In this guest post, Californian cyclist Frank Brockmann relives the experience of conquering Haleakala and provides some tips for cyclists who are keen to tackle the epic climb up this dormant volcano.
Haleakala is arguably one of the world’s premiere routes for climbing cyclists. The numbers don’t lie: with 10,000+ feet (3,000+ metres) of vertical gain over just 36 miles (57km) of roadway, this is simply a big, giant, honking climb … but there’s also a fair amount of man-made cycling-hype to go with all that volcanic hugeness. The website for the annual Cycle to the Sun race, for example, offers up the ride as nothing less than a big ol’ dare:
‘Ride The Longest, Steepest Paved Road On Earth.’
I’m not inclined to fact-check these kinds of claims, but true or not, I get the message: Huge climb here. World-class. Way up there. Bring it on.
On paper, the climb has a kind of mathematical purity and smoothness. The total vertical gain is both impressive and unique (there just aren’t that many 10,000ft climbs around, no matter where you hang your helmet), and the slope is constant and manageable (it has an average gradient of 5.5% and rarely gets above 8%).
Overall, it’s a perfect recipe for weekend warrior appeal, something that makes recreational cyclists say: ‘Hey, I’m doing pretty well on Big Dog Hill during the weekly club ride, so I should go tackle this volcano on the day before the big luau!’
Big, giant climb? Yes. Impossibly steep? Not so much. Still, I’m sure many cyclists who set out to conquer this climb end up turning around well before reaching the summit.
Why? Well, consider this: according to Wikipedia — which is never ever wrong about anything, ever — early Hawaiians gave the mountain the name Haleakala, which means ‘house of the sun’. The crater at the summit was home to the grandmother of Maui (the demi-god after whom the island is named).
If true, this proves to me that early Hawaiians also possessed a keen sense of humor with regard to future cyclists. If you don’t plan for cold air, this ‘house of the sun’ grandma can chill your junk out faster than a pound of shaved ice stuffed between your shorts and your saddle.
So what’s the climb like? Well, I reckon it makes sense to break it into three parts. Here’s the breakdown of each:
There are a few ways to start the ride to Haleakala: from the town of Paia, or Kehei, or wherever you happen to be staying. Truthfully, there’s really only one respectable way to end it. More on that soon.
The town of Paia earns my vote for the ‘true’ start point, because that’s where the 4-6% grade really begins. By contrast, if you depart from the town of Kehei you’ll start with up to 10 miles (16km) of flat highway spinning through charming, breezy fields of sugar cane. Even though the 20mph (32km/h) winds, the mai tai hangover and the 23-year-old local phenom cyclist you’re trying to draft behind might cause you to burn a few matches, none of that stuff really counts as climbing and you know it.
So for the sake of climb-loving cyclists everywhere let’s just make it official: the Haleakala climb starts at sea level in Paia. Period. It ends at the summit, where the dirt turns red and pavement runs out and there’s no more ‘up’ to ride. Period.
First things first: parking in Paia is a cutthroat affair. If you get there early, you’ll find a free parking lot near the corner of State Highway 36 and Paia Mini-Bypass Road. If that lot is full and it’s 9:00am on a Saturday or Sunday, you might want to just start praying like hell that someone in the nearby restaurant will eat a quick breakfast, pass gas, and cough up a parking space. Alternatively, there is at least one paid parking lot nearby, so not all hope is lost. But again, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
No matter where you park, you’ll start the ride somewhere near the corner of State Highway 36 and Baldwin Avenue by turning on to Baldwin toward Haleakala (away from the ocean). The road quality is pretty rough as you make your way out of town, and I don’t remember any bike lane to speak of. At least you’re climbing, though, and within minutes you’ll be sweating too, regardless of how hard you’re working; it’s humid. Good times.
You follow Baldwin for almost 7 miles (11km) to the town of Makawao. It’s fairly interesting along the way: a stone church, fields of sugar cane, abandoned sugar mills, schools, graveyards, glass shops. You get a sense of what life was like 50 to 100 years ago here, and how locals would have perceived you as a stupid, clownish figure as you pedaled along in your yellow-glow Pearl Izumi skin-tight butt-huggers on your way to the center of a dormant volcano. Mainland fools!
In Makawao, you dodge a few cars and then cross the main intersection on to Olinda Road. Here, you get a brief taste of 10% grade for about 300 feet (100 metres), but it levels off and you put Makawao in your rearview mirror, metaphorically speaking, as you pedal away from town toward the mustangs and the eucalyptus groves.
(Note: there’s a well-documented, easy-to-miss right turn on to Hanamu road at the 8 mile (13km) mark of the ride. Miss the turn and you’ll be sorry. Really sorry.)
For me, this is where the climb gets interesting. About 9 miles (14.5km) into the ride, you get a wholly decent bike lane and you converge with State Highway 177. The semi-inhabited ranch areas give way to miles of nicely paved switchbacks. You start to climb above the terrain. If you’re not in a cloud (literally), stunning views of the island begin to emerge. Near Crater Road at mile 14 (22.5km), there are a couple of little markets — the last of which is Sunrise Market (elevation 3,500ft/1,070 metres).
