Mauna Loa Has Challenged Adventurers for Centuries


This week’s feature story, Over the Volcano, details 36-year-old New Yorker Alex Sverdlov’s adventure gone wrong on Mauna Loa, a massive Hawaiian volcano. After Sverdlov reached the summit on the third day of the hike, an unexpected storm hit the mountain with freezing temperatures, 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts, and a foot of snow. Sverdlov would be stranded 13,000 above sea level for the next two days.

He lived to tell the tale, adding his own name to a centuries-old list of adventurers who have taken a punch from the world’s biggest volcano.

See also this week’s feature story, Over the Volcano: Stranded and Hallucinating in a Hawaiian Snowstorm

The earliest recorded attempt by a foreigner to climb the volcano came in 1779, according to Walther Barnard, a geology professor at SUNY-Fredonia who described early Mauna Loa climbs in a 1991 issue of the Hawaiian Journal of History. A team of explorers and scientists from Captain James Cook’s expedition began their journey up Mauna Loa on January 26 (incidentally the same date Sverdlov hit the trail 235 years later).

On the third day, less than 20 miles into the trek, “the route became steeper, rougher, and blocked by impenetrable thickets. The group abandoned their goal,” wrote Barnard.

Fifteen years later, in 1794, Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies became the first person on record to reach the summit, which rises 13,678 feet above the Pacific Ocean and stretches more than 20 miles from its base. The journey takes several days, crossing over rocky terrain and through unpredictable weather conditions. Menzies, in fact, failed to make it to the top on his first two attempts.

He first tried in February 1793. Two days in, his team hit “impenetrable underwood and ferns,” according to Barnard. Menzies gave up on the third day. He figured that the team had gone 16 miles, which was not the case. He had “overestimated,” wrote Barnard.

Menzies tried again in Janaury 1794, accompanied by a team of about 20 Hawaiian natives. They quit on the first day when they encountered “dense growth of shrubbery and wood and ferns,” as well as “rough ground.”

A month later, Menzies decided to try the climb from the volcano’s south side. He had consulted with Kamehameha I, ruler of the Hawaiian Islands, and the king provided him with supplies, attendants, and a guide.

The team reached the summit on the eighth day of the journey. They had slept on flat rock and endured temperatures in the mid-20s.

See Also: photos of Sverdlov’s adventure

It was 40 years before another person made it to the top. David Douglas, also a botanist from Scotland, began his ascent on January 28, 1834. In the time since Menzies’ achievement, few had attempted to summit the volcano. Douglas’ experience helps explain why. He and his 12 companions faced “heavy rains, mud, and rough lava,” and then,” approaching the summit, “deep snow.”

By the time they reached the summit, Douglas was in bad shape, suffering “hunger, severe thirst, intense cold, fatigue, and… violent pain and inflammation of the eyes.” And the descent, Douglas found, was “even more fatiguing, dangerous, and distressing than the ascent had proved.”

With each passing decade the climb gradually became less difficult. Hikers had blueprints and lessons from past adventurers, then trails and cabins. Jackets got warmer and boots got more durable. And eventually there were helicopters to rescue those stranded near the summit, turning a two day walk down into a ten minute flight.