The Ascent of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Report of W.D. Alexander on the Mauna Kea Trip of 1892
Taken from the cultural / historical study by Kepa Maly entitled
MAUNA KEA - KA PIKO KAULANA O KA 'AINA, Kumu Pono Associates
the Pacific Commercial Advertiser of September 14, 1892, W.D. Alexander
published an important account of the Mauna Kea survey trip. The
narratives identify the locations of several significant cultural
features on the mountain landscape. These features include, but
are not limited to, trails on Mauna Kea; an "axe maker's cave"
(location where the wooden image found by Dr. Hillebrand in 1862
came from); a possible heiau and burial site; the ahu "pillar"
erected to commemorate the trip made by Queen Emma to Mauna Kea
and Waiau in 1882; named localities; and the landscape of Waiau
(crater and lake). Alexander also reported that gorse had been identified
as an undesirable weed on lands of the Humuula Sheep Station by
the time of the 1892 survey.
Field Book No. 429 (in the collection of the State Survey Division),
kept by Alexander and his assistant, J.M. Muir, includes several
important sketches depicting the sites described in the following
Although the ascent of Mauna Kea presents no great difficulty and
has often been described, yet a brief account of a late scientific
expedition to its summit may be of interest to your readers.
The results of Mr. E.D. Preston's work on Haleakala in 1877 were
so highly appreciated by scientific men, that the American Academy
of Sciences recommended that a similar series of observations should
be made on Mauna Kea. It was also decided to include in the plans
a series of magnetic observations at a number of important points
in the islands.
The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey agreed to grant Mr. Preston
leave of absence for the purpose, and to lend the necessary instruments,
while the trustees of the Bache fund of whom Prof. Dana is one,
offered to apply its income to the same object... ...The party left
Honolulu for Kawaihae June 25th, consisting of Mr. E.D. Preston,
astronomer, Mr. W.E. Wall, his assistant, Prof. W.D. Alexander,
surveyor and quartermaster for the party, and Messrs. W.W. Chamberlain
and Louis Koch.
The first station occupied was in the village of Kawaihae, near
the sea, in a lot belonging to His Ex. S. Parker, to whom as well
as to his agent, Mr. Jarrett the party are indebted for many repeated
kind and generous acts… …Our next move was to the
grassy and wind-swept plain of Waimea, 2600 feet above the sea,
where we enjoyed a complete change of climate, and had glorious
views of the three great mountains of Hawaii. Here we engaged our
guide, hired our horses and part of our pack mules, and had our
freight, ("impedimenta", as Caesar appropriately called
it,) carted thirty-five miles farther, half-way around the mountain
to the Kalaieha Sheep Station. We made this our base of operations
in attacking the mountain, in order to dispense as much as possible
with the use of pack mules, on account of the heavy and costly instruments
which we were obliged to carry. A wagon road made by the owners
of the Humuula Sheep Ranch leads from Waimea around the western
and southern sides of Mauna Kea. On the western side of the mountain
it passes through a region which only needs more rainfall to make
it a superb grazing country. The ancient forests here, as at Waimea,
have been nearly exterminated, but a fine grove of mamane trees
still survives at the Auwaiakeakua Ranch.
The manienie grass is gradually spreading and will in time add
immensely to the value of the land. At the half-way station, called
Waikii, water tanks and a rest house have been provided for teamsters.
After turning the corner we skirted the desolate plain studded with
volcanic cones that lies between the giant mountains of Hawaii,
riding through loose volcanic sand amid clouds of dust. Occasional
flocks of quails or pigeons were the only living creatures to be
At length the vegetation began to be more dense, the patches of
piipii grass and the groves of the beautiful and useful mamane or
sophora tree more frequent, as we approached the Hilo district.
Barbed wire fences showed that we were approaching civilization,
and at last we came in sight of the Kalaieha Sheep Station with
its neat buildings, its water tanks and telephone lines, and general
air of thrift, all testifying to the energy and foresight of its
manager, A. Haneberg, Esq.
Nearly every afternoon this region is enveloped in dense fog which
pours in from the east, driven by the trade wind. At night, during
our stay, the thermometer generally fell below 40º Fahr., and
frost is not uncommon. The elevation, according to the barometer,
is about 6700 feet.
Quails abound, and the mountain geese and wild ducks are found
in the "Middle Ground". The mongoose has not yet arrived
there. Wild cattle and boars are still numerous on the slopes of
Mauna Kea, and the former supplied the best beef we have tasted
in these islands. The present manager has been at much labor and
expense in extirpating two pests, which are said to have been accidentally
introduced from New Zealand, viz., the Scotch thistle and the gorse.
