If you measure a mountain by where it rises from the earth, Mauna Kea is the largest on the planet. The summit is 13 796 feet above sea level, while the actual base lies 2000 feet below, on the ocean floor.
This impressive volcano is located on the big island of Hawaii. Its height and location make it home to many international observatories and it is one of the best astronomy sites in the world.
(Thanks to these observatories, webcams are readily available and provide skiers great views of summit conditions. NB: if all you see is white, it is snowing.)
Mauna Kea generally gets its best snowfall in February and March, and a La Nina year is best, (as opposed to the warmer and drier conditions El Nino brings). Most years, winter storm systems from the north bring enough snow to the summit to provide good skiing and boarding conditions. But you have to be ready to go! The Hawaiian sun can melt the snow within a few days. Check with the weather service to figure out your best odds.
For the trip up, a 4WD is required, as well as all of the supplies you will possibly need. There are no facilities whatsoever. There are no lifts, so your vehicle on the road to the summit, which serves the observatories, is your ride up. You canít go alone as you will need to take turns picking one another up at the end of a run and ferrying back to the top.
Itís cold at the summit (25Ė40 degrees) so donít get any Whistler-esque notions of skiing in your shorts. Itís a 2 Ĺ hour drive from the base and a run will average only 1000-2500 vertical feet.
Only very capable and aerobically fit skiers should attempt Mauna Kea. The air is thin and with less than 60% air pressure than at sea level, altitude sickness is often a problem.
If the winds exceed 25-100 knots donít bother driving to the summit. The road will most likely be closed and may take days to re-open. Besides that, it would be very cold and very dangerous to ski. Again, check with the weather service.
And, as with any ski destination, good ski goggles are mandatory or snow blindness WILL occur. The sun up there is very, very harsh.
Skiing on a volcano is not like skiing on a mountain, particularly a volcano in Hawaii. The snow ends abruptly and the lava you meet will be nasty to say the least. Exercise extreme caution Ė you have to know what you are doing!
And donít rely on the observatory workers to come and rescue you. They frown on being interrupted from their study of the cosmos to pick pieces of you up because you couldnít handle yourself on your leisurely pursuit here on earth.
**Please donít forget, Mauna Kea is sacred to the Hawaiians so it is imperative that you treat the area with respect.**
If I havenít exactly sold you on the idea of skiing Mauna Kea, consider this:
Skiing on top of a volcano on a tropical Pacific island?!
The views at the summit are unbelievable, not to mention the views as you go down. Instead of a white mountain dotted with green trees, lifts, other skiers, really, really expensive boutiques and coffee shops, all you will see is the sky, the ocean, (*your friend and vehicle*), the snow and the stark contrast of the black lava rock waiting to rough you up if you are not careful. Oh yes, and the observatories, too- but you couldnít get there if it werenít for them.
Once you have had enough of skiing, head back down to the bottom, grab your board and go surfing.
I ask you, where else on earth?