Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

By Alan Matsuoka, Star-Bulletin
Reaching the cabin at Red Hill at 2:45, just 45 minutes
later than planned, ultimately meant a night on the
mountain for Alan Matsuoka.

Click image for larger version.

The mountain can kill
By Alan Matsuoka


The fire started readily, a relief since I thought my life could depend on it.

Art Ten o'clock on a long winter night, and I was bivouacked alone above the 8,000-foot level of Mauna Loa on the Big Island. Cold, lost, hungry and exposed -- your basic hiker nightmare. The moon, nearly full and sharp-edged in the thinner air, lit high icy clouds, silky and sinister, and a lowland bank that threatened rain. A cold stirring from the east fell short of true wind but was enough to pierce layers of clothing too meager to keep me from shivering.

The low 40s, I figured, maybe the high 30s.

I had resisted building a fire for hours, always willing to abide by rules that make sense, and adhering to Leave No Trace practices. But then, a corpse can be a sizeable trace. My first line of defense, a space blanket, was shredded by lava after I wrapped it around me and lay down. Since then, I had been sitting with knees pulled tightly to chest in a primal effort to retain body heat. Degree by literal degree, I felt my body losing. Hypothermia in Hawaii, I reasoned, pretty much has the same ending as hypothermia on Denali.

The realization that imminent death is possible can be oddly clarifying if properly tapped: like waking in an instant, filled with singular purpose. I straightened stiff joints and started poking for fuel in waist-high stands of pukiawe. I formed a fire ring from lava rock and arranged the twigs I had collected into a tipi so flames would chimney upward. I dug out two business cards from my wallet for tinder and, after my lighter sputtered uselessly, broke the plastic wrap on a box of emergency matches.

Three matches and two prayers later, the fire started.

The best laid plans ...

The idea was to day-hike to Red Hill and back, 15 miles total. "It's a push," a friend advised. "You can do it, though." The plan was to get an early start, but persistent morning rain in Volcano Village made me dawdle, unaware that around the bend on Highway 11 the slopes were sunny. By the time I set off from the trailhead, it was 10:05 a.m.

Red Hill, or Puu Ulaula, is along one of the trails which lead to Mauna Loa's summit. It is a graceful cinder cone turned Martian landscape by post-eruption steam oxidizing iron into rust. To reach it requires a 3,400-foot elevation gain through lava in all its ankle-twisting forms, until the goal is achieved at just over 10,000 feet. As is my practice, I set for myself a turnaround time, 2 p.m., which seemed reasonable: four hours up, three hours down, all in daylight with pad for rest breaks and lunch.

By Alan Matsuoka, Star-Bulletin
A marker atop Red Hill points to landmarks in the
island chain, such as the summit of Mauna Kea dead ahead.

Click image for larger version.

Reason, though, has never lacked for challengers. The sky was so brilliantly blue, the trail so devoid of intruding others, that it seemed the day belonged to me, a gift from the mountain. About midway I encountered a brown bird sitting on an ahu, one of the pyramidal piles of lava rock that mark the trail. "Hello, bird," I said. "Just passing through." The bird watched until I was even with it before jumping to the next ahu, where it waited again and then flew off. I took it as a good omen.

A more objective sign came when I reached the 9,000-foot marker and it was already 1:30. I forged ahead, shaving corners on my calculations as if the length of the day were negotiable. Red Hill had emerged minutes before and seemed tantalizingly close. But that turned out to be a mountain trick. When I finally dropped my lumbar pack on the porch of the state-run cabin there, it was 2:45.

For those in the mood, Red Hill offers a spectacular panoramic sweep that includes Haleakala and Mauna Kea. I took unoriginal snapshots, quickly downed two peanut-butter sandwiches, drank some water, and with a general apology for the rush, started heading back at 3:30.

I felt I had a chance at getting out by sunset, but it would be close. To make time, I thuddingly jogged in my medium-weight boots whenever the terrain permitted. At one point I spotted a brown bird, perhaps the same, and shouted, "Wish me luck!" The bird flapped away. The moon rose in front of me, while behind the lowering sun angled light so the trail -- a line of dull black on black -- was harder to read, the ahu less distinct in the lengthening shadows.

