With recent incidents on the summit of Maunakea, here are some safety tips and also important visitor information.
Published by: HIRSC - Hawaii Island (Hilo and Holualoa) Team
The Maunakea Rangers along with Hawaii Fire Department (HFD), U.S. Army Fire Department at Pōhakuloa Training Area (PTA Fire), and the Hawaii Police Department (HPD) have responded to a total of 7 emergencies according to HIRSC Scanner Logs (3 of which were medical emergencies, 2 rescues, 1 non-injury collision, 1 critical injury incident) at the summit of Maunakea since the first large snowfall occurred.
With the recent incidents, the Maunakea Rangers provided these tips to help ensure those who are going to visit the summit have not only a safe but also a healthy and memorable time.
Visiting the Summit
Please check Summit Road Conditions before you come!
If you are planning to visit the summit, we highly recommend that you stop at the Visitor Information Station (VIS) at 9,200 ft to receive a current weather update, safety information, and to adjust to the change in altitude. Maunakea is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet in about 2 hours, so altitude sickness is a high possibility. At 14,000 feet, there is 40% less air pressure than at sea level, so visitors should acclimatize to the altitude before proceeding further up the mountain. Anyone in poor health should consult their physician before planning a visit to Maunakea. We do not recommend anyone who is pregnant go further than the VIS. People under the age of 13 should not go any further because their bodies are still developing and are affected more rapidly when going to a high altitude. If you plan to scuba dive, do not plan to go up to the summit within 24 hours after your dive. Furthermore, we do not recommend anyone with a heart or respiratory problem to travel above the VIS. For your safety and the safety of others please view Maunakea Hazards and the Visiting Maunakea Video. Visitors are advised that only TRUE 4-wheel drive vehicles with LOW range may travel above the VIS. About 200 yards beyond the station, the pavement ends and the next five miles are a steep graded-gravel road. Before proceeding visitors should consult their rental vehicle company or review their contract concerning visiting the summit of Maunakea. Many rental companies do not allow their vehicles on the summit even if they are 4-wheel drive, and if anything were to happen to your vehicle you would potentially be responsible for all towing charges and repairs, which can be thousands of dollars ($$$$). If your vehicle becomes disabled, immediately inform the Maunakea Rangers at (808) 961-2180. You will be required to make arrangements for immediate removal or repair. If the vehicle is a hazard to drivers and repair or towing arrangements are not immediately arranged, it will be towed at your (or the rental company's) expense.
Keep the Maunakea Rangers informed. The visiting hours to the summit area are from 1/2 hour before sunrise until 1/2 hour after sunset. For your safety, we ask that visitors leave the summit once it becomes dark. If you are visiting the summit area, please leave the landscape as you find it. Do not disturb the terrain or build rock piles. Please stay on designated roadways and trails. Off-road driving is prohibited. Maunakea is a sensitive environment, so please treat it as such. Do not litter.
Note: The observatories are private research facilities and not open to the public. Stargazing only occurs at the VIS level, where conditions are better for visitors and temperatures are much warmer than at the summit.
Exposure to Altitude
The summit elevation is 13,796 feet (4,205m). The oxygen level in the body is greatly reduced at this altitude and visitors can experience shortness of breath, impaired judgment, and other symptoms. Reduced atmospheric pressure at high altitudes may cause altitude sickness or result in the development of other life-threatening conditions such as pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid on the brain). Also, because the summit is above much of the atmosphere that blocks the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays, there is a high risk of serious sunburn and eye damage, especially if there is snow on the ground.
Precautions Before Ascending the Summit
Prior to ascending the summit, acclimatize by spending at least 1/2 hour at the Visitor Information Station located at the 9,200 ft (2,804 m) elevation. This may lessen the intensity or onset of altitude sickness. If symptoms occur at this elevation, do not travel above the Visitor Information Station.
Apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses and protective clothing.
Hikers should register at the Visitor Information Station, have appropriate gear (including at least 3 liters of water per person), take a map, be aware of the weather forecast, and use the buddy system.
DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES BEFORE OR DURING YOUR VISIT.
