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Maunakea Ranger Recalls 3 Rescues on Mountain This Week, Urges Caution

By Tiffany DeMasters
December 23, 2021, 8:54 AM HST
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Deteriorating weather conditions on Maunakea resulted in the rescue of three people off the mountain this week.

Rescues occurred on Tuesday, Dec. 21. On Wednesday afternoon, Oscar Pouoa, a University of Hawaiʻi Maunakea Ranger, told Big Island Now snow had been falling continuously over the past 24 hours. He estimated about a foot of snow had accumulated on the slopes. The three hikers were among a dozen mountaineers to venture up to Maunakea before noon on Tuesday. The weather was already questionable, Pouoa said, with heavy snow and white-out conditions.

Rangers ended up closing the Maunakea Access Road at 12:30 p.m.

The first rescue occurred in the afternoon. Two stranded hikers were rescued by rangers on the summit by one of the telescopes. Pouoa said telescope staff told rangers they were evacuating because of the deteriorating conditions but couldn’t bring the hikers down as well.

“One of them was an experienced hiker,” Pouoa said. “He said he got defeated by the mountain.”

Lost hiker rescued off Maunakea on Tuesday, Dec. 21. (Courtesy of UH-Hilo)
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After picking up the two stranded hikers, Pouoa said, there was still one hiker unaccounted for.

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“We were getting concerned,” Pouoa said. “About an hour after sundown, we decided to drive up to look but it was foggy and snowing and there was no sign of this person.”

At around 7 p.m., the rangers and fire and rescue personnel from the U.S. Army Pohakuloa Training Center trekked for about a mile through heavy snow and sleet to locate the 64-year-old man.

Pouoa said responders set up a command area at the second parking lot by Lake Waiau. As they ventured out to find the hiker, rangers whistled, called out and blared car horns. Rangers and PTA responders were finally was able to communicate with the hiker by phone and he took a screenshot of where he was.

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Pouoa said the hiker was lost near Lake Waiau. The trail was hard to see but luckily, the ranger said, the hiker had a lamp and he was able to shine it at responders. The weather cleared up enough for them to reach the hiker.

When they found the 64-year-old, Pouoa said they found the man in a small cave in between Waiau Lake and Maunakea Access Road at 13,000 feet elevation. The hiker was tired and exhausted, but OK.

Pouoa said the rangers were lucky they found the missing hiker, otherwise “we would’ve been looking for a popsicle.”

Pouoa noted Tuesday’s rescue of the lost hiker was a good team effort with PTA.

Rangers worry about all hikers who take the journey up Maunakea, especially in winter conditions.

“They’re kinda on their own and it’s not a comfortable feeling knowing somebodyʻs out there,” Pouoa said.

All hikers are required to check in at the visitor’s station and provide contact information if they get in trouble. Rangers advise them to hike down at around 3 or 4 p.m.

“We brief everyone that the weather can change at any time. We warn them that people do get in trouble up here,” Pouoa said. “It’s icy, it’s cold. It’s been Minus 2 Celcius.”

Most hikers, Pouoa said, look well prepared and others “we tell them theyʻre not ready to hike this mountain.”

Pouoa stressed the importance for those visiting the mauna to heed road closure signs on the access road, adding they close the road for a reason.

“There’s protocol for closing the road,” he said. “We close it overnight when we have a forecast for bad weather. It’s concerning for us when people ignore road closure signs and make their way up there.”

If something happens to a hiker, Pouoa said it puts the rangers and first responders at risk as well.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat.
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