Mauna Kea
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Journals and personal accounts
of visitors to Mauna Kea 1778 – 1922

excerpts from
Mauna Kea – Kuahiwi Ku Ha‘o i ka Malie
by Kepa Maly

The Journal of Captain James Cook

December 1, 1778
At 7 PM we were close up with the North side of O'why'he where we spent the night standing off and on.

Wednesday 2nd. The 2nd in the Morning we were surprised to see the summits of the highest mountains covered with snow; they did not appear to be of any extraordinary height and yet in some places the snow seemed to be of a considerable depth and to have laid there some time.

Mon. 7
There are hills in this island of a considerable height whose summits were continually covered with snow [Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa], so that these people know all the climates from the Torrid to the Fridgid Zones.

Captain King:

The inland country rises gently at first but afterwards abruptly to a mountain, which is broken at the top, which must be very high, since we think we can discern a good deal of Snow upon it, some say the appearance is only Clouds hanging on the top, & is also cut into deep Glens.

Cook's officer Clerke:

This isle is one continued Mountain on which are Peaks of various heights, particularly two of vast elevation which were covered with snow all the time we were about the neighbourhood; the great altitude of these snow Peaks was by no means striking to the eye, I suppose from the vast base they stood upon, for they must have been of great height as we have seen them very clearly at 26 leagues distance, and then they appeared very high and prominent.

King noted:

On the NE side is Amacooa [Hamakua] & A-heedoo or O'heeroo [Hilo], the Snowy mountain which makes in 3 peaks & is called Mouna Kaa (or Mountain Kaa) separates them.

The Journal of missionary William Ellis (1823)

On approaching the islands, I have more than once observed the mountains of the interior long before the coast was visible, or any of the usual indications of land had been seen. On these occasions, the elevated summit of Mouna Kea, or Mouna Roa, has appeared above the mass of clouds that usually skirt the horizon, like a stately pyramid, or the silvered dome of a magnificent temple, distinguished from the clouds beneath, only by its well-defined outline, unchanging position, and intensity of brilliancy occasioned by the reflection of the sun's rays from the surface of the snow.

Reverend Joseph Goodrich ascended to the summit. Ellis reports that Goodrich reached the snow line and:

...directed his steps towards a neighbouring peak, which appeared to be one of the highest; but when he had ascended it, he saw several others still higher. On reaching the summit of this second peak, he discovered a heap of stones, probably erected by some former visitor.

The journal of missionary C. S. Stewart (1823-1825)

Friday, April 25. The appearance of Hawaii, this morning was exceedingly beautiful. We were within a few miles of the shore; and the whole of the eastern and northern parts of the island were distinctly in view, with an atmosphere perfectly clear, and a sky glowing with the freshness and splendor of sunrise. When I first went on deck, the gray of the morning still lingered in the lowlands, imparting to them a grave and somber shade; while the region behind, rising into broader light, presented its precipices and forests in all their boldness and verdure. Over the still loftier heights, one broad mantle of purple was thrown; above which, the ice cliffs of MOUNA-KEA blazed like fire, from the strong reflection of the sun-beams striking them long before they reached us on the waters below.

In the evening Hawaii and Mouna-kea again, at a distance, afforded another of the sublimest of prospects: — while the setting sun and rising moon combined in producing the finest effects on sea and land. The mountains were once more unclouded, and with a glass we could clearly discern immense bodies of ice and snow on their summits.

In June 1825, Stewart returned to Hilo with Lord Byron.

The land rose gradually from the cliff, to the distance of ten or fifteen miles, to a heavy wood encircling the base of Mounakea. Though in a state of nature, this large district had the appearance of cultivation, being an open country covered with grass, and beautifully studded and sprinkled with clumps, and groves, and single trees, in the manner of park scenery, with a cottage here and there peeping from beneath the rich foliage.


The New England missionary, Hiram Bingham describes an excursion with Kauikeaouli (King Kamehameha III), from Waimea, made in 1830.

The Journal of Hiram Bingham

The king set out with a party of more than a hundred, for an excursion further into the heart of the island, and an ascent to the summit of Mauna Kea. To watch over and instruct my young pupil [the King], and to benefit my health, I accompanied him. The excursion occupied nearly five days...

The next day they passed over the western slope of the mountain to the southern side, thence eastward along a nearly level plain, some seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, to a point south of the summit, and encamped out again, in the mild open air. In the course of this day's journey, the youthful king on horse back, pursued, ran down, and caught a yearling bullock, for amusement and for a luncheon for his attendants.

Having gained an elevation of about ten thousand feet, we halted and encamped for the night, in the dreary solitude of rocks and clouds. When the night spread her dark damp mantle over us, we found ourselves in the chilly autumnal atmosphere of the temperate zone of this most stupendous Polynesian mountain. Below us towards Mauna Loa was spread out a sea of dense fog, above which the tops of the two mountains appeared like islands. We found it a pretty cold lodging place. Ice was formed in a small stream of water near us, during the night.

