Holy cow! That was likely the toughest mental and physical feat I’ve ever attempted. It took me roughly four hours to climb from Paia at sea level to the summit of Haleakala at 10023 feet. The first 4000 or so feet were a challenge like any other climb of 4000 feet (ha!) but it was the next 6823 that was the real killer.
The climb is the longest paved climb in the world, but it’s not the length alone that messes with you. It’s the unrelenting nature of the climb – it just keeps climbing at a near steady 6.5% the whole time. There are a few respites but even they feel like you’re going uphill when you’re not!!
We set out from Paia in beautiful sunshine and a pleasant 24 Celsius unsure of the weather at the summit. We were told to pack our winter gear as it could be really cold. Last year when the campers did the climb it was 24 Celsius at the base, and 5 Celsius and raining at the summit. With a cold wind. I think I rode the first 15 minutes with my fingers crossed hoping for good weather!
The first 8 miles or so of the climb was part of the ride we did on Monday. And not surprisingly this time it felt easier. Thankfully because the rest of the ride would be tough. At the main intersection in Makawao, we paused briefly for a couple of cars and then hit the first steep section of the day. My legs felt good as I got out of the saddle to pick up the pace. And that’s when my mind started to take over. If I push it now will I make it to the top? Maybe I should take this part easy so I can push it later.
Our group of eight riders was starting to shrink and over the course of the next 10km, I slowly dropped all seven until I was alone. And again my mind started… How am I dropping these guys? They’re at least as strong as me if not stronger. Am I going to burn out before the entrance to the park?
At Kula Lodge the support van was ready with resources – food, water, energy drinks – and positive comments assuring each and every rider that they would be able to do it. Our pack regroups and we set off for the summit – chasing down a couple of the riders who are out to set personal records. Just past Kula Lodge is the intersection for Crater Road – this is where the real fun begins. From this point onwards the road goes uphill. In a hurry. Over the course of 33 switchbacks! Again my mind wonders… I feel strong. I can do this. I’m keeping pace with a semi-pro rider, and am ahead of a couple of former Olympians. Wait. What? How is that possible? They must be riding easy to save energy for the upper slopes. I’m going to burn out and not make it. Oh no!
As we start into the switchbacks I overcome my mental questions and keep pedalling at the same pace. Just as on the first segment I slowly drop the riders I am with. The gap between them and me grows slowly but steadily… and then it starts shrinking. Slowly at first. And then they are riding with me. And then I’m behind them. And then I’m chasing them. And again my mind takes over… Is this how it ends? Am I going to have to turn around and head downhill because my legs and lungs have given up?
At 6500 feet we had another refueling with the team. This was the final chance to stock up on food and drinks, and take on additional clothing for our time at the summit, and for the descent. I grabbed a couple of gels, my wind jacket, gloves and shoe covers, and hit the road. It’s at this point that Ryder and Svein catch me. I ride with them for a bit, but their pace is too much for me and I’m quickly back to riding on my own.
One of the most amazing features of this climb is that the array of climates and ecosystems that you ride through. Rolling farm fields, thick woodlands, lush floral lands, grasslands, the clouds, volcanic wastelands, and more! This is what I started to think about after getting dropped by the pros.
On my own again I continued to the gates of the park where I caught three other riders – one of whom had a park pass and covered my $5 entry fee (bonus!!). From here you can see what you think/hope is the top of the mountain. This idea that I could see the summit inspired me to push on… only to quickly realize that there is still 3000 feet of climbing, and 21 km of riding. Uphill! What?!?!?
The next 90 minutes was a true test of my mental and physical strength. The air got thinner and cooler. My pace slowed, and my heart and lungs felt at times like they were coming out of my chest. Eventually I found a rhythm and just kept turning over the pedals, being sure to take in the sights and smells on my way to the top. Riding above the clouds and looking down the slope and seeing the roadway disappear was truly an experience I’ll never forget. But just in case my memory starts to waver, I took a couple of photos. Here I’m thinking – hold on, ride straight, don’t look down, it’s a long drop off this cliff!!
From the ranger station to the final 2km I only saw one rider going uphill. And the only riders going downhill were Ryder and Svein. With a wink, a nod, and a “yeah Chris” from Ryder they flew past me racing towards the pizza and beer waiting for us at the bottom. I finished out the final 2km, battled the final 400meters – the steepest part of the climb – and enjoyed an icy cold Coke at the summit. The views of the crater, the clouds, and Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (more than 150km away) poking through the clouds were inspiring.
Here’s a shot of me at the top – in front of the shelter. I was completely gassed at this point, and anxious to get a drink, some food, and start the descent. As well here’s the elevation and speed chart from my Garmin.