House of the sun: Tierney tackles Haleakala |

House of the sun: Tierney tackles Haleakala

Mike TierneySpecial to The Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Mike Tierney courtesy photoAspen local Mike Tierney poses with his unicycle at the entrance of Maui's Haleakala National Park. Maui

After giving me a high five, this smiling Asian woman asked softly, Can I have your autograph? I have never been asked that question before in my life, so this took me totally by surprise. On the summit of Haleakala, I was living a dream. A dream I was hoping would last and last. Haleakala in Maui is a place that I have been to before, on my honeymoon 20 years ago. It had left a profound mark of adventure on me back then. This most recent trip was a family vacation to Kauai and Maui, and I was planning to fulfill that affection that was etched into me years ago with a record first ascent of the road to Haleakalas summit on my unicycle.For those hard-core cyclists that seek out climbs, Haleakala is usually near the top of the list. It is the only road in the world that climbs from sea level to 10,023 feet, all of it in 36 hard miles. The road has a continuous grade that averages 5.2 percent, with some sections between 8-10 percent. While certainly not the steepest climb in the world, it is the only paved road that ascends from sea level to such a height.Haleakala is considered an active volcano, even though the last eruption is believed to have occurred in the 1600s. Cycling on Haleakala is very popular though not for the climb.Commercial outfitters drive clients to just outside the park entrance, drop them off, and then let them fly down the road. These tourists are dressed in GoreTex rain gear and full-faced helmets. They look like lost astronauts. More than 70,000 people ride down the mountain every year. For every 100 cyclists who come down the volcano, however, maybe one actually does the arduous climb up.Thats not to say that the world has a shortage of cyclists who love great climbs. To me, the most intriguing aspect of cycling whether on one wheel or two is the process of climbing. The major professional cycling tours are usually won or lost in the mountains. Thats where the riders who can withstand the torment of sustained climbing over such distances separate themselves from the pack.Knowing that, its no surprise that for every serious cyclist, theres a favorite climbing story. The rides may be different, but theres always a common theme of self-imposed suffering on some high, twisting road, all the while churning the pedals in trance-like concentration. I know from personal experience, after powering up a difficult climb, accelerating out of switchbacks and grimacing with effort, that there are few opportunities in sport, perhaps even in life itself, that make for such a pure experience of mind and body.

Haleakala, like most big climbs, is best done with thorough prior planning. Route finding, nutrition balancing, training, and good packaging of the wheel are a few of the logistics to cover beforehand. My 36-inch single wheel arrived in Kauai without any damage (I stuffed the wheel bag with a lot of soft goods thinking it would only help, and it did.) This was in addition to the cardboard and foam that was placed next to the wheel. For the first part of our trip, we spent four wonderful days on Kauai, mostly on the North Shore. We then traveled to Maui. We arrived in Maui, and the luggage was still in good shape. It was when we arrived at our condo in Puamana that I started to get anxious about Haleakala. Most of our time on Kauai had been spent in the water, or hiking through bamboo jungles. I live in Colorado where big mountains are an everyday sight, but none that rise 10,023 feet (3055 meters) above the land. I could not wait to see Haleakala, and on our first day there I had that opportunity. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to see the summit; clouds had covered it by noon. It wasnt until the second day that I was able to witness the behemoth that is Haleakala. It covers over two-thirds of East Maui, and rises right from the water and doesnt stop until it reaches the heavens. I am told that it is taller than Mt. Everest, if you take the complete elevation, under water to summit, into account. I am in awe at the size of this mountain. Ive been to Alaska, New Hampshire, Arizona, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Canada, and Colorado, and have seen many beautiful mountains that reach for the stars. This one is majestic. A ribbon of white puffy clouds surrounds it at about the midway point, maybe 5,000 feet up. After staring at it in great length, it was time for some boogie boarding; the heat of the island was wearing me down. I rode some fun waves for a while, and then decided it was time to build the GB4 36er. After all the parts were in place, I went for a test ride. It was then that the Maui weather hit me, and I realized that it would be a challenge for me on my climb up Haleakala. I rode a few times the next day, to get a feel for the heat and humidity. Wow. It was nothing that I had experienced, and had me worried. As hot and humid as it was, I felt that I could manage it with good hydration, electrolytes, and amino acids. I was ready for the big day, Aug. 6th.Mike Tierney is the founder and president of Aspen Solar and a ski patroller at Aspen Highlands. This is the first piece in a three-part series. Contact the author at

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