In the morning we proceeded slowly upwards till about noon, when we came to banks of snow, and a pond of water apparently covered with ice. In his first contact with a snow bank, the juvenile king seemed highly delighted. He bounded and tumbled on it, grasped and handled and hastily examined pieces of it, then ran and offered a fragment of it in vain to his horse. He assisted in cutting out blocks of it, which were wrapped up and sent down as curiosities to the regent and other chiefs, at Waimea, some twenty-eight miles distant.

After refreshing and amusing ourselves at this cold mountain lake, we proceeded a little west of north, and some reached the lofty area which is surmounted by the "seven pillars" which wisdom had hewed out and based upon it, or the several terminal peaks near each other, resting on what would otherwise be a somewhat irregular table land, or plain of some twelve miles circumference. Ere we had reached the base of the highest peak, the sun was fast declining and the atmosphere growing cold.

The king and nearly all the company declined to attempt to scale the summit, and passing on to the north-west crossed over, not at the highest point, and hastily descended towards Waimea. John Phelps Kalaaulana, who had been in New England, the only native in the company who seemed inclined to brave the cold and undertake the labor of reaching the top, accompanied me, and we climbed to the summit of the loftiest peak. Our progress was slow and difficult, by a zigzag and winding course. On gaining the lofty apex, our position was an awful solitude, about 14,500 feet above the level of the sea, where no animal or vegetable life was found. No rustling leaf, or chirping bird, or living tenant of the place attracted the eye or ear.

Charles De Varigny, Secretary of the French Consulate, made at least two trips to Mauna Kea. On November 18, 1857, upon reaching the 7,000 foot elevation, he reported:

Letters of Charles De Varigny

Here the atmosphere of these uplands plateaus has an exceptional power to carry the sound of the human voice, making ordinary tones audible a mile away. But there are no traces of inhabitants. Only some great wild cattle trouble the silence of these solitudes when during their wanderings a dead branch is broken. Halemakule [the native guide] was struck by the unfortunate idea of testing the effects of his Hawaiian chanting as it reverberated among the mountain echoes. Still one more point on which we failed to agree. We preferred the song of the native birds to his slow, monotonous melopoeia.

De Varigny later wrote about arrangements for a trip to the summit. The following excerpts from De Varigny's narratives describe the journey, and offer an explanation of the depletion of nene population and high numbers of introduced feral animals that roamed the mountain:

At five o'clock in the evening we reached Kalaieha, where we were planning to camp. Kalaieha is neither a town, nor a village, nor even a huddled corral of grass huts. It is an immense plain which sprawls between two mountains. At certain periods of the year, especially in July and August the plain abounds in wild geese attracted by the ohelo, small red berries with a rather insipid flavor. The shrub bearing this fruit is more plentiful at Kalaieha than anywhere else. More over, during the period of our excursion, sportsmen and amateur hunters looking for game pay frequent visits to Kalaieha for the pleasure of shooting. Unfortunately, the wild geese begin to spoil very quickly and cannot stand being shipped to Honolulu. The plain was entirely deserted and the bushes were stripped of their fruits. In compensation, though the geese were missing, the wild bullocks, boars, and stray dogs who had reverted to a state of nature were presence [SIC] in hoards. The place swarmed with wild boars.

As we continued to climb, the trees became more scarce, more thin and stunted, until finally they ceased altogether. Bushes took their place, at first vigorous and close-growing, later puny and sparse. The ground was carpeted with strawberry plants covered with their fruit, which our horses crushed at every step, sending up a perfume that reminded us of Europe. Grass became rare and short. After it appeared the Ranunculi [Ranunculus hawaiensis, the native buttercup, makou]. Our horses sank down in to the cindery soil or stumbled upon small stones that rolled under and behind them. We climbed and continued to climb. At 10,000 feet we began to note the first tufts of Ensis argentea [`ahinahina, the silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicensis)], a last but marvelously hardy vestige of plant life. This spectacular creature which I have never observed elsewhere on the high mountain tops of Hawaii, is a veritable miracle. Clinging to the ground by its very deep roots, in form it resembles the aloes. Its sword-shape leaves are whitish gray, covered with light down. They glitter brilliantly as they catch the rays of the sun. From the center rises a stalk reaching as much as ten feet high, which bears a silky plume similar to that of sugar cane during its blossoming period.

At last we sight snow. The summit seems to retreat before us, to escape all our efforts. But we are climbing, always climbing, and snowfield follows upon snowfield. At last we reach the final plateau. The glare of the sun reflected on that great white expanse dazzles us. The solitude and silence — how deathlike everything is! No sound is heard, no living creature stirs.


