Hawai’i is one of the most fascinating places on earth, and each island has its own unique geology and history. However, each island in the archipelago shares the fact that they are the tops of large shielded volcanoes that formed at the Hawaiian hotspot under the southeast area of the Big Island of Hawai’i. As each island moves northwestward on the Pacific Plate, off the hotspot, they have eroded and become their own magnificent island ecosystems.
The Island of Hawai’i, often called the Big Island, is the largest and newest island made up of 5 volcanoes (Kilauea, Mauna Loa, Mauna Kea, Hualalai and Kohala). Kilauea is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and Mauna Loa is the largest active volcano in the world at a staggering 13,100ft (4,000m) with an additional 16,400ft (5,000m) below sea level. Naturally, with Big Island most recently formed, and still growing with each new eruption, the landscape affords some of the longest and highest continual gradient on Earth, and in this journey, I explored three of those magnificent volcanoes, Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and Kilauea for a combined elevation gain of 29,636ft (9,000m).
As I have regained my health, and rediscovered my passion for cycling, I have found climbing to be mediative and a way to be fully immersed in the landscape around you. While I have climbed many short duration and steeper gradient climbs, it was a bit surreal to be thinking about climbing for several hours over 4,000 meters, with unknown weather and altitude effects along the way. I knew I would need the right tool for the journey and the Kev GXR allowed for wide gearing paired with an Eagle 10-52 cassette and 36t front chain ring for an efficient cadence on any gradient. The GXR frame also allowed me to choose multiple tires and wheel sets, for both paved and unpaved surfaces, and from a practicality standpoint you only need one bike for any kind of riding you may find yourself attempting while traveling. With efficiency, weight, and comfort all in mind, I set the Kev GXR up with 40cm Walmer Bars, and the G4T 35 wheel set, with the 650b Dirt Hoops on hand for unpaved portions of the journey.
I first explored the slopes of Mauna Kea from the quaint town of Hilo. There is something magical about starting your journey at the sea and seeing the majestic landscape rise above the clouds in front of you. I was fortunate to have such a clear and dry day, with often wet mornings greeting Hilo, and frequently changing weather rolling up the high slopes of Big Island. As I set off on my journey, I found myself quickly leaving the city for tree-lined shallow gradients replaced by ever increasing lava flows. The road you ride on for a good portion of the journey, Saddle Rd., describes the unique landscape as you make your way up the “saddle” of two shielded volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and on a clear day, you are afforded majestic views across both volcanoes. As you turn off Saddle Rd. you begin to climb quickly, and as I found myself leaving the tree line I was greeted by a Hawaiian hawk (ʻio), perhaps my spirit animal, rustling in the few remaining trees. Seeing such a beautiful animal put a smile on my face, and lifted my spirits, as I found myself now approaching 16% gradients.
After navigating a quiet and isolated 35 miles you find yourself greeted by the Maunakea Visitor Information Station at 9,200ft, where you can learn about Maunakea, a celebrated and storied place in the cultural traditions of Hawai’i. It is here, after coming such a long way, you reflect on the landscape around you, and yourself to perhaps venture to the summit at 13,796ft (4,205m). After checking in and discussing conditions with the rangers, I prepared my bike with the 650b Dirt Hoops to navigate the steep soft gravel roads to the summit. This is certainly the most challenging part of the journey, but also the most beautiful as you look across the Pacific Ocean and appreciate the significance and beauty of the land around you. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience such an amazing area of the world on two wheels, and with Kev. The level of difficulty of this climb naturally commands the respect of the mountain and its significance, and it is certainly a moment I will never forget.
After resting and having active recovery rides in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park at 4,000ft to maintain acclimation, I had to monitor the summit weather on Mauna Loa. There was clearly a front coming, that could create snow at the summit, and I knew I would need to ride a day early. I started my journey up Mauna Loa from the sea at the beaches of Waikoloa, which after departing from Hilo, allows you to see both sides of Big Island and appreciate the landscape even more. Mauna Loa rises gradually to more than 13,100ft (4,000m) above sea level. The Hawaiian name “Mauna Loa” describes it well, meaning “Long Mountain”, and it is often considered the longest continuous bike climb in the world at 100.1km (62.2 miles).
As I started at the sea and looked out across the ocean, I contemplated the staggering additional 16,400ft (5,000m) Mauna Loa extends to the sea floor below. I quickly navigated through the communities along the coast and climbed my way up the shallow gradient through the pastures and grasslands, as it gave way to the ever increasing arid, cool, and dry alpine landscape.
With Mauna Loa still being active and having erupted on average every 6 years for the past 3000 years, the landscape is newly created and constantly changing, giving you an out of this world feel as you undulate up and down the winding road to the Mauna Loa Observatory. The most challenging part of this climb is the constant short steep gradients that seem to endlessly continue as the air around you becomes thinner and thinner, up to 42% less than at sea level.
Once at the top you are greeted with views across to Maui and Haleakalā, another stunning volcano that I look forward to exploring on two wheels soon.
A gift of climbing Mauna Loa a day early afforded me the opportunity to ride the Kilauea Climb up Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Here you get to tour all the new land created over the last few centuries from Kilauea, home of Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.
Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, is in Mauna Loa's shadow, and as you climb to the top from the ocean, nearly 4,000ft, you reach the Halema‘uma‘u crater, where a summit eruption that started on September 29, 2021 is ongoing.
The initial slopes from the sea are quite steep, and as you wind your way through recent lava flows from the 1950s and 1970s you approach new life that continues to grow in the upper rainforest, where you are met by frequent refreshing rains, after such a long climb.
It's amazing to think about Kilauea once being a submarine volcano, like the Lōʻihi Seamount today, and gradually building itself up to the beautiful landscape we see today.
This journey has made me keenly aware of purpose, and to help inspire others to achieve anything in life.
I hope you have enjoyed learning and exploring with me, and I look forward to more adventures with Kev soon.
Keep turning one leg over the other and live life to the fullest, Kevin.
A special thanks to Ajani @hilifemedia for capturing the emotion of the week, and of course @curvecycling for creating Kev who carried me through.
Follow Kevin White: @kevin_l_white