Out of Gas on Mauna Kea

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hate driving.  I absolutely loathe it.  I will go far out of my way to avoid driving whenever possible, including making my travel buddies drive for 8 hours straight.

In Hawai’i, however, there is really no option but to drive, and since most of the islands are fairly sparsely populated, I figured it wouldn’t be too big of a problem to rent a car to get around.  Renting cars is still new to me.  Being someone who relies on public transportation for daily life, I don’t really think of a rental car as the first transportation option.  It turns out that my Hawaii travel buddies were also rental car novices, so I ended up doing a lot of the initial rental car research and booking.

Our first night on the island of Hawai’i, we landed in Kona rather late and went to pick up our rental car.  By that point, we’d been traveling for well over 12 hours and were too tired to think straight.  I’d rented a Jeep for our first 24 hours so that we could drive up to the summit of Mauna Kea and watch the sunset.  In order to make it to the summit, which is 13.796 feet above sea level, it is necessary to have a car with 4 wheel drive, since part of the road is unpaved and rather steep.

Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in Hawaii.  It is a dormant volcano that is one million years old.  The peak of the mountain is one of the best spots in the world for astronomical observation, and you can see a number of telescopes there.

Mauna Kea and dried lava

Mauna Kea and dried lava

The volcano is very significant in Hawaiian culture.  It is considered a sacred mountain, and previously, only highly ranking chiefs were allowed on the summit.  Now it is a popular destination amongst visitors for watching the sunset and stargazing.

I had done a lot of research about our trip while I was planning it, and I had read a fair amount about the drive up Mauna Kea.  I figured it was doable, but all of the articles I read cautioned that taking a rental car up to the summit voids the rental contract, basically meaning that if we got stuck up there, we’d have to pay an arm and a leg to have somebody come and tow us off the mountain.  A lot of people do the drive in rental cars, so despite there being a risk, we opted to go ahead and do it.

The infamous Jeep

The infamous Jeep

The drive up to Mauna Kea starts close to sea level, so the ascent is nearly 14,000 feet over just a couple of hours.  Altitude sickness is a serious concern, and visitors are recommended to stop at the Visitors Center at ~9,000 feet on the way up.  There are also no gas stations on or near the volcano, so drivers are recommended to fill up before starting the drive.

The idea of driving up Mauna Kea and voiding the rental contract on our rental car was nerve-wracking enough to start with, but the ultimate nightmare scenario involved running out of gas on top of the mountain and being stuck or having to pay an inordinate sum of money to get towed off.  As soon as we started our day, I was insistent that we watch the gas tank and fill up when we started the drive up in the afternoon.

As often happens on my trips, our day was packed with things to do and places to see.  By the time we started the drive to Mauna Kea, we had just over two hours until sunset.  We passed a couple of gas stations, but we didn’t stop, figuring that since we had more than half a tank, we could wait until we were close to the volcano to fill up.  Immediately before we turned onto the access road for Mauna Kea, we saw a turnoff for a gas station and decided to follow it.  It seemed perfect, being able to drive up with a full tank of gas.  Alas, it was not to be.

None of the fifteen credit cards we had between the three of us worked at the pump.  On closer examination of the pump, we discovered that the station only accepted certain types of bank cards.  Since it was an entirely self-service station, it seemed like we were out of luck.  Figuring the half tank of gas would be plenty, we started the drive up Mauna Kea anyway.

Since we were in a hurry, we only stopped for the recommended 20 minutes at the Visitors Center to acclimatize to the altitude.  There was a huge sign outside the building with pictures of cars that have gotten wrecked on Mauna Kea along with a number of warnings about driving up.  Needless to say, this did not increase my confidence in this adventure.  However, we set off from the Visitors Center and made our way onto the unpaved road to the summit.

Warnings on the drive up to the summit

Warnings on the drive up to the summit

Going up the mountain wasn’t too bad, and there were some great views on the way up.  We made it to the summit about a half hour before sunset and spent some time walking around and looking for the best view.  It was windy and freezing, so after a few minutes, we decided to sit in the car and wait for the sun to set.

