Sunday, December 21, 2008


I've gone from ha to hau (snow). It seemed appropriate since Portland has been buried in snow off and on for the past week, with the weatherman promising about a week more of this arctic weather. In fact, both hula class and 'ukulele class got canceled because driving to class would have been foolhardy, if not impossible.

I wasn't sure if I'd find much information about hau in Hawai'i. As it turns out, there's even a Hawaii Ski Club, based on O'ahu. But the club, numbering about 100 skiers, seems more interested in meeting for pau hana (happy hour) and planning trips to ski resorts in Canada, the mainland and Japan than in skiing in Hawai'i.

Skiing in Hawai'i really happens, though it seems like a lot of trouble. And the Hawaii Ski Club actually advises against it because it's dangerous and foolhardy -- kind of like trying to drive in Portland lately.

The only places it snows in Hawai'i are at the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai'i [pictured above in a satellite photo] and Haleakala on Maui. All three are volcanoes. Mauna Kea, which means white mountain, is 13,796 feet high. Compare that to Mt. Hood, just east of Portland, with its elevation of 11,240. At Mt. Hood, there's skiing all year. But at Mauna Kea, if conditions are just so, skiing is possible during the months of January or February.

However, there are no lifts and no services of any kind. People who are just dying to say they skiied in Hawai'i have to either have a patient friend or hire someone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle who will drive them to the top, then drive down to where the snow ends to pick them up and maybe repeat the process.

The only way to the top is along a service road built for astronomers. The summit of Mauna Kea, it turns out, is the world's largest astonomical observatory. There are 13 telescopes operated by 11 countries.

I read that the astonomers are sometimes called upon to rescue the foolhardy skiers. At that elevation it's common that someone not used to the thin air would get altitude sickness. Another problem skiers encounter is that when the snow runs out, there's volcanic lava rock below. People who don't brake in time can get pretty banged up.

But even the people who advise against skiing up there do recommend the view, just because it's so amazing to see in one glimpse the blue sky, the blue ocean, the white snow, the dark lava and the lush vegetation beyond.

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