On a hike, as often in life, one is not forewarned when straying from the path. The first clue is the confusion that follows, and the quicker it is acknowledged, the better. I kept on a downhill course and was far into a gully before the route petered out and led to nowhere in particular. I tracked back, but couldn't pick up the trail. The sun by then was going behind a ridge, and I had to decide whether to continue the search or prepare to see the night through, expecting any rescue effort wouldn't begin until morning. Wandering lost in a lava field at night seemed unwise, so I called my friend on a cellular.

"Hi," I said, shifting into understatement to maintain control. "You know, I think I may be in trouble."

Shifting perspective

Death, or more accurately the brevity of life, had been on my mind. I turned 47 a couple weeks earlier and went to the cemetery at Punchbowl Crater to visit my father, who is buried there and whose birthday I share. My father died when he was 54, a good man cut down by cancer. Suddenly, sitting on the manicured lawn among neat rows of dead, I realized just how young. Seven more Christmases, seven more New Year's -- the thought was frightening, stifling. So much undone, and the end game had already begun.

The hike arose from that despairing revelation, a middle-age status check, which made reaching Red Hill that much more important. Now the night was reducing the issue to fundamentals. Lava fields are as inhospitable to plants as man, and the twigs I managed to collect were a quarter-inch thick if lucky, dried to a snappy gray and fast-burning. To stay warm, then, meant that every 15 minutes or so I would have to leave the fire and forage in the brush for a new supply -- under the cold light of the moon and, after it set, with miniflashlight clamped between my teeth, stumbling and tripping over the cracked terrain, crying out when elbows and knees smashed into rock.

By Alan Matsuoka, Star-Bulletin
The ahua that mark the trails through Mauna Loa's
lava fields are difficult to keep track of in poor light.

Click image for larger version.

With sleep narcosis no longer an option, the passage of time factored in. At first, lying curled around the fire, I was dismayed when the ghostly blue of my Indiglo watch showed only minutes had pased since last checked, the moment of reprieve scarcely closer. Then time seemed to lose its fascist grip, and I felt myself pulled into an ambiguous zone defined only by the dawn, and measured by my dreamlike sorties into the silent black land. Until the dawn, I told myself, feeling it neither far nor near, just there. Until the dawn.

The wind never intensified, and except for some mist on my face when I stared deep into the stars, the rain stayed away. When I looked at my watch and it was past 5 a.m., I allowed the thought that I might make it, though humbly, so as not to curse the possibility. The eastern sky lightened, and the sun took a while to clear the lowland clouds. But when it did, already burning yellow-white, I was at an altitude high enough to be staring straight into it, and spread apart my arms, heart beating: greeting the sun of another day, the most glorious sun there is.

Beautiful morning

I picked up the trail easily enough, and saw I had swerved off at a stretch where it heads uphill before turning back down to the final steady descent. I set off at about 7 after sweeping away signs of my stay, spraying ashes with my last mouthfuls of water, chewing some final slivers of beef jerky. "Thank you, bushes," I said, meaning it. Only about two miles remained, but it took three hours to complete them -- dehydrated, burning body for fuel, stepping gingerly on knees bruised from falls and tender from hard jogging. Lest I be deluded into thinking it took any personal interest, the sun intensified and baked the land, its midmorning glare irritating my gritty, sleep-deprived eyes.

When I finally hauled myself into my pickup truck at the trailhead, my relief was short-lived. I had left my headlights on after driving through the rain the day before, and turning the ignition key yielded only the empty click of a dead battery. What next? Triple-A over the cellular said it would take three hours for help to arrive since the tow truck had to come from Hilo.

Frustrated, I stretched out on a picnic table hoping to make the best of the wait, but edginess from fatigue kept me awake. Three hours later the tow truck rumbled up and a young man hopped out, stoked by the 11-mile drive on Mauna Loa Road past native forest. "This the first time in all my eight years," explained the driver, Brandon. He jumped the battery, and listened with interest as I related the circumstances of my being there.

"And no mo' water," he half-questioned. I nodded, and he reached into his cab for a container of bottled water, cold and unopened. "I was wondering why I bought this," he said, in the tone of a person who sees providence in the world. I offered to pay for it, but he declined, and as I guzzled the water, sweet and smooth, he repeated, "I wondered why I bought that."