Persons at Risk
We strongly advise the following individuals not to travel above the Visitor Information Station:
People with heart or respiratory problems
People in poor physical condition
Children under the age of 13*
* Extended exposure to high altitudes can cause permanent damage to children whose bodies are still developing.
Symptoms of ALTITUDE SICKNESS include:
Altered mental state
Loss of balance
Symptoms of PULMONARY EDEMA and CEREBRAL EDEMA include:
Blue lips or fingernails
Extreme drowsiness (could result in a coma)
Click to read an article about long-term brain damage from High Altitude Cerebral Edema.
If symptoms persist or become severe, immediately descend to a lower elevation. It could be a matter of life or death!
Because some of the slopes are very steep with rocky outcroppings at the bottom, you are strongly advised NOT TO USE inner tubes, boogie boards, or other devices that are NOT equipped with braking mechanisms or which do NOT provide directional control on snow or ice.
Due to the fragile environment and cultural significance of Maunakea AND safety to you and others using the mountain, SNOWMOBILES OR ANY TYPE OF OFF-ROAD VEHICLES ARE PROHIBITED.
There is no equipment or infrastructure available for organized snow play on Maunakea
All snow recreation is at the risk of the individual
During the winter ice regularly forms on the observatory buildings and other structures. As these ice formations melt, large fragments fall to the ground without warning. You could be injured or your vehicle could be damaged.
Do not approach observatory buildings and other structures when ice is present
Weather can change very rapidly, resulting in severe conditions including freezing temperatures, snowstorms, and high winds which can reach over 100 mph. "White-outs" caused by blowing snow and fog block all visibility. Road conditions can become hazardous due to deep snow drifts, freezing fog, and ice preventing vehicular passage. Visitors on the summit when severe weather occurs face a life-threatening situation. Severe weather conditions can last up to a week preventing immediate rescue. Should you get stuck in a severe winter storm, always stay with your vehicle.
Equip yourself with cold-weather clothing
Evacuate as soon as hazardous weather conditions begin to occur
The summit access road is approximately eight miles long and includes steep inclines. The first five miles of the road are unpaved, with poor traction, narrow sections, blind curves, and rocks on the road. In some places, there may not be enough room for two-way traffic, especially when large trucks are on the road. Road clearing and maintenance equipment should be given the right of way. Stopping distances are greatly increased when there is snow or ice on the road. Drivers should expect to see a lot of vehicles and pedestrians on the road. Drivers should also be careful of the sun in their eyes during the early morning and late afternoon.
Visitors are advised that only TRUE 4-wheel drive vehicles with LOW range travel are allowed beyond the VIS. Before proceeding visitors should consult their rental vehicle company or review their contract concerning visiting the summit of Maunakea. Many rental companies do not allow their vehicles to continue on the summit even if they are 4-wheel drive.
Drivers are cautioned to:
Use 4-wheel drive vehicles with LOW RANGE
Drive slowly (Note the speed limit is 25mph)
Always use 4-wheel drive LOW RANGE (to reduce brake failure and overheating)
If your vehicle becomes disabled, immediately inform the Maunakea Rangers at (808) 961-2180. You will be required to make arrangements for immediate removal or repair.
If the vehicle is a hazard to drivers and repair or towing arrangements are not immediately arranged, it will be towed at your (or the rental company's) expense.
Keep the Maunakea Rangers informed.
Maunakea is a very remote location. There are no public accommodations, food, or gasoline services. Observatory buildings are not open to the public. There are few restroom facilities above the Visitor Information Station. The only public telephone above the Visitor Information Station is an emergency phone at the entrance to the University of Hawai‘i 88-inch Telescope. Cellular phone coverage is unreliable on Saddle Road, Maunakea Access Road, and on the summit. Vehicles should be in good working condition, especially the brakes, and should contain sufficient fuel to return to Hilo or Waimea. Emergency services, including medical assistance, maybe two hours away.
ALL VISITORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN SAFETY. MINORS MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT AT ALL TIMES. TRAVEL IS AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Emergencies: 911 Visitor Information Station: 934-4550 Winter Conditions: 935-6268 (recording)