Way back in the summer of 2018, in the “before time”, we could travel, and hang out in large groups. Remember those days? Ah, innocence. Little did we know…
After a late night with the manta rays, we had a light agenda for Day 4 of our Hawai’i adventure. Most of the time was consumed by the logistics in taking a short flight from Kona, on the Big Island, over to Maui. Once there, we got ourselves situated and oriented, and then had a big family dinner with the whole gang before turning in early. This was a day sandwiched between a late night and a very early morning – we had a Day 5 dawn appointment at the House of the Sun, Haleakala.
Haleakala (Hah-lay-AH-kah-lah) is the largest peak on Maui, a dormant volcano that last erupted about four hundred years ago. Because of its prominence on the east side of Maui, and the amphitheater-like shape of its summit crater, it has long had an association with the rising sun. Our plan was to be on the summit for sunrise, and then ride bikes all the way back down, but in order to make it work, we had to be up and ready to catch a hotel shuttle at 1:30am. That’s not really morning, if you ask me, it’s the night before.
Our hotel was very accommodating. Not only did they tolerate a gang of people starting their day just after midnight in their lobby, they also arranged boxed meals for us to take along on our morning’s journey. As we struggled to get coffee into our veins, our shuttle arrived and took us to the town of Haiku, and to Bike Maui, where we started to gear up with BMX-style helmets and get bikes suitably sized to our respective frames. The boys took the opportunity to start snacking (it was now 3:00 am, after all. Breakfast time!) while we got a quick safety briefing on the biking aspects of this adventure, focusing heavily on the powerful disk brakes and the challenges in maintaining a reasonable speed plunging down a winding road from Haleakala’s summit. Our enthusiasm for the journey to come was generally split along gender lines – the guys were all looking forward to it, and the women were concerned about crashing. This safety brief didn’t help their cautious attitude in the least!
Before long, we were back on the shuttle buses, this time on a long winding journey through the dark to climb up Haleakala, make one restroom stop (there aren’t many options between reaching the summit and getting back down) and arrive at the summit crater at about 6:00pm. A few of us may have taken the opprotunity to doze off during the ride, but that’s just good time management. At this point, we’d been up almost five hours and dawn was still over an hour away.
Our first impression of Halekala – it was COLD. In truth, it was probably only in the mid-twenties (deg F), but it was also windy, and given that we’d largely been enjoying a sea-level tropical paradise up to this point, it was a bit of a shock to the system. In fact, if you do this journey, or anything similar, being prepared for the different climatic zones between an exposed summit at over 10,000 feet and a tropical jungle is part of the logistical challenge. We brought along several day packs to stuff jackets and clothing layers in as we got down into warmer climes.
As we got our bearings in the dim light, the eastern horizon began to glow. It was apparent that to the east, out over the Pacific, a blanket of clouds lay beneath us. Those clouds slowly started to redden as the cinder cones within the crater started to become more apparent. The summit crater here is seven miles across and about four-thousand feet deep, but from our vantage point, with no good size references, it was really hard to imagine that the distances were that vast. Our eyes were drawn, instead, to the color palette. Orange and red rocks mixed with the black of long-cooled lava flows, dotted with the occasional yellow or green of hardy vegetation that’s managed to eke out a foothold here. As the sun slowly rose, the red-orange alpenglow of dawn washed in through the crater, and the stark relief of elongated shadows served to highlight the colors in the various cinder cones. They looked small, intimate. But in reality these cones are mountains in and of themselves, covered in loose talus.
We really were in the House of the Sun. Dawn was gorgeous, and spectacular (though still windy, and cold). As the light grew, we took the opportunity to take in views from several vantage points around the crater before getting BACK on shuttle buses at about 7:30am. Our bike ride, as it turned out, would start NOT from the summit crater itself, but from a point just outside the boundary of Haleakala National Park, at an elevation of about 6,700 feet. Even from this point, we’d have 22 miles and about 6,400 feet to lose on our way back to Haiku.
Helmets went back on. The nervousness among portions of our group grew palpable again. And soon, we had bikes in hand, ready to go! Bike Maui’s trips are arranged such that you are on your own schedule. Rush straight down, or take your time – it’s completely up to you, so long as you eventually return your bike to their Haiku headquarters.
The trip down the mountain had been described as a “gravity mitigation exercise”, and it certainly was that. There are only two short stretches of road along the entire 22-mile length of the trip that require any pedaling at all. Everything else is a downhill coast, with liberal application of brakes required to navigate the tight corners. The trip is also along a public road, with numerous cars – though at this time of morning, the vast majority of any traffic seemed to be heading UP the mountain, not trying to share a lane with us on the way back down.
The trip took us through expansive views among grassy slopes above treeline, down into evergreen groves, and eventually out of the park and through small Hawai’ian towns. All the way, brakes were burning, and occasionally you’d catch the scent of it from some biker up ahead who was riding the brakes hard.
About two-thirds of the way down, we made a pit stop in Makawao, at a place called the Komodo Bakery. Nothing like a good cream-puff to keep the blood sugar up!
I have no idea how many crashes took place that morning. But I can tell you that just within our small group, we had two. The first occurred when one of the boys didn’t slow down enough to make a left turn, ran off the road into the ditch and up against an embankment. Fortunately, other than wounding his pride and an unwelcome adrenaline rush, he was fine.
The second was a little more serious. One of us was following another too closely, and failed to notice hard braking (no tail-lights on these bikes, you know), and, in an effort to avoid collision went off the road and over the handlebars, colliding with the bike in front regardless (though some of the impact was certainly mitigated by last-second evasive maneuvers). Fortunately, the rider in front was unhurt. The rear rider came away with some significant road rash and bloody scrapes to show for his inattention. (Yes, it was the gung-ho guys that crashed, in both cases!)
Both of these incidents served to remind us that the helmets, the souped-up brakes, the briefing back in Haiku – it wasn’t just established to satisfy the lawyers, but these were needed safety precautions in what is, inherently, a potentially dangerous activity. The helmets did their job, though, and we avoided any serious problems.
All in all, it was a great morning! Early, and windy, and cold, yes. But also beautiful, and exhilarating, an a lot of fun!
And the cream-puffs were excellent, too!
Get Out There