Away from Sunrise Market, it makes sense to settle into a rhythm. On my ride, at the first switchback a local roadie wheeled up beside me, radio blaring some 80s music into the countryside. Then, he uttered ‘Good luck–this is where it gets hard!’ before spinning away ahead of me.
From there, I counted about 20 switchbacks, none of which was devastating by itself, but he was right — the cumulative effect was impossible to ignore. Major quad-burner. After an hour I started having paranoid thoughts about not having enough food in my gut to fuel the effort, so at 21.5 miles (34km) and 6,000ft (1,830m) of altitude I pulled into a scenic turnout, took out a Clif bar, and nearly finished off my water just washing it down. Then I did something really dumb: I struck up a conversation with a couple of tourists.
‘There’s more water just up the road there’, they said. They were extremely nice people and I ignored the cardinal rule of cycling in a new environment: never believe what locals tell you in regard to how far something is from your current location. They are always, always wrong, and the water is never, ever ‘just up the road’.
It took me about 40 minutes to reach the Visitor Center, half of which was spent cursing at that nice couple from San Diego every time I looked at my empty water bottle.
So, here’s what happens when you don’t bring your warm clothes to Haleakala: at 7,000ft (2,130m) you reach the Visitor Center, where you give $5 to the park ranger. You use the bathroom, fill your bottles, eat something, and glug some water. You try stretching your legs a bit. Then you get back on the bike, and after about 30 seconds the little voice in your head says something like:
‘Wow, it’s fricken cold up here. Maybe I’ve had enough. After all, 7,000 feet of climbing is pretty good.’
Don’t be that guy. The most unique thing about the Haleakala, other than the sheer size of it, is the way conditions can vary so much between the bottom and the top. Wherever that extra clothing is — on your body, in your pockets, tied to your frame, whatever — you’ll be using it pretty soon.
Leaving the Visitor Center, the landscape becomes decidedly lunar. The day of my ride, the winds kicked up in all directions but for some reason (thin air?) I never really felt pushed around by the wind or breathless from the elevation. If it’s cloud-free up there, the views can be truly amazing, which helps pass the time. Otherwise, there’s not much to do but press on and forget about the fact that the average grade kicked up to about 8%.
Soon, you’re at 8,000ft (2,440m). Then, you roll up to the sign for 9,000ft (2,740m). It just kind of happens. Just a couple more miles to go. How could anyone turn back at this point? The observatories are in sight. You just keep going.
There’s a main parking lot near the summit, which looks like the ideal place to stop. But as you roll up to it, you see another road that continues up to the true summit. Kind of steep, maybe 15% in places. Sure, you’re tired. But what are you gonna do, not go up there?
You just have to ride up to the overlook, get off the bike, and have someone take your picture next to the elevation sign. And don’t be surprised if a lot of the tourists treat you like a rock star.
At the summit, all of the moaning about warm clothing will start to make sense. If you felt a chill coming up to the summit, it’s nothing compared to what you are about to feel going back down. Get the gloves out, and put on all that warm stuff you humped up to the summit with you. That way, you can really enjoy a killer descent. If you’re lucky, you won’t even get stuck behind a pokey motorist on the way down.
Side note: the descent rolls pretty fast in some areas, and I was almost killed by a pheasant on the way down. But that’s another tale. Just be careful.
Here’s the bottom line. Assuming you’ve got the required endurance and at least half a day to kill, Haleakala really only requires two things: patience and warm clothing.
Obviously, it’s a long climb. Hours in the saddle. Even though none of it is very steep, there are almost no flat or downhill sections at all, and chances are pretty good that’s not your everyday club experience. If you’re not used that, you’ll be feeling it.
How long does the climb take, you ask? Well Ryder Hesjedal holds the record with 2 hours and 32 minutes. Average Joes do it in 5, 6, or more. But seriously, does it really matter? It only matters if you’re not used to sitting for that long. (And hey, if you’re shooting for the KOM on Strava, you should know that your stopped time is counted as moving time.)
I think it’s the weather, not the lack of patience, which usually does people in, even when they know better. When you roll out from the town of Paia at 7am, and it’s a balmy 81°F (27°C) and there’s a slight breeze coming off the ocean, and you’re picking up the scent of powdered sugar on fresh waffles as it wafts over from the nearby cafe, and your legs are dancing like they can’t wait to kick all 10,000 feet of that volcano’s ash, well … if at this point you haven’t brought warm clothing of any kind, you might just be toast.
Why? Because when you’re mentally rehearsing how you’re going to lift that bike over your head for your Instagram moment at the summit, you’re probably not going to follow through on thoughts like ‘oh crap — I forgot my full-fingered gloves’ or ‘damn, I really should have carried along that extra wool base layer.’ Nope. Corrections of this kind aren’t going to happen, even if you actually brought that stuff along. Which you didn’t, because it’s 81°F, and you’re a climber, dammit.
Just bring the warm stuff, even if you don’t think you’ll need it!
Have you got a climbing story you’d like to share? Perhaps you’ve just conquered one of the legendary climbs in the French Alps. Or maybe you’ve finally finished that pesky local climb after three attempts. Or maybe you’ve just completed your very first climb. We’d like to hear from you. Send an email to Matt with all the details.