Mike Tierney summits Haleakala " on a unicycle
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
HALEAKALA, Maui ” Turning into the hill, I push with great strength up the switchback ” I think it is number 16. That means I only have 16 more switchbacks to go. The man with the camera is pulled over, and I stop to have a chat with him.
Turns out he is from the Maui News, and was made aware of my record attempt up Haleakala. We chat for a while about his day and my ride. He is a really nice guy; excited to be part of my ride, and he offers me water and coffee. I can’t pass up the coffee offer, so I gulp it down. I call my wife and let her know how well the ride is going, and to leave in one hour from Puamana. This should put them at the summit area the same time as me, if all goes as well as it has been. I feel great, legs are good, mind is totally focused, and I have everything I need to finish the ride. I continue to pass the elevation markers, 6,000 feet then 6,500.
At about this point, the road really steepens and the wind picks up. I can feel the intensity of the Volcano starting to increase; the energy is getting my heart rate up. I really focus now on making it up this next steep section as a downhill bicyclist swishes by me on their way to the bottom. The drivers of the vans slow down and give me words of encouragement and flash me the hang loose sign. I soak up all the good energy I can get at this point of the ride.
Thinking now that I have made all of the 22 switchbacks, I pedal over the fourth cattle guard. I am now the farthest east on the mountain that I have been today.
It seems strange, as I pedaled away from the funny buildings that are visible on the summit. As I draw nearer to this eastern edge, the road flattens out, well not really flattens, but becomes less steep. I also feel moisture in the air and a misty cloud envelops me, then lets me go. It was a quick shot of air conditioning, it felt quite nice actually.
By now the air is rather pleasant, and is not an issue for me anymore. I spin around this switchback and the landscape changes abruptly. It is raining, the landscape is one of a dormant volcano, and the wind is coming straight at me. I struggle to stay on the wheel and barely make it through that section. In the distance, I can see the entrance station to the National Park.
I stop at the official park sign to get some photos and take a needed break. Paul was waiting there for me, so we traded taking photos. I found myself there longer than I wanted to be; oh, but it sure was cool having all those people want me in their photos. What was the big deal, I was only riding a unicycle up Haleakala! I couldn’t believe that they wanted to hug a sweaty, smelly guy like me.
I pay my $5 to get into the Park, cars are $10, Why can’t unicycles be $2.50? I tried that, but the nice attendant didn’t buy it. I was honored to pay that money to the Park Service; heck they were going to let me ride my 36er in their park. I have been to some National Parks where it is not allowed.
I refill my Camelbak for the last time and head up the road. There is no “down the road” on this epic climb, so I continue up the road. I can look up the mountain ” yes, I am still looking up the mountain even after four hours. I see the last 10 switchbacks, or parts of them, and am totally blown away that I still have to climb 3,000 more vertical feet. I can see the tops of cars and trucks at the top, as they zigzag their way up the mountain. The climbing is great, the pavement is really grabby and I am able to keep the wheel moving forward.
At this point of the ride, all the elements are starting to take a toll. The wind has picked back up, now gusting 30-40 mph and changing directions. The temperature is fine, except for a lilttle chill on the east side of the switchbacks. My legs feel fine, but I can tell that it has been a long, steady climb with no breaks, except for stopping a couple of times. There are times in this section that I almost fall off, because of high winds and double fall line slope angles. I continue to push on and on.
The cloud layer that has been building below me since the 5,000-foot mark seems to be closing in on me. At times, I feel like I am floating in the clouds. I can still see the magnificent West Maui Mountains, and the incredible wind farm on an adjacent ridge. The Pacific has disappeared due to the cloud layer below me. High clouds begin to thicken above me; I get the feeling of being squeezed by the clouds. I do make a stop to walk around the landscape. It is all rock now, with shrubs sporadically placed amongst the rock. I take a moment to breathe in the air, meditate and just be. This is an incredible place, and I am part of it on this magical day in August.
Miles are harder to come by on the unicycle at this stage of this long climb. And then, I hear a car horn coming up from behind me. It can only be one car, the car that has my wife and kids in it.
