When visitors come to Hawai‘i,
they expect tropical weather, blue waters, and sandy beaches.
And generally that’s what they find, but if they look
up, in the winter, from almost anywhere on the island of Hawai‘i,
they will see snow capped mountains.
The summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the two mountains that
make up most of the Big Island, experience temperatures of about
25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 degrees Celsius) between December and
March, and while Mauna Loa is often dry, snow falls every year
on Mauna Kea’s summit.
The experience of snow in Hawai‘i is surreal. It is possible
to experience two dramatically different climates in one day.
People may not ski at the summit, but they snowboard, and many
locals use their boogie boards as sleds. Many local visitors
to the summit also shovel their truck full of snow, so back in
town they can build snow men in their yard and astonish their
On a clear day, it is possible to see the neighboring island
of Maui from the summit of Mauna Kea, which is the tallest mountain
on the island of Hawai‘i, and in the world, when measured
from its roots on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It is considered
a dormant volcano, which literally means “sleeping.” It’s
most recent eruption was about 3,500 years ago, so the volcano
is currently considered inactive but may erupt again.
The world’s largest astronomical observatory is located
on the top of Mauna Kea. It is a unique observation site because
of the stability and thinness of the atmosphere at the summit.
There are currently 13 working telescopes on Mauna Kea.
At the summit, an elevation of 13,796 feet (4,200 m), the pressure
of the atmosphere is less than 40 percent of sea level. There
is less oxygen available to the lungs, and acute mountain
sickness is common. Symptoms include: headaches, drowsiness,
nausea, and shortness of breath. The intensity of these symptoms
may be reduced by spending at least half an hour at the Visitor
Information Station (altitude 9,200 feet) to get acclimated
before traveling to the summit.
Scuba divers must wait at least 24 hours after their last dive
before traveling to the summit, or else the nitrogen in their
blood will evaporate causing decompression sickness, “the
bends.”. Despite the snow, the atmosphere at the summit
is so dry, it is important that visitors drink fluids before
going to the summit and stay hydrated while there.
It is also important to apply sun block on arrival at the summit.
Visitors are more exposed to ultraviolet radiation there, and
it is increased by the reflected radiation from the snow. Sunglasses
are also advised, as things may appear much brighter due to
the amount of reflected light.
From Hilo, it’s a scenic drive on the partly paved Saddle
Road to the turn off to the Visitor Information Station (VIS)
which is about 34 miles from Hilo. The drive normally takes
about 90 minutes. It is advised to drive a four-wheel drive
vehicle that is in good working condition, because ordinary
vehicles will have a hard time coping with the steep, unpaved
roads all the way up to the summit at 14,000 feet.
It is also wise to begin the journey with a full tank of gas,
as there is no available service in this remote location. There
are also no restaurants or stores, aside from the snacks that
are sold at the VIS, so bring your own lunch and water.
For more information, visit: www.ifa.hawaii.edu/info/vis/.