In 1873, Isabella Bird visited the Hawaiian Islands. Sailing into Hilo Bay from North Hilo she observed:

The Journal of Isabella Bird

There was a magnificent coast-line of gray cliffs many hundred feet in height, usually draped with green. Into cracks and caverns the heavy waves surged with a sound like artillery, sending their broad white sheets of foam high up among the ferns and trailers. Cascades in numbers took one impulsive leap from the cliffs to the sea, or came thundering down clefts or "gulches" which, widening at their extremities, opened on smooth green lawns, each one of which had its grass house or houses, kalo patch, bananas, and coco palms. Above the cliffs there were grassy uplands with park-like clumps of the screw-pine, and candle nut, and glades and dells of dazzling green...opening up among the dark dense forests which for some thousands of feet girdle Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, two vast volcanic mountains, whose snow-capped summits gleamed here and there above the clouds, at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet.

After approaching Hilo, from along the Hamakua-Hilo Pali-ku coast line, Bird recorded that:

So dense is the wood that Hilo is rather suggested than seen. From the sea it looks one dense mass of greenery, in which the bright foliage of the candle-nut relieves the glossy dark green of the breadfruit — a maze of preposterous bananas, out of which rise slender annulated trunks of palms giving their infinite grace to the grove. Above Hilo, broad lands sweeping up cloudwards, with their sugar cane, kalo, melons, pine-apples, and banana groves suggest the boundless liberality of Nature. Woods and waters, hills and valley are all there, and from the region of an endless summer the eye takes in the domain of an endless winter, where almost perpetual snow crowns the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

"The Ascent of Mauna Kea, Hawaii"
W. D. Alexander

The trail next turned to the east, winding around an immense sand crater called "Keonehehee," 11,500 feet in elevation, which stands on the edge of the summit plateau. Further to the southeast we were shown a pillar of stones which was raised to commemorate Queen Emma's journey over the mountain to Waimea in 1883.

~excerpts from Mauna Kea – Kuahiwi Ku Ha‘o i ka Malie
A Report on Archival and Historical Documentary Research
Ahupua‘a of Humu‘ula, Ka‘ohe, districts of Hilo and Hamakua, Island of Hawai‘i
by Kepa Maly
©1997 Kepa Maly, Kumu Pono Associates and Native Lands Institute


Writing in the November 1911 issue of Mid-Pacific magazine, Alonzo Gartley reported on a horseback expedition to the summit, guided by renowned cowboy Eben Low.

Mauna Kea is the highest island peak in the world. It rises so gently from the ocean side that, although its base is in the tropics and its crest in the snows, it seems but a gentle slope of no great altitude, yet a plumb line dropped from the summit of Mauna Kea to the sea level would have to be nearly three miles in length. It might be possible for a good horseman to ride in a day from the seaside to the summit.

Gartley described the fog which can cause the wanderer to lose his way, for there is no regular trail, and the wild cattle, which would sometimes charge at people.

Emerging from above the cloud layer, he tipped his hat to the spirits of those who worked the adze quarry.

It is not many centuries ago that these men of Hawaii were at the stage that our own forbears reached and passed ten thousand years ago.

Reaching the summit, he described a steep double cone of red cinders. Both horse and rider were beginning to feel the great elevation.

We looked down upon a field of snow, but we found, upon approach, that it was caked hard — a frozen mass of glacial snow. It was difficult to break off bits to eat from the hard points into which the winds and the sun had shaped it, but how good it was!

At the summit, his party found a can with the names of those who had made the ascent in earlier years and they formed the Mauna Kea Association, Limited, whose sole purpose was to erect a monument to those who had made the climb.

On the descent,

Afterwards, we had the coldest drink I have ever taken in these islands, from a mountain spring at an elevation of 10,500 feet that is probably seepage from the Crater Lake.

Mid-Pacific magazine
November 1911


Lake Waiau was a sheltered place to camp for those who chose to stay overnight on the mountain, as reported by Lawrence Hite Daingerfield in an article for Paradise of the Pacific.

We pitched our tent hurriedly by the green, cold lake, built a fire in the whipping trade wind, with its chilly bite, ate an early supper, and retired like packed sardines between our blankets. We were in an Arctic zone under a tropic sky. Taking our last look across the lake, we saw the image of fair Venus, streaming in white and shimmering light across the tiny, rippling waves. A thousand jewels glittered in the reflected phantom light of our neighbor planet.

The next morning, ice over a half-inch was found in the gravel bar about the lake. Above us, just a little way, snow banks lay, chilled and white and permanent. Reaching the summit, at 13,825 feet, we found great drifts of frozen whiteness, two hundred yards or more in length and thirty or more in width. Here we indulged in Mauna Kea pie, composed of frozen cakes of snow and chocolate bars.

On Arctic Peaks 'Neath Tropic Skies
Afoot Over Mounts Hualalai, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on Hawaii's Largest Isle
by Lawrence Hite Daingerfield
Paradise of the Pacific
December 1922


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