I begin to go through an emotional roller coaster ride, one second I am laughing, the next I am crying. I cannot begin to explain the emotions that were running wildly up and down my body. I was so excited to see them that the motivation level in me increased one hundred fold. The road was too narrow for them to pull over immediately, so they drove out of view. I could not wait to give them all a huge hug. One more switchback completed ” I think I have completed 27 so far ” and I see them at a nice pull out. In addition to them, Paul is at the same pullout. My son Logan and daughter Lily jump out of the truck and run to me. I jump off the wheel and give them hugs. Annie comes next and I squeeze her hard as well. Paul gives me a high five, and I introduce my family to him. We share some great laughs, and I am off again. I tell them that in about an hour I will be at the summit, not really knowing how long it will take me, but it was a good guess. I think that I am down to my last five switchbacks, and maybe five miles to the summit.
This top section of Haleakala is like no other. No place that I have ever been could prepare me for the experience and feelings that I was having on the summit area of Haleakala. The landscape ” deeply sculpted, richly colored and intensely evocative is unlike any landscape I have known. Visually expansive, the summit area continually eluded any attempt to understand its scale or dimensions. I was on a 36er unicycle, riding up a 10,000-foot volcano from sea level, and literally I am just a speck compared to the landscape surrounding me. I pass the 9,000-foot elevation marker on the highway ” it is time to start the celebration.
I hoot and holler as loud as I can, and it does not matter to anyone but me. I make one final stop to try and take it all in. I find it hard to focus on anything by summitting the mountain. My family is up there, Paul is up there and Matt is up there, all waiting for me to summit.
I smile a lot now, I am having a great time, and life is so good at this moment. I begin to pedal smoothly up the final section when a young lady stops and asks me a few questions. Turns out she is from the public access TV, AKAKU. She also heard about my record attempt and wanted to be there to film it. She goes ahead and sets up the camera. I ride by, barely as the wind is really working me. I continue up the road and Paul comes riding down on his mountain bike. He turns around. We pass the 9,500-foot elevation mark. With only 500 more vertical feet to climb, I am going through that emotional roller coaster again, knowing that the summit is so close now.
Then, the sign for the summit comes into view. By now, the elevation is working me and the winds have me gripping tightly to stay on the wheel. I feel like I am motionless, frozen in time. There are no sounds. I see nothing. I say to myself, “One more pedal stroke, one more pedal stroke.” Then boom, I get slammed into the Volcano, face first. Time stood still at that moment for sure. I knew I could finish, so I got back on the wheel and pedaled until I saw my family.
They and others welcomed me at the visitor’s center parking lot. I was tired but appreciated every minute while I was there. I knew that I still needed to ride to the summit building, I was at 10,000 feet, but needed to ride to 10,023. The road to that building looked like it went straight up a vertical wall. I was going to have to dig really deep to make it up that last pitch.
I begin to ride up it and get slammed into the volcano again. I get up, put on a wind jacket, as it is now raining, sleeting and blowing 40 mph sideways. Am I on Mt. Washington? I am having wicked dejà vu! At that time, the only bicyclist that had passed me all day was heading down. He stopped in complete amazement, and congratulated me on my huge effort. He could not believe that anyone could ever ride up Haleakala on a unicycle. I guess I showed him that anything is possible. He took out his little mini camcorder and proceeded to film me, for evidence to his friends who would not believe him.
I got back on the wheel, on the steepest section all day, and found something deep inside me to finish this ride. I made the sharp uphill corner, still getting worked by Mother Nature, and proceeded to the upper parking lot. Instant goosebumps fill my skin from head to toe, my arms automatically raised themselves to the sky, and I began to celebrate. I looked up to the summit building, and there standing outside in the rain were all the people that had passed me in their cars, with arms raised, clapping and yelling and screaming. I still had the paved path to ride up, it was very steep as well, but I knew I could do it.
As I pedaled closer to the crowd, I saw my family, Paul, Matt, and Emily all with the biggest smiles that anyone can imagine. I had made it to the summit, on one wheel, in a little less than six hours.
The celebration on top was the most incredible summit celebration ever. I was treated like a celebrity. Picture after picture was taken, high fives were exchanged, and the hugs were unforgettable. Having my wife and kids there to witness my achievement meant so much to me. They usually just hear the stories and see the pictures, but today, they felt it. They saw the mountain win once or twice as I got slammed to the earth, but they also saw me get back up and finish the momumental ride.
This was the epic of all epics. Haleakala sets the world record for achieving the highest elevation in the shortest distance. Bicyclists have ridden this, but never has a unicyclist ridden it.
“Can I have your autograph?” asked a nice boy as I walked away from the Haleakala summit building with arms held high.
“Absolutely,” I replied.
That celebration moment will always live on in my mind and heart. I am so grateful to have been given that opportunity.
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