Skiing and Snowboarding in Hawaii
Due to safety and environmental-impact issues and health
Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for 'white mountain') is a 13,796' (4205 meter) volcanic mountain whose summit sometimes gets a skiable/boardable mantle of snow. There are no lifts, no grooming, no resort, but a road goes to the summit to serve the dozen or so world class observatories located at the summit. You must have a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get to the summit, which serves as your "lift." Basically, skiers take turns being the driver, who picks up the other skiers at the bottom of the runs and ferries them up to the summit. Conditions at the top are extremely variable. Winter temperatures range from 25 to 40 degrees F (-4 to 4 C), but wind chill and the high altitude can make it seem much colder. Between April and November the weather is milder, with daytime temperatures varying from 30 to 60 degrees F (0 to 15 C).
You can get a good idea of the terrain (without snow) on top of Mauna Kea using Richard Wainscoat's Aerial Tour. The photo of Mauna Kea Observatories viewed from the West looks into one the runs with easiest access, the Poi Bowl (below left), which extends from the upper road down to the lower road of the aerial photo. There are live cameras on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), seen behind the skier in the left photo below and at the
Joint Astronomy Centre. The CFHT camera shows current conditions (in the background behind the radio tower to the left of the linked photo) on one of the steeper runs, Prince Kuhio on Pu'u Hau Kea (below right).
You can also see current views of Mauna Kea from the Mauna Loa Observatory camera. You're in luck if you can see lots of white on top of Mauna Kea. They also save the latest image before sunset if you are checking the site after dark. (Hawaii is ten hours behind UTC.) Completely white or gray camera views indicate that it is probably snowing.
The National Weather Service forecasts for Hilo and vicinity will provide information on what weather to expect. Rick Knabb at the University of Hawai`i Institute for Astronomy provides a two day Mauna Kea Forecast for astronomers.
If the winds are blowing 25-100+ knots, forget about driving to the summit. Too cold (wind chill), too dangerous and the road will probably be closed. The time to ski is after the islands get a big front passing through with lots of precipitation from high clouds, and Mauna Kea gets a good dump of snow. Depending on the wind, it may take a few days for the road to be cleared. You may need to be ready to fly over to Kona or Hilo within a few days, because the snow often melts with all the Hawaiian sunshine that Mauna Kea gets! Hawaii gets a lot more precipitation and so more snow in La Nina winters. El Nino winters can be very dry. Although February and March are the months most likely to have snow, in one unusual year back in the mid 80's, there was enough snow to hold a ski meet on July 4th!
The snow can have some very strange texture after days of exposure to the intense sun. Some runs can be quite steep and the snow can end abruptly. There is no soft vegetation underneath, only hard lava rock and abrasive cinder. You should be in very good physical shape, aerobically. The air is very thin, less than 60% of the air pressure at sea level, and most people experience altitude sickness to some degree. If you have the Adobe Acrobat Reader installed on your computer, you should read the UH Institute for Astronomy information on having a Safe and Enjoyable Trip to the Summit. Note the precautions about SCUBA diving.
While the snow conditions on Mauna Kea may not be the best in the world, the observatories are. You may find Summit Tours of the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy and the Visitor Information Station very interesting. The University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy has provided driving directions to the visitor station at the 9300' (2835 meter) elevation and to the summit as well as information on road closures. Remember, there is no food, water, gas, or bathroom available above the visitor station.
USA Today has an article in which includes information about skiing Mauna Kea. Lektrode's Mauna Kea Primer has lots of pictures with a good description of a skiing in Hawaii. The December, '99 issue of HMSA's Island Scene has an article, Breathtaking... about snowboarding on Mauna Kea.
Please realize that Mauna Kea is sacred to some Hawaiian people. Treat the area with respect. Also please remember that Mauna Kea is one of the best sites in the world for astronomy. Avoid interfering with astronomers' work. Skiers' cars stuck on the road can also cause significant problems for those working at the summit. The observatory staff also have had to spend some of their very valuable time at the summit rescuing skiers or snowboarders who weren't able to stop before the snow did. Snow conditions can be very challenging and lava rock very unforgiving, but the views are incredible. If you're in shape and conditions cooperate, you can have a fabulous time. The contrast between blue sky and ocean, white snow, and black cinder is unforgettable. Anyway, good luck and we hope Hawaii gets a big dump of powder while you're in the islands!
If you'd like to try cross country skiing without the snow and cold, check out what Olympic medalist and World Cup overall champion Bill Koch has been up to on Maui and Molokai.
When planning a trip to the Big Island, be sure to check the Eruption Update at the Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory. You may luck out and travel there when you can hike up close to hot, orange, flowing lava; or be able to see hot lava flow into the ocean. Another spectacular experience on the Big Island of Hawai`i!
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