Aspen man climbs Hawaii’s Mauna Kea on unicycle

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoAspen's Mike Tierney raises his unicycle in triumph after summiting Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea in September.

ASPEN – As he pedaled up the final switchback, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” began blaring in Mike Tierney’s headphones.

Endorphins coursed through the 51-year-old Aspen Highlands ski patroller’s body. He could not help but grin as he plodded upward, high above the clouds, for the final 300 to 400 meters.

Soon, after pausing briefly to high-five a park ranger, Tierney summoned the energy to lift his arms toward the sky as he reached the summit.

Eleven hours. Forty-four miles. Nearly 14,000 vertical feet. One 29-inch wheel. Untold will.

“I couldn’t believe I had done it,” Tierney said last week, fighting back tears as he recounted his September unicycle ride up 13,796-foot Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea – a feat that helped him secure a new world record.

“I remember feeling, ‘This couldn’t be any better. This is nirvana. This is my sanctuary.’ I was in a completely happy place. … I was on top of the world. Literally. It was total elation. I could’ve kept on going, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.”

Tierney had contemplated that very moment for years, ever since he started logging ascents of the U.S.’s most challenging hill climbs. The one-wheeled wonder has summited Pikes Peak, Mount Evans and the vaunted Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire. In 2008, he scaled 10,023-foot Haleakala on Maui – an experience he likened to “being on the moon.”

Nothing compares to Mauna Kea, however, Tierney said.

“It’s the world’s toughest hill climb. I’ve gone that far before, but never covered that much vertical,” he added. “The last 14 miles, it’s almost like two Independence Passes. … It’s like two Mount Washingtons stacked on top of each other.”

Mauna Kea registers a 29.6 on the Dutch Fiets index, which ranks the difficulty of climbs based on a complex formula that takes into account vertical rise, terrain distance, max elevation and average and max grades, among others. By comparison, Pikes Peak, Haleakala and Mount Washington were rated the second-most difficult with a 17.7.

L’Alpe d’Huez, one of the Tour de France’s famed ascents, registers a 9.14.

“‘Daunting’ would be the best word, but I still felt like it was something I should do, something I needed to do,” Tierney said.

“I gave it the utmost respect and tried to prepare as much as I could – both physically and mentally.”

That process began in earnest in February, when he started logging miles on the farm roads surrounding New Castle and Rifle.

There also were trips to the Zion Curtain outside Fruita and to Rocky Mountain National Park, where Tierney covered some 40 miles and 6,000 vertical feet – most of it above 10,000 feet.

“I hit it hard on the weekends. You know, if I get in 100 miles a week on my unicycle, that’s great,” Tierney said.

“For this one, it was more about elevation and vertical gain … to gain a mirror image of the ride. I’d go up on [Independence Pass] and just go back and forth on the switchbacks.”

Nothing could prepare Tierney for that glimpse of Mauna Kea from his hotel room window, however. The colossal peak juts out of the Pacific and pierces the clouds high above the Big Island.

“It was intimidating as can be, but also inspiring,” he remembered. “I’ve been up against many a big ride before. That day, I knew what I was up against.”

Tierney awoke shortly after 4 on a humid Monday morning, Sept. 12. He stretched, inspected his wheel and his gear and munched on fresh bananas, papaya, eggs and a pancake.

Then, he and wife Annie made the short drive to a city park near Hilo Bay, on the island’s east side.

“We got the obligatory photo,” Tierney said, “then, around 5:30, I started heading up.”

Drenched in sweat almost immediately, Tierney pedaled through lush neighborhoods surrounding Hilo. Daylight slowly painted the sky.

He was only about seven miles in when his wheel started to feel a little out of kilter. Tierney gazed down and watched as his tube, which had slipped out of the wheel, began growing like a balloon.

“I knew what was going to happen next,” he said. “When it exploded, it sounded like a gunshot. I was thinking, ‘Here I am in rural Hilo, where everybody has dogs, and they don’t know what’s going on.”

With about 37 miles still to go, Tierney had little choice but to use his lone spare tube. After letting a few explicit words fly while sitting on the side of the road, he was off again.

He traversed the narrow, winding Saddle Road, which runs between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, without incident, stopping periodically to snap photos of the sprawling lava fields that ran along the shoulder.

Tierney had covered some 30 miles and 6,000 vertical feet by the time he reached the Mauna Kea Access Road. Fourteen miles and 7,800 vertical feet remained.

“As you’re riding along the saddle road, you see Mauna Kea before the marine layer rolls in,” Tierney said. “As you get closer … the mountain goes straight up. There’s no other way to ride but straight up this beast. You realize the hard part is yet to come.”

That much became clear as Tierney turned onto the access road and immediately confronted a stretch of asphalt with an 18 percent grade.

He began to struggle. During one steep section, he pedaled and pedaled to no avail. He fell off the wheel.

“I was like, ‘OK, I’m seven hours in and have about 10 miles to go. I’m close,'” Tierney said. “But as hard as I tried, the pedals were just barely turning over; the cadence was really slow. … You can’t start going uphill – it’s that steep – so I would start going to the side and go up as far as I could, 300 or 400 meters, then just stop. I stair-stepped like that for a while. … I wasn’t losing motivation, but I just felt fatigued.”

Annie and Ian, Tierney’s nephew from Oahu, showed up soon after. Tierney pedaled onward, reaching the visitor center situated at 9,000 feet.

“I remember saying, ‘Wow, guys, I feel like toast,'” Tierney said. “That’s where the road turns to dirt – for four miles from 9,000 to 11,000 [feet]. I could see the plumes of dirt from the cars and was thinking to myself, ‘I still have that, I’m not even at the top.’

“Ian said, ‘Why don’t you stop and rest, take it easy for a few minutes, then try again?’ What a great idea.”

Rejuvenated after a 25-minute respite – as well as some food and a Coke – Tierney hopped back in the saddle and headed up a series of dirt switchbacks.

“Some of them were so loose, so [much like a] washboard and canted … that it was really hard to ride,” he said. “Of the five switchbacks, I bet I walked half of them. I was able to ride between them, though.”

Soon, Tierney hit the dense, moist marine layer.

About three miles later, he popped out of the clouds.

“It was the most amazing sight – the top of Mauna Kea went from boring brown to red and orange. It was like being on Mars,” he said. “It was so surreal. I never imagined anything like that until you see it, feel it, live it. … It was like taking off in a plane. You’re in the clouds, then the next thing you know you’re the only thing above them.”

Not quite.

A few miles and a few switchbacks later, Tierney encountered a group of military personnel marching downhill.

“They started screaming for me in joy and excitement and encouragement,” Tierney said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “It was like this amazing, out-of-this-world movie that just couldn’t be happening to me. … Having this incredible dialogue with military at 13,000 feet on Mauna Kea. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Buoyed by the chance encounter – and some Zeppelin – Tierney soon reached the top. A group of Japanese and Australian tourists, eager for a photograph, approached him.

Tierney was more than happy to oblige.

“There wasn’t a worry in my world at that point,” he said. “I was happy, joyful. It was just like, ‘Wow, I’ve just completed the world’s hardest hill climb on a unicycle. I’m the first guy.’ It was so good to know I physically felt great – it wasn’t like I had to crawl to the top.

“I could’ve stayed up there forever.”

As temperatures dipped into the 30s, Tierney, Annie and Ian watched sunset to the west, then the full moon in the east.

They surveyed their surroundings. They soaked in the moment.

“There were times when it was a struggle, times when it was enjoyable. When you get there, there’s nothing like that feeling. It’s earned,” Tierney said.

“The mind-body connection is pretty amazing.”