Skiing in Hawaii? Things you Never Knew Possible
The big island of Hawaii is a land of extremes and contrast. Massive lava fields dot the landscape and liquid hot magma flows from Kilauea into the Pacific Ocean, a roiling and steamy sight to behold, the earth growing before your very eyes. These same earth building forces pushed the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, the two highest points on the big island, above 13,000 feet. Both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa get snow in the winter months, their 13,000+ foot summits a shockingly different world than the warm beaches and ocean far below. A number of telescopes and observatories stand between the jumble of volcanic rock and cinder cones at the top of Mauna Kea. A combination of paved and dirt roads whisk you from sea level to 13,802 feet in less than two hours.
I got married last June, and due to work and school related obligations my wife and I chose to delay our honeymoon until her winter break, the first three weeks of January. We decided to travel to Japan, not just for the skiing, but for the rich cultural experience. On the way, however, we spent five days on the big island of Hawaii visiting my wife’s family who live in Kona. Her father, brother and three nephews all live in the year-round paradise that is Hawaii, and our trip there was primarily a family visit, but also my first experience traveling to any of the Hawaiian islands.
While it does snow occasionally at the top of Mauna Kea it is by no means a consistent or regular occurrence. Skiable snow coverage and conditions are a rare treat. Fortunately, in December of 2016 there was a decent storm that brought several feet of snow to the highest elevations on Mauna Kea – snow that lingered into the early part of January when I made my visit. It had never really crossed my mind to ski in Hawaii, or that it was even a possibility, until we made plans to go on this trip. Since we were headed to the deep powder mecca of Japan after our brief stay in Hawaii, I just happened to have all of my ski gear with me, so I figured it was my obligation to give it a shot.
After about an hour drive from Kona we arrived at the Mauna Kea Visitors Center, around 9,000 feet. It took a good 20-30 minutes to acclimate to the very rapid ascent from sea level before continuing up the steep switchbacks to the volcanic moonscape above. I’d looked at the webcams and done a little research before heading up there, but I remained skeptical of the skiability of the terrain until we reached the top of the mountain. A number of broad mellow bowls and cinder cones came into view with ample coverage. We stepped out of the truck and into below freezing temperatures, prompting me to change from my board shorts and flip-flops and into my ski gear in a hurry.
I figured I might take a run, maybe two, just so I could say that I’d skied in Hawaii. Six runs later I’d skied everything in sight that looked interesting to me. With relatively short pitches, around 300-500 foot, six laps was by no means any sort of Herculean feat, but above 13,000 feet coming from sea level it still took it out of me.
Turns out I was the only one skiing up there that day. I caught lots of funny looks and questions from the truck loads of Hawaiians boogie boarding, sledding, and filling their truck beds with snow to bring back down the mountain with them.
The snow was mixed bag, and the terrain was far from challenging, but the experience of skiing in Hawaii was one that I’m unlikely to repeat again anytime soon and I certainly won’t forget.