Let It Snow! Snowboarding and Skiing on Mauna Kea

By Karen Rose

Towering more than 13,500 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea (Hawaiian for ‘white mountain’), entices extreme skiers and snowboarders from around the world. However, snowboarding or skiing the volcano comes with some hearty risks, so if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, there’s a few things you need to know.

Transportation When Snowboarding and Skiing

Photo:  Sean Hagen.

Photo: Sean Hagen.

Unlike Aspen or Vail, there are no 4 star resorts, or fancy ski lifts on the volcano. In order to get to the summit, you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle and an additional driver to pick you up at the bottom of the run and drive you back to the top. There are no ski rentals either, so bring your own snowboard or skis. Best leave your fancy gear at home, however, because there’s a good chance your ski run will go from snow to lava rock quite abruptly, and your equipment could sustain some serious damage (not to mention your backside).

Safety First

Photo:  Neal Wellons.

View of Mauna Kea from the lava fields below. Photo: Neal Wellons.

The air pressure at the summit is significantly less than at sea level, making it difficult to breathe if you’re not in good physical health. Altitude sickness is common, and not fun. The sun’s rays are also very strong so bring sunscreen and good sunglasses. During the winter months when there is snow, temperatures range from 25 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind chill can make it feel much colder. In fact if the wind is blowing too hard, it’s considered too dangerous and the road will most likely be closed. Before you head up, it’s best to check out the Mauna Kea forecast by the Hawaii Institute for Astronomy to get current weather conditions on the summit.

Taking It All In

Photo:  Alan L.

Moon rising over Mauna Kea. Photo: Alan L.

Late January through March is usually the best time to visit Mauna Kea if you want to try snowboarding or skiing. Although the snow conditions are unpredictable, the views are always beautifully consistent. On a clear day, you can see the Big Island’s other massive volcano, Mauna Loa, and Maui’s Haleakalā Volcano.

Mauna Kea is sacred and culturally significant to the Hawaiian people and should be treated with respect. It is also one of the world’s best locations for astronomy, so please be respectful of observatory staff. If you’re up for a challenging adventure, are in good shape, and have the luck of Mother Nature on your side, you could be in for one of the most unique ski experiences of a lifetime!

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