Over the Volcano: Stranded and Hallucinating in a Hawaiian Snowstorm

Categories: Longform

All photos by Alex Sverdlov
Alex Sverdlov had climbed the volcano alone a year ago. It took him three and a half days to reach the top and get back to sea level. The hike was peaceful and not steep, but it was challenging enough that he decided to summit the volcano again. He was an experienced outdoorsman and strenuous adventures appealed to him. One time he signed up for a guided group hike in the Alaskan wilderness because a local told him it was "difficult." He realized within minutes that it wasn't, so halfway through he split from the pack and ran the rest of the way.

He knew his friends wouldn't want to join him on the volcano. They had small children and had come to Hawaii's big island for "touristy stuff" (as he called it), not for a "nutty hike" (as his friends called it).

It's about a 25-mile hike to reach the summit. Natives long ago named the volcano Mauna Loa: "Long Mountain." It's the biggest volcano on earth, but it rises gradually from the sea, like the belly of a submerged giant. Its flat terrain and gentle slopes can deceive. The climate at the top is fickle and conditions are unpredictable. Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, the first person on record to reach the summit, called his experience in 1794 "the most persevering and hazardous struggle that can possibly be conceived." David Douglas, the next man to complete the journey (40 years later), struggled to reach the top and described the trip back down as "even more fatiguing, dangerous, and distressing than the ascent had proved."

Sverdlov found these historical proclamations too dramatic to apply to his own adventures. With modern equipment and a marked trail, man had tamed the mountain, and Sverdlov had mastered Mauna Loa the first time around. He knew what to expect and was eager to document his journey in photos. He'd landed in Hawaii the previous morning and signed up for a Mauna Loa backcountry permit that afternoon: depart Sunday morning, January 26; return Wednesday night, January 29.

He parked the rented white Ford Focus on a dead-end dirt road near the trailhead. The sky was bright blue, the sun mellow, and he felt grateful to be on this island in 70-something-degree warmth, instead of home in New York City, where the week's forecast predicted subfreezing temperatures and snow.

He strapped on his backpack and walked toward the trail, pausing to photograph a tall sign bearing warnings:

Hikers must be physically fit and properly equipped for the arduous 3-4 day hike. Extreme temperature variations and freezing conditions may occur at any time of year.

Know Before You Go: Trails are marked by aha (stone cairns). Beware of deep earthcracks, loose rocks, and thin lava crusts. Stay on the trail. Do not hike after dark.

The ground was rocky and dusty at the start. Trees were gone once Sverdlov hit 7,000 feet elevation, and the landscape looked like Nevada desert. Green shrubs and the white branches of dead ones disappeared at 9,000 feet. Seven miles in and 10,000 feet above sea level, the trail's incline increased, and when he reached the top of the slope, the trail opened onto a plain of grainy reddish dirt that stretched from a hill to a cliff. At the base of the hill sat a wooden cabin with an orange roof. In the distance beyond the cabin, he could see the rounded peak of Mauna Kea, the volcano to the north.

He had arrived at Red Hill Cabin ahead of schedule. It was still early afternoon and he planned to spend the night here. He was a bit tired but could have hiked miles further if he wanted. He napped, ate dinner, went to bed.

He hit the trail around sunrise the next morning, a Monday. The terrain changed often at this altitude: wavy, light brown dried lava . . . soft, dark brown dirt clumps . . . brick-red stone fields . . . charcoal-gray volcanic rock . . . layers upon layers of magma once flowing and scorching but now hard and cool, a landscape shaped by countless eruptions, the last of which occurred in 1984. The trail curved around sudden depressions and gorges and cracks in the ground more than ten feet deep. Every 100 yards or so, rocks stacked into hip-high towers delineated the trail. He did not see a single cloud overhead.

This leg of the hike, to Mauna Loa Cabin, measured about 12 miles, and Sverdlov arrived minutes before the sun dipped below the horizon. He now stood 13,250 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The trail had veered away from the summit, down the southwest face of the mountain. The idea was to sleep at the cabin, reach the summit early Tuesday, then trek down to Red Hill by nightfall. He'd be back in civilization to meet friends for dinner on Wednesday. The trip was going perfectly.

He tossed his backpack beside one of the barrack-style room's bunk beds, refilled his red plastic water bottle from a tank outside, then went into the small kitchen to look through the cabinets, which usually contained leftovers from past journeys. A package of dehydrated egg, cheese, and bacon mix -- what luck! His diet to this point in the hike had consisted of granola bars, macadamia nuts, oatmeal, bagels, soup, and beef jerky.

[See also: Photos: Stranded in a Hawaiian Snowstorm]

He lit a candle on the picnic table at the center of the room and boiled a pot of water over the portable stove he'd brought. He poured in the breakfast mix. Within seconds it boiled over, white froth bubbling onto the table. When he reached for the pot, he toppled the stove and fuel spilled all over the mix, igniting streaks of flame across the table and into the air. An orange glow lit the room. He grabbed the water bottle and put out the fire.

The cabin smelled of scorched eggs. As he nestled into his sleeping bag, he couldn't believe he'd nearly burned the place down.

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