Here Mr. Preston established an astronomical and pendulum station,
and made a complete series of observations, as at Kawaihae, while
surveys were made to connect it with the primary triangulation.
The party was then joined by Mr. E.D. Baldwin, from Hilo, who brought
two pack animals and a muleteer, and by Mr. J.J. Muir, from Mana.
Mr. Baldwin had visited the summit in 1890, and had afterwards made
a valuable map of the central part of Hawaii [Register Map No. 1718].
[from the base camp at Kalaieha Sheep Station, July 20th] ....The
fog cleared early, and a finer day for the ascent could not be imagined.
Mr. Haneberg now took command of the pack train, and had the caravan
loaded and set in motion by 7:45 a.m., the guide riding in front,
followed by eleven pack mules and as many men on horse back. One
sturdy brute carried the pendulum receiver, weighing about one hundred
pounds, on one side, balanced by bags of cement on the other.
After riding nearly two miles due east from the ranch, we turned
to the north, gradually ascending through a belt of country thickly
covered with groves of mamane.
We crossed a shallow crater just east of a conspicuous peak called
"Ka lepe a moa", or cock's comb, and began to ascend the
mountain proper. After climbing a steep ridge through loose scoria
and sand, the party halted for lunch at an elevation of 10,500 feet.
The upper limit of the mamane tree is not far from 10,000 feet.
The Raillardia, apiipii, extends a thousand feet higher. The beautiful
Silver Sword (Argyroxiphium), once so abundant is nearly extinct,
except in the most rugged and inaccessible localities.
The trail next turned to the east, winding around an immense sand
crater called "Keonehehee", 11,500 feet in elevation,
which stands on the edge of the summit plateau. Further to the southeast
we were shown a pillar of stones which was raised to commemorate
Queen Emma's journey over the mountain to Waimea in 1883 [the trip
was made in 1882].
The summit plateau which is perhaps five miles in width, gradually
slopes up from all sides toward the central group of hills. It is
studded with cones (most of which contain craters), composed of
light scoria, like those in the crater of Haleakala. The surface
of the plateau is strewn with blocks of light colored, fine grained,
feldspathic lava, interspersed with patches of black sand.
The rarity of the air was now felt by both men and animals, and
it required forcible arguments to make the laggards keep up with
the column. At last, about 3 P.M., we clambered over the rim of
a low crater west of the central cones, and saw before us the famous
lakelet of Waiau, near which we camped. It is an oval sheet of the
purist water, an acre and three quarters in extent, surrounded by
an encircling ridge from 90 to 135 feet in height, except at the
northwest corner, where there is an outlet, which was only two feet
above the level of the lake at the time of our visit. The overflow
has worn out a deep ravine, which runs first to west and then to
the southwest. A spring on the southern side of the mountain, called
"Wai Hu", is believed by the natives to be connected with
this lake. The elevation of Waiau is at least 13,050 feet, which
is 600 feet higher than Fujiyama. There are few bodies of water
in the world higher than this, except in Thibet or on the plateau
of Pamir. No fish are found in its waters, nor do any water-fowl
frequent its margins. Its depth was not sounded, as it was proved
by experiment that we had not adequate means for navigating it.
Small tufts of grass and delicate ferns were found growing among
the rocks around the lake.
After the pack train had been photographed, the large tent was
pitched close to the shore of Waiau, and all the animals were sent
back to the ranch except for one unfortunate mule, which was to
be treated to a feed of oats and blanketed for the night…
During each of the six nights which we spent on the summit the temperature
fell much below the freezing point, registering 25 deg., 18 deg.,
14 deg., and even 13 deg., Fahr., and considerable ice formed around
the margin of the lake. During the day the maximum of the thermometer
in the shade was generally 60 deg., and 63 deg., but when exposed
to the sun on the rocks it rose to 108 deg.....
A solid pier of masonry was built for the meridian circle, and
a flat rock moved into position to serve as a stand for the pendulum
apparatus. Such was the clearness of the air that star observations
were usually commenced before 5 p.m. Contrary to expectation we
found the trade-wind blowing as strong on the summit as it did below
Of Mr. Preston's work it may briefly be said that it was entirely
successful. The opportunity was great and he made the most of it.
Complete series of magnetic, latitude and pendulum observations
were made, besides the observations of the barometer and thermometer,
and a large number of interesting photographs were taken from different
points of view. In the meantime a topographical survey of the summit
plateau, in which Mr. J.J. Muir's assistance was most opportune
and valuable. On the 22nd a short base line was measured with a
steel tape and a minute survey made of the lake and its neighborhood.
On the same day two of our men came up with two pack mules, bringing
the Honolulu mail, a load of fire-wood and some fresh provisions.