View from Mauna Kea

View from Mauna Kea

We had almost reached the car when my friend stopped and patted his pockets.

“Guys, I think I dropped the keys,” he informed us.  I rolled my eyes and told him to stop joking around and open the car.  It was too cold for pranks.  “No really,” he continued.  “They’re not in my pocket.”

View from the summit

View from the summit

We stared at him for a minute, unsure of how to react to the news.  “Let’s retrace your steps,” I suggested, trying not to think about the fact that we had less than 30 minutes of daylight left to find the keys.  We started walking around, staring at the ground and asking the other visitors if they had seen a set of keys.  No luck.  Just as I was starting to get nervous,  my friend ran over triumphantly, holding up the keys.  Letting out a sigh of relief, we climbed into the car to warm up.

Telescopes on the summit

Telescopes on the summit

As we looked around at the summit, we spotted an area a bit further away that looked like it might have a better view, so we started up the car.  The other areas on the summit were off-limits to visitors though, because there are telescopes and astronomical observatories up there.  As we prepared to turn around, the fuel light came on.  It was then that we noticed that the arrow indicating the fuel level was creeping dangerously close to E.

“This isn’t happening,” I said.  “There is no way we are about to run out of gas on top of a volcano.”  My travel buddies confirmed that this was indeed what was about to occur.

“Well, we’re already up here,” we rationalized.  “Let’s go back and watch the sunset.  Maybe we can figure out a way to get some gas from another car.”  We headed back to the observation spot where people were gathering.

Pre-sunset view on the summit

Pre-sunset view on the summit

The sunset was beautiful.  But there is nothing quite like the fear of maxing out your credit cards because you had to get towed off a volcano to distract you from a beautiful view.  

Mauna Kea 7

Mauna Kea 8

The whole time, all I could think about was how stressed out I was about driving down.  I later found out that everyone in the car was silently pretending to admire the view while trying to figure out how to get off the mountain with no phone service.

Mauna Kea 9

We had planned to stay at the Visitors Center for a while and do some stargazing since Mauna Kea is supposed to be one of the best spots in the world for it, but everyone was nervous enough about the fuel situation that we opted to just drive down as far as we could before we ran out of gas.  Driving down from the summit was definitely a little scary.  The car slid a little bit on the gravel road, and as the light decreased, it was increasingly difficult to see the curves in the road.  Once we made it to the Visitors Center, we all relaxed just a little bit.  It would still be ridiculously expensive to get towed, but at least now we were on a paved road and no longer actively voiding our rental contract.

As we drove back down to sea level, we chatted about superficial things, trying not think about when we would run out of fuel.  I don’t even remember what we talked about, but I do remember staring at the fuel gauge, willing it not to move any closer to E.

Mauna Kea 10

Once we got onto the main road, we felt a little more confident that we were getting close to civilization.  It would be much less of a disaster if we had to call a tow truck now.

That’s when the fuel gauge started to move.  Except instead of indicating that the fuel level was getting lower, it started moving up.  We stared at it, trying to figure out if we were hallucinating.  We weren’t.  Apparently, the fuel gauge can be affected by the incline of the car because gravity will make the sensor detect a lower fuel level.  At least, that’s the best explanation that we could come up with.

We made it to a gas station with fuel to spare, cursing the car the entire way there.  We dropped off the Jeep at the airport, picking up a standard compact car for the rest of our time on the island, and made a beeline for a restaurant.  In the craziness of the day, we hadn’t gotten a chance to eat lunch, so we were starving.  After some food and a stiff drink, the situation seemed much funnier than it had on the summit, and we laughed in disbelief.

Like all good stories, this one has a lesson.  I will never again drive to any remote location without a full tank of gas.

Have you ever run out of gas at an inconvenient time?

One response to “Out of Gas on Mauna Kea

  1. Pingback: Spectacular Sunsets Around the World | The Unfinished Travel Project·

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