I almost had a tragic tale to tell, as negotiating the turn from the poorly placed curb cut to the path to the very top exceeded my bike-handling skills at the moment. But all’s well that ends well, or so they say.
One fun part of biking to the summit is that you become a minor celebrity up there. People gawk and ask about the ride and act generally impressed with you. One nice woman–another athlete who does (I believe) trail running and other such extreme things, and so could really understand the effort we had just put in–insisted on taking lots of photos for us, with different parts of the view as backgrounds. Thanks, nice woman whose name we didn’t get!
Great as all that is, the prospect of a shower and real food beckons seductively. But at 10,023 feet, even a fast descent will still take a while. So we didn’t linger too much at the top, somewhat anxious to be done with the day.
The descent was really spectacular. At first I was pretty cautious, as I was on an unfamiliar bike (and my lower back was cramping up, the brakes didn’t feel as grippy as mine, and my wrists were fatigued and sore).
But, especially after a stop to stretch out our backs and other bits at the Visitor’s Center, at which point I was able to adjust the brakes a bit too, my confidence grew. The rental bikes actually handled great on the descent, and the road was beautifully constructed and banked for descending. Even getting a flat tire around 4,500 feet couldn’t put much of a damper in the fun of the descent. (Also, thanks to the guy in the Castelli kit who stopped to make sure we had everything we needed, and helped us committed pump-users with the CO2 cartridge the rental bike had in case of a flat.)
Afterward, Ian commented that he would come back to do that ride again just to do the descent–and this from someone who doesn’t always consider descending to be very fun. It really was that good. Or, I should say, it really was that good on well-handling road bikes, after earning every inch of the descent by climbing it.
Nope, those downhill tours really aren’t my thing.
We made it in to town, happily rolling past several blocks of backed up car traffic (I will own the gleeful cackle I let out when we went past a car that had refused to go around us for quite a while–when we were biking on the shoulder–and then after turning onto a road without a shoulder, got upset and zoomed by in a huff, veering out into oncoming traffic unnecessarily to get around us…)
And then one of the best parts of a ride like this–a life-affirming shower, clean clothes, and DINNER!
We spent most of the rest of the evening discussing what a crazy, amazing, difficult, fun, crazy thing that had been to do. The phrase “I can’t believe we just did that!!!” was uttered more than once.
Riding up Mt Haleakala is definitely the most difficult ride I’ve done–but as far as personal challenge, much easier rides have been much harder for me.
This was a ride I felt that I had the tools to be able to do. The first time I rode up Zoo Hill, I spent the whole two days before with waves of adrenaline and cold sweats sweeping over me, not even knowing if I could make it. I started this blog to help deal with my anxiety that, in signing up for the Cinghiale Dolomites trip, I had gotten in way over my head.
One of the great things about the last couple years of cycling has been not so much the growth in my abilities on the bike, but the growth in my confidence in my abilities and what I can accomplish on the bike.
After all, there has to be some reason that I keep on doing stupid things like shivering with cold on top of a mountain when visiting Hawaii to get away from the cold.
In all seriousness, it was an amazing day. Challenging, fun, and really really astonishingly beautiful. I’m not exactly sure I would recommend doing it… But it was so worth doing.