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The way it was: Mauna Kea in 1945

Updated: 
March 29, 2017 - 12:05am

We are kamaaina, born and raised in Hilo during the 1930s and 1940s. Bill, now living in Nevada, visited me here in Kona for the Christmas holidays and we traveled back on many old, sentimental journeys. One of the special ones was about his hike to the summit of Mauna Kea in 1945.

As a youngster, kid brother Bill enjoyed tinkering with radios powered with vacuum tubes, had great interest in ham radio, and cameras fascinated him. Our older brother, Jack, gave him a top-of-line Super Ikonta B made by Zeiss. He took it on Boy Scout hikes to record the environments. One 17 mile hike took him through and into the Panaewa forest between Hilo and Olaa (now Keaau).

During WWII, many servicemen found our home their home-away-from-home. One, who my parents enjoyed was John Cornell Kurtz. They called him Corney. He spent much off-duty time with Billy, treated him as his kid brother, and took him on many a hike to explore interesting and remote nooks and crannies on our island.

Stationed at Hilo’s Naval Air Station as the Navy’s athletic director, Corney taught servicemen to swim and survival techniques beyond the ocean’s horizon.

He decided to climb Mauna Kea and invited Billy to join him. Close to 15 years old, Billy was very tall, but never had hiked in the higher elevations.

Corney and his friend, David, a Marine, packed supplies and equipment for this Mauna Kea trek — blankets into bedrolls, water, and a good supply of survival K-rations. Corney drove them up from Hilo in his old 1938 Hudson Terraplane to the entrance gate of the unpaved Saddle Road above Kaumana. A guard stopped them. The gravel road was not open to civilian traffic. But the guard let them hitch a ride on a passing military truck going up to the Humuulu sheep ranch. It was a bumpy 25 mile ride to the ranch site built between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa at 6,700 feet. The sheepherders gave them permission to spend the night in the mess hall where they spread out their bedrolls on the dining tables for the night’s sleep.

Rising at sunrise, they hiked a tedious six miles of loose cinders (a’a) on a well-marked trail to the 10,000-foot level and arrived at a small stone building, Hale Pohaku. It had been built in 1937 during the Depression years by the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Furnished sparsely, it even had wooden bunks where they slept their second night. They welcomed refreshing drinking water with their meals from a 2,000 gallon redwood catchment tank.

In the bright dawn of day three, they located another cinder trail edged with trailside stone piles marking the way. It continued to lead them up more than 4,000 vertical feet within a five mile hike.

Even though the day’s weather was cool and pleasant, Billy’s stamina petered out. He was exhausted. He could hardly breathe in the thin air. He refused to continue his climb and laid himself down in the gravel. But Corney and David did not accept that. They insisted that Billy reach Mauna Kea’s peak and got him back on his feet. By literally pushing, shoving, and dragging him, the two men got Billy to the peak of the world’s highest single mountain.

It was worth the effort. Sitting near the summit of Mauna Kea at around 13,800 feet, the expansive view was absolutely breath-taking. The greenish Lake Waiau glistened down slope below them. Mauna Loa and Hualalai rose to the south. The Hamakua Coast and Hilo sat below to the east, while the Kohala Range commanded the north. Through some thin clouds, they even thought they saw Maui and Mt. Haleakala.

A metal geodetic marker was fastened to Mauna Kea’s highest cinder cone peak.

Cornell told me that a rusty coffee can was tucked in a crevice and it contained a pencil and some paper and they recorded their 1945 ascent on some paper, tucked it back into the can, and then headed down slope toward Hilo.

The return journey took most of one day, not two as in the uphill climb to the peak. One downhill step increased into six as they slipped and slid on the cinder gravel heading for home.

On his visit at Christmas time in 2016, Bill searched archival records trying to locate the old coffee can containing those records from the hikers reaching Mauna Kea’s summit. To date, the can has not been found, but other people have written about the record-holding can. Perhaps it will appear in some dusty corner at a library, an UH building, or BLM hallway.

Pat Lindgren Kurtz presently resides in Kailua-Kona. She has been a watercolor artist, art teacher at community colleges and overseas schools, an author, published articles and three books, and now is writing her memoir, “Sugar and Poi.” Bill Lindgren resides in Henderson, Nevada. Even though retired, he continues to work as a medical device scientist.

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