Aspen unicyclist completes volcano odyssey
The Aspen Tims
Mike Tierney never met a unicycle challenge he could resist.
The well-traveled Aspen unicyclist, who has ridden every Continental Divide crossing in Colorado (dirt and paved), also has conquered the most dramatic climbs from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.
With one of Hawaii’s major volcanoes already checked off his unicycling bucket list, Tierney mulled the dual challenge of the other volcano — a tough unicycle climb along with an arduous lava hike to the summit of mystical Mauna Loa.
“The thing about this one was it had to be a two-part adventure,” Tierney said. “Part 1 was the unicycling part; part 2 was the hiking part because the road doesn’t go to the top like it does on Mauna Kea.”
Tierney, a longtime Aspen Highlands ski patroller, referenced the massive dual volcanoes in Hawaii.
Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawaii at 13,796 feet, is considered the toughest sea-to-summit ascension in the cycling community.
Tierney conquered Mauna Kea on his unicycle in 2011. From his Mauna Kea vantage point, clouds obscured everything but Mauna Loa.
“I said, “Someday I will ride to the top of that,” said Tierney, who returned four years later to complete the volcano odyssey.
Mauna Loa, at 13,678, is just a bit below Mauna Kea’s summit elevation, but the sea-to-summit saga matches, according to Tierney.
The Aspen unicyclist, who prefers his tougher rides later in the season, opted for an early season opportunity on Mauna Loa.
He started what would be an historic day when he dipped his toes into Hilo Bay at 5 a.m. and started pedaling on his unicycle — in the rain.
“I had to go put my foot in the water to get the official sea-to-summit,” Tierney said with his infectious laugh.
With the help of a local support crew of relatives and friends, Tierney said he took off with confidence as he started the 45-mile unicycling challenge with a vertical gain of 11,000-plus feet.
“It was a big test for me because it was the early season,” Tierney said, adding “but I wasn’t worried about the altitude.”
Plus, he said, he knew he had the enthusiastic backing of his crew, the Hawaiian A Team.
Tierney pedaled out on the same approach road he had used when he climbed the other volcano in 2011.
He worked his way up from the ocean, through the tropical latitudes.
“That’s one of my favorite parts because it is so different from here,” he said, describing plant leaves that measure 6 inches in Aspen and 60 feet in Hawaii.
Tierney climbed and climb on the unicycle, hitting the 5½ hour mark when his crew met him on the road.
“They were excited to do this, to help, and I was so grateful,” Tierney said.
From their pit stop, he said he could see the road up Mauna Kea across the way.
“I felt the energy from Mauna Kea,” Tierney said, knowing he had completed that climb.
Then, he headed up again as the landscape turned to lava.
“That 17-mile road from saddle road to the end of the (Mauna Loa) road is one of the most unique roads I’ve ever been on,” Tierney said. “Lava. It was almost all lava. Most of the lava you ride through is from 1984, the last big (eruption).”
The road became a singletrack of pavement, wide enough for one car with white lines along the edges.
“It was a beautiful stairway-to-heaven road all to myself … no cars,” Tierney said as he had long left the marine layer down below.
He had to cover 5,000 more vertical feet in the 17-mile lava climb.
“The whole thing was 45 miles, 11,200 vertical feet,” he said. “The landscape up there is unbelievable.”
Finally, he encountered a vehicle and two interested fans.
He still had 7 miles and 3,000 vertical feet to go.
“But I was feeling good. It was a magical weather day,” Tierney said. “I was blessed, because you never know; it could be snowing.”
Then, with less than 2 miles to go, Tierney encountered a worker from the solar observatory.
“He had seen me leaving Hilo earlier,” Tierney said. “When he told me I was going to make it, it was that extra boost. That was great.”
He did have to navigate one final treacherous, 20-degree ramp to close the ride.
“It was really steep. But I made it,” he said.
He celebrated with the Hawaiian A Team.
“Oh my god, they were so excited,” Tierney said. “They couldn’t believe I had ridden that far. They couldn’t believe the landscape. It was just so vast … lava fields after lava fields.”
For Tierney, the ride consisted of 9 hours in the saddle.
“It was another monumental climb under my belt,” he said, “another huge, epic unicycle climb.”
Photos and high fives all around, he said.
“We celebrated together. It was because of them, I was able to do it,” Tierney said, adding he was happy to have a ride back down where the team rested up for Part 2 of the odyssey.
Tierney and the crew drove back to where the road ended for the second phase of the mission — a 12-mile out-and-back hike covering 2,500 vertical feet, on lava.
“There is a trail that goes from there to the summit of Mauna Loa,” Tierney said. “But it is through the same lava fields that the road went. There really is no trail. They have cairns.”
The huge markers lead the way toward the top of the volcano, through scores of snowfields.
“We probably crossed 20 snowfields,” Tierney said. “It seemed to be the cleanest snow I’d ever seen, and I live in snow country.”
The hike was relentless, he said.
“The trail went on and on and on. You get up to the rim and you still have 21/2 miles to go.”
Eventually, the team made its way around the rim to the volcano’s highest point and most spectacular views – 1,000 feet straight down into the caldera.
“We made it to the summit. It took five hours to go six miles,” he said.
After more photos and a celebration, they hustled down the trail. Three-and-a-half hours later, they reach their car.
“It turned out it was an 18½ hour epic, two-part adventure to get from the sea to the summit,” Tierney said. “It was kind of like completing a quest, completing that vision I had seen in 2011 when I got to the top of Mauna Kea.”
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Cam Daniel is a former youth addiction counselor who’s been a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy for three years.