The next day, the 23rd, Mr. Muir and the writer together with the
guide ascended the central hill, about a mile and a half from our
camp and 800 feet higher. It encloses two small craters. The scramble
up that huge pile of cinders in the rarefied air is a severe strain
on weak lungs. The pulse rose in one case to 120, and in another
to 150 per minute. The old trig. Station, which had formerly been
sighted from several points below, was now occupied with an instrument
for the first time. The difference in height between this station
and the next summit was found by leveling to be about 45 feet, as
it had been estimated in 1872. The highest point is probably not
less that 13,820 feet above the sea.
The view from the summit was sublime beyond description, embracing,
as it did, the three other great mountains of Hawaii, and the grand
old "House of the Sun", 75 miles distant, looking up clear
and distinct, above a belt of clouds. Mauna Loa was perceptibly
a trifle lower than the point where we stood. Without casting up
any loose heaps of sand and scoria, its majestic dome has risen
within 150 feet of the highest point reached by its rival. Its surface
was streaked by numerous recent lava streams, while a deep cleft,
which breaks the smooth curve, gave us a glimpse into the vast terminal
crater of Mokuaweoweo.
On the windward side of the summit ridge and in the craters were
several large patches of snow, two or three feet thick, composed
of large crystals, like coarse salt. While eating our lunch on the
summit, we were surprised to see carrion flies at that altitude,
attracted by it.
After surveying and sketching at several stations, we returned,
sliding down a steep slope of sand and cinders, 700 feet in height,
to our camp, where a repast awaited us, that reminded one of the
Hamilton House. It is enough to say that our worthy chef de cuisine
was Louis Koch, well known to former guests of the Hamilton and
later of the Volcano House.
During the following night the thermometer fell to 13 deg. Fahr.
We did not, however suffer from cold, although the confinement of
the blanket bags became rather irksome. A small kerosene stove was
kept burning all night, which no doubt helped somewhat to keep up
the temperature of the air within the tent.
On Monday, the 25th, the thermometer stood at 20 deg. at sunrise.
Messrs. Muir and Alexander ascended the second highest peak on the
northwest, overlooking Waimea, 13,645 feet in height to continue
their survey. In the cairn on the summit a tin can was found, which
contains brief records of the visits of five different parties from
1870 to the present time, to which we added our own. A party of
eight girls from Hilo, "personally conducted" by Dr. Wetmore
and D. H. Hitchcock, Esq., in 1876, must have been a merry one.
Capt. Long of H.B.M.'s Ship Fantome had visited this spot in 1876,
and Dr. Arning with several Kohala residents in 1885.
The same afternoon the surveyors occupied the summit of Lilinoe,
a high rocky crater, a mile southeast of the central hills and a
little over 13,000 feet in elevation. Here, as at other places on
the plateau ancient graves are to be found. In the olden time, it
was a common practice of the natives in the surrounding region to
carry up the bones of their deceased relatives to the summit plateau
During the following night the thermometer fell to 14º and
stood at 18º at sunrise. After breakfast the surveying party
ascended a third peak, east of Lake Waiau, and about 420 feet above
it, where they took the closing sets of angles, and connected the
latitude pier with the scheme of triangulation.
On their return the tents were struck, and instruments packed up
in readiness for the pack train, which arrived about 11 a.m. Soon
afterwards the fog closed in around us, and lasted till nightfall.
We bid farewell to the lake about 1:30 p.m., and arrived at the
Kalaieha Station before 6 p.m., without any mishap, having stopped
half an hour at "Keanakakoi", the Axe-makers' cave. This
is situated about a mile south of Waiau, and a hundred yards west
of the trail, in a ledge of that hard, fine grained kind of rock,
which ancient Hawaiians preferred for their stone implements. Here
we saw the small cave in which the axe-makers lodged, their fire
place, and remains of the shell fish which they ate. In front of
it is an immense heap of stone flakes and chips some 60 feet across
and 20 or 30 feet high. Near by several hundred unfinished axes
are piled up just as they were left by the manufacturers, when the
arrival of foreign ships and the introduction of iron tools had
ruined their trade. Around the entrance of the cave the native dandelion
or pualele (Sonchus oleraceus) was growing at an elevation of 12,800
feet. It was here that the late Dr. Hillebrand found a curious idol,
which is still in the possession of his family
Mr. Preston's final report will be looked for with interest by
the scientific world, and will add another laurel to his well-earned
reputation as a physicist and astronomer.
On arriving at Kalaieha we learned that the pack mules had preceded
us, and were already unloaded. None of the costly and delicate instruments
employed had received the slightest injury. All the objects of the
expedition had been successfully attained. I know of but one other
instance on record when gravity measurements of precision have been
made at so great a height.