High altitude and dangerous conditions made Monday’s rescue on Mauna Kea challenging

Local News

Mauna Kea… the summit stretches nearly 14 thousand feet into the heavens.
It’s beautiful. But also dangerous.

“Mauna Kea is kind of tricky sometimes, we’ve been up there where its blizzard conditions you know, so i mean without warning the weather can change,” Michael Akau said. Akau is a fire equipment operator for the Hawaii Fire Department. 

But even in good weather it can pose risks.

Akau was a part of a 10 man crew that rescued a 68-year-old Arizona man on Mauna Kea Monday evening.  He was about 13,200 feet up and not on a marked trail. By the time rescuers reached him, it was 30 degrees.

“All he had on was some shoes, pair of shorts and a windbreaker jacket. So because of how cold it was he was really grateful when we got there. He was shivering…he wasn’t really prepared for it for sure.”

The cold wasn’t the only obstacle rescuers faced.

“The terrain was a big thing because there was a lot of loose rocks, small big and boulder type rocks and some valleys that kind of go up and down… we kind of faced tripping, falling on top the rocks trying to get to him along with the darkness,” Akau explained. 

But the worst part was dealing with altitude sickness.

Akau said he and the crew had headaches and were dehydrated. They didn’t realize how far away the man was from the dirt road so they didn’t take enough water.

Altitude sickness is caused from a lack of oxygen in higher elevations. In thinner air there is less oxygen available for a person’s body– being pumped through their blood. That means the body has work harder.

It took Akau and the crew three hours to carry the man just one mile, stopping every 10 feet to rest.

Shortness of breathe and headaches are just two symptoms of altitude sickness according to Dr. Robert Ruggieri of Island Urgent Care.

“They may feel shortness of breath when they exert themselves. They may have poorer judgement, are prone to slipping and falling and things like that…also there are cases where it affects the brain and causes cerebral edema or swelling of the brain and could lead to coma or death,”Ruggieri explained.

And he said cold weather doesn’t help.

“The cold doesn’t cause altitude sickness, but it can make it worse because you get hypothermic. When your body temperature is low at the same time, you are more at risk for altitude sickness.” 

The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to move up in elevation slowly.

“You can’t go from 5,000 feet or sea level here to 13,000 feet and expect not to be affected…Slow acclamation would be ideal,” Ruggieri said.

Most people will feel the difference in altitude around 9,000 feet. Ruggieri said It’s important to stop and take time as you move up, waiting as long as you can.

Other ways to prevent altitude sickness are to avoid alcohol consumption and certain medications and stay hydrated.

“If you notice any signs of altitude sickness, the quickest and easiest way would be to go down in altitude,” Ruggieri said.

If you plan to head to Mauna Kea, it’s important to heed all warning signs. 

“And just don’t go where you shouldn’t be…stay on marked trails,” Akau said.

The Mauna Kea visitor information station is currently closed until further notice while construction is being done near the center. However, there is an informational booth around 9,000 feet that is open from 8a.m. til 3p.m. daily. Visitors are asked to check in there. The stop will help them acclimate to the altitude.

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