I left first so Brandon could appreciate the scenery on a more leisurely drive back, and it was just as well. A couple miles down I felt a rush of exhilaration and started speeding, leaning on my horn, whooping with unrestrained joy. Seven more years, or seven more days, didn't matter then: what did was the crisp wind through the window, the sun dappling through the koa, even the jars and bumps of the road. It all seemed so wonderful.

I may not have as firm a belief in direct intervention as Brandon, but I have been around long enough to sometimes be able to detect mysterious patterns in events, and I understand what he means. I know that two days later the entire state was hit by high winds. And now I know this, too: The mountain can kill. The mountain can teach. And to those who listen, the mountain can give life.

Hawaii hikers
at risk for

Sportsmen beware: Hypothermia doesn't hit only at subzero temperatures.

The cold is a killer. Plus, it's sneaky. Regardless of how carefully you prepare for your winter outings, wrote Michael Segell in an article in the November issue of Sports Afield, it's almost impossible to anticipate changes in weather conditions -- or worse, accidents and injuries -- that can make you vulnerable. Hiking or skiing through the backcountry generates a lot of body heat, but a broken binding, storm, quick dip into icy waters, or even a disabling muscle pull can quickly set you up for a potentially fatal case of hypothermia, the No. 1 killer of outdoor enthusiasts.

Hypothermia is a condition in which the core body temperature drops below normal, for most people around 98 degrees Fahrenheit. The moment your body begins to lose heat faster than it produces it, you begin to undergo exposure, which can quickly lead to mental and physical collapse. The condition is often aggravated by wind, exhaustion and wetness.

The first warning sign that your body temperature is in danger of dropping is difficult to miss: You shiver. Instinctively, most people will increase their activity to warm up.

If the condition progresses to mild hypothermia -- the core temperature has dropped to about 95 F -- shivering is intense and uncontrollable and usually accompanied by increased pulse and rapid breathing. The skin on hands and feet turns white, an indication that the body is beginning to constrict blood vessels at the extremities and to shunt blood to the body core to protect vital organs.

Irrationality and irritability, slurred speech and memory lapses characterize moderate hypothermia, in which the core temperature drops to around 91 F. Shivering slows or stops, muscles stiffen, and apathy sets in.

Severe hypothermia occurs when the body temperature drops to below 86 F. By now the victim's skin is bluish-gray, his eyes are dilated, and he's unable to coordinate movement. He may appear to be drunk, will probably resist help, and will gradually lose consciousness.

Although extreme cold is an obvious cause of hypothermia, most cases occur in wet weather conditions in which the temperature is between 30 degrees and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you're planning a day-long trek, be sure to wear a hat at all times, polypropylene underwear to wick water away from the skin, and appropriate outerwear for wet and windy conditions -- and don't remove too many layers, even when you've worked up a sweat. Carry a thermos filled with hot liquid; high-calorie food; and, if you're in a wilderness area, fire-starting materials and improvisable shelter. Finally, know your limits: Exhaustion is a key precursor to hypothermia.

The different stages of hypothermia require different treatment. Impending and mild hypothermia can be halted by getting the victim out of the cold, serving warm liquids, insulating the body with clothes and blankets, and limited exercise.

Moderate hypothermia should be treated the same as mild, with the addition of mild heat applications to the head, neck, chest, armpits and groin. As soon as possible, the patient should be seen by a physician.

Severe hypothermia requires extreme caution. If the victim is conscious but can't be moved immediately to a hospital, get into a warmed sleeping bag with him and exhale warm air near his mouth and nose. Try to keep him awake.

Do not rewarm the person's extremities before raising the core temperature. The rapid dilation of blood vessels can shunt cold blood from the periphery to the heart and cause ventricular fibrillation.

If the patient has lost consciousness, handle him gently, as his heart is now extremely sensitive. Check for a pulse along the carotid artery for at least two minutes. If you don't find one, check on the other side of the neck. If there is still no pulse, administer CPR.

If the patient remains unresponsive, do not give up. Resuscitation efforts should continue until the body is warmed to 95 F. Many apparently dead hypothermia victims have been resuscitated after rewarming. As the medical literature says, "No one is dead until warm and dead."

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