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01/08/99- Updated 05:35 PM ET


Yes, you can snow ski in Hawaii

MAUNA KEA, Hawaii -- What better place to pursue a tropical snow-skiing treat than the Big Island of Hawaii, where the slopes of Mauna Kea beckon with Polynesian powder.

When conditions are right, a ride down the snowcapped 13,796-foot dormant volcano can be a real rush.

''It's a unique ski experience,'' says Scott Meiklejohn, who lived in Hawaii for seven years. ''The good days are really something. The view alone is worth the trip.''

On a clear day, the panorama is spectacular.

At the top of Mauna Kea, snow enthusiasts can look south and see Mauna Loa (13,677), an active volcano that last erupted in 1984.

Beaches can be seen below. Haleakala, a 10,023-foot mountain on Maui, is visible in the distance.

''It's absolutely beautiful,'' Kona's Gerry Rott says. ''And you see the contrast between black lava and the snow, too.''

She once boogie-boarded Mauna Kea, then used the same short board to belly-surf at Hapuna Beach later that day.

The snowfall from storms sometimes proves irresistible to local enthusiasts, who respond in surprising ways.

Creative residents drive to the summit, load a pickup with white stuff and race home to build a snowman under a palm tree. They sit in the sun and watch their handiwork melt.

When there is good snow, youngsters from Honolulu fly to the Big Island, 30 minutes away by plane, for a weekend of skiing and snowboarding.

Buckle on your boots and pick your pleasure: skis, snowboard or boogie board.

Skiing is intermediate to advanced; snowboarding advanced intermediate to advanced. The mountain is no place for beginners.

Only self-sufficient skiers should hit these slopes.

Observatories dot the lunar-like landscape. There are no lifts, no ski shops and the snow isn't groomed.

''One advantage is you don't have to pay for lift tickets,'' says Waimea resident Debra Herkes, chuckling.

A trip to the summit of Mauna Kea (white mountain) isn't for the faint of heart.

The thin air at that altitude makes breathing difficult.

''When I was eight or nine, we'd have races up the hill to see who would pass out first from oxygen debt,'' says Tyson Rott, 23, who lives in Kona.

''The sun is really brutal,'' he adds. ''If you don't bring sunglasses, you get snowblind.''

One technique for dealing with the elevation is to take aspirin, which thins the blood and improves circulation.

''Some folks handle the elevation well, and some can't function at all up there,'' says Waimea's Carl Carlson, who first skied Mauna Kea in 1970.

The summit sits above the tree line. Winds there can reach 60-70 mph.

''Sometimes, you get up there and you can't ski,'' Meiklejohn says. ''You take a look and go back to the beach.''

Four-wheel drive is a must although the road is paved. Bigger groups are better.

One person is designated driver for the first trip to the top, then waits down at the snow line to pick up the skiers. Next trip, someone else drives.

Typically, skiers cover 1,000 to 2,500 vertical feet.

''Sometimes, we'll get a big storm and what amounts to 5,000 feet of snow,'' Carlson says. ''Then, you can drop several miles.''

Skiers start at the summit and ski down one of the cinder hills. They traverse over and work their way down another cinder hill, repeating the process until they run out of snow.

''Boogie boarding is a straight shot -- as breakneck as you can get,'' Waimea's Ken Herkes says. ''You really get flying.

Watch out for rocks.''

Running afoul of lava rock is not a pleasant experience.

''I saw a guy on a boogie board who couldn't make a turn and ran through a 10-foot area of fist-sized rocks,'' Debra Herkes says. ''It scraped him up pretty good.''

Nevertheless, Mauna Kea is the site for almost all Hawaii's fun in the snow.

Mauna Loa isn't a desirable ski destination because there is no paved road to the top. The snow isn't as deep and the slopes aren't steep enough.

It's hard for tourists to go skiing because there aren't any ski shops, so equipment is scarce. Snowboards and boogie boards are easier to get.

Christopher Langan of Ski Guides Hawaii (808-885-4188) has been leading trips up Mauna Kea since 1986.

Cost: $250 per person a day. That includes equipment, guides, about four hours of skiing and lunch at the top.

''February and March are the best months,'' Langan says. ''But I've skied from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July.''

The Big Island, southernmost in the Hawaiian chain, is twice the size of Delaware.

A trip to the Mauna Kea summit takes about two hours and is well worth the effort.

''It's an adventure, so you really have to want to do it,'' Langan says. ''You could be the only one skiing the mountain. It's a heavenly experience.''

By Harry Blauvelt, USA TODAY

  • Since Hawaii has no established ski areas, reports aren't available. Click here for ski reports from all of the U.S. states with ski areas and also from Canada.