February 19, 2014

Climbing Halekala

At 9,998 ft, Haleakala is long the longest continuous paved climb in the world. Hawaiian tradition recognizes the climb as the ‘house of the sun’. You literally climb from the coast to the clouds.

I’ve always been a sucker for climbs, so when my family decided to make a trip to Hawaii to visit my brother (who is lucky enough to have a job in Maui), I was very excited.


The first challenge was getting my bike to the island. I decided to ship via UPS (about $150). Expensive, but I decided this was a once in a lifetime ride, and I wanted to have my own bike with me. Would you go on a honeymoon without your spouse?


I shipped my bike to Neal at Crater Cycles. He built it up for me for around $50. To me any money spent at another bike shop is a good investment, and Neal was super helpful. I also bought some energy bars and a CO2 from him (I didn’t want to fool with shipping CO2).

On the return trip, I went to West Maui Cycles to get my bike re-packed (another $50) and the guys there also did a great job. They also gave me a good tip to get my bike home on the cheap – curb checking.   The airlines typically charge $100+ to check a bike, but if you curb check, you can 'bribe' the guys at the counter and get it done for much less. I did have to hassle with them a little, but in the end, they got my bike back to Nashville for only $40.  

I would have paid around $250 to rent a comparable bike for a week, so in the end, I only paid about $50 more to have my own bike. BARGAIN!

Since I knew I would only have one chance to make the ride, I tried to study up as much as possible. I read lots of people’s accounts online and also tried to memorize the route (apparently it’s easy to miss a turn or two). I also wanted to ride other parts of the island, so I decided that I should do the volcano on the first available nice weather day.

In the end, I couldn't have asked for a better day.  

After watching videos for the 3 weeks leading up to the ride, I knew that making my own was a right of passage. 

My experience ...

1)   This is the longest paved climb in the world – not steepest, the longest. The average grade is only around 5%. You will want to pace slow and steady.   There is only one place right before the summit where the grade is tough (20%).   By the time you get to this point, you’re so close to the top, you won’t even care that it’s 20%. :)

2)   Bring lots of food – I brought 5 bars, 2 packs of energy chews, a banana, a bottle and a camel pack. With the exception of a few roadside fruit stands in the first 2,500 ft (that may or may not be open), the only stop is the Lavender Farm. Most of the things that I read online talked about the Sunrise Market – but this place went out of business in 2012. The Lavender Farm is now your only chance for a stop, and although you can get a good lunch here, you can’t get any of the other gas station goodies like power bars or Gatorade. BUT, they are super nice, and the lavender smells incredible so go ahead and plan a stop there.

The ranger stations at 6,500 ft have a bathroom and water, but don’t count on them for food.   The station on top also closes at 3:00PM (I realized this when I got there at 3:10). Glad I wasn’t counting on that! Just to be safe, I would plan on carrying enough food and hydration for the whole ride.

3)   Leave early – the climb took me around 6 hours including several stops along the way. I read that one of the shops has a guided tour up the mountain and they sweep riders after 6 hours climbing. I decided that would be a good goal for myself. I’m a strong enough rider, but nothing special. 6 hours ended up being perfect for me.

4)   Pace yourself - I don’t ride with computers or heart rate monitors, although I have in the past. I tried to stay aerobic the entire time. Even doing this, I could feel myself starting to wear down around 6,000 ft (just when the weather gets nasty). There are a few moments when it’s tempting to just pump it hard around a corner because the grade is so easy. Trust me, this is a bad strategy – around that one corner, there are about 200 others and there is no way you’re going to make it up all of them without pacing yourself.

5)   Consider only climbing the mountain (i.e. don’t feel like you have to ride from where you are staying). There are lots of interesting things on your way up and down the mountain. I recommend savoring as much of the climb and descent as possible.

6)   Bring extra clothing for the summit and the descent. I brought tights, arm warmers, windbreaker, warm hat, and thick gloves. As I was climbing it started to get cold around 6,300ft and then the clouds moved in and stayed on top of me until about 8,500ft. The moisture and wind really suck out your heat after you’ve been sweating. I read a few posts about how people have gotten severe hypothermia at this point.   By the time I got to the top, I was very glad to have my gloves, hat and arm warmers.   When you head back down the mountain, you’ll want every warm thing you have.

7)   Charge your phone / camera – it’s a long ride and you’ll want to take a few pictures when you get to the top. If you’re running Strava and taking a few videos on your phone like me, then you could easily run out of battery by the time you get to the top. You’ll also want your phone in case you get into trouble. Realizing this might happen to me, I brought a charger and plugged in at the ranger station. They’ll be more than happy to let you do this. I could tell from talking with them that they get their fair share of stranded cyclists and they are more than happy to do prevent people from getting in bad situations.

8)   Hitch hike if you need it – if you realize you don’t have enough food or the weather is too bad, you can easily grab a ride down from a stranger. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was as I rode up the mountain – lots of helpful cheers and thumbs up from drivers.   This encouragement from strangers really feels great when the climb starts to get tough.

9)   Take it easy on the way down – the descent is very long and cold. You’ll be tired. Make sure that you don’t let your bike get away from you. Most of the turns are not banked, which will make braking important. Since you’ll probably be riding through weather in the higher elevations, you’ll also have to contend with wet roads and brakes. I was thankful for my disc brakes. I heard from other people that they have had several fatalities over the years from people who lost control on the descent. Also watch for the cow crossings and reflectors in the road! Slow down considerably before you hit a cow crossing. If your tires are too thin, you might even walk this. I was feeling a little cocky because I had big 35cm tires and decided to hit one at full speed and ended up almost losing control of my bike – bad idea. That metal is slippery. The reflectors in the road are also raised, and if you hit one of these sideways, it could be enough of a surprise to take you out.

10)    Bring lights and watch for cars – Luckily I had a set of lights with me. In the clouds, the visibility is very bad. You will be much safer with lights. There is also a lot of traffic on the road depending on what time of day you do the climb. Keep this in mind as you descend also. You probably won’t be able to hear them coming up behind you as you go down the mountain. Keep an eye out behind you (just be careful not to fly off the next S turn when you’re looking behind you!). Utilize the shoulder for drivers to pass. If that makes you nervous, just take the center of the lane and take your time. I was more worried about myself than any of the cars behind me.

Finally, write it all down so that you’ll remember it. It’s a fantastic ride.