The Snows of Haleakala

A friend of mine on the island of Maui sent me a photo today. It showed a rare thing: snow atop Maui's 10,023 foot (3055 meter) high mountain, Haleakala. This is a phenomena I only witnessed twice in my 28 years on the island - though I am told a small amount fell in 2002 as well. Usual weather for the summit is several degrees above freezing or better. Even so, it is amusing to watch tourists who come there to see the sunrise over the Pacific or get a glimpse of the neighboring island of Hawaii's Maui Kea, Hawaii's highest peak, get off the bus wearing Aloha shirts, shorts, and beach slippers, totally unprepared for the near freezing weather coupled with 25 mph winds. As you might imagine the National Park Service's heated observation building at the caldera's edge gets crowded very quickly at such times!

When it does snow, there is usually hail as well and an argument ensues between the rangers of Haleakala National Park and meteorologists over whether or not it actually snowed, or just hailed. Often, there are both in the course of the same storm, but I think due to the noise on the roof (and bodily pain) that hail can cause, it is hail that the park rangers focus on, and the sun usually melts the evidence of snow long before the icy hail.

For my friends who live in the tropics full time, hail is ball shaped ice caused by raindrops being lifted by the strong vertical winds inside thunderstorms until reaching an altiude where it freezes. It then becomes to heavy to stay aloft. As it falls it may collide with more rain drops, be lifted again, and so on, getting larger and larger until finally becoming so large that the winds can no longer prevent it from falling to earth. My mother grew up in Kansas and has told me of hail stones the size of baseballs, which are capable of breaking car windshields, putting holes in roofs, and if you are unlucky enough to be hit by one, ruining your whole day. More commonly, especially in warmer climes, it is smaller than a pea.

Snow on the other hand is water that freezes in the clouds and falls as crystals or "snow flakes". The flakes can also collide as they fall and stick together, but they are much softer than hail.

Ironic for either to fall on Haleakala, as the name is Hawaiian for house (hale) of the sun (a kala). Legend has it that the demigod Maui, seeking to make the day longer so that his mother's freshly made kapa (cloth made by pounding tree bark fibers) would have time to dry, went to the summit and used his throw net to capture the sun and slow its progress across the sky.

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January 2006 Snow On Haleakala

The last time I saw snow on Haleakala was on March 2nd of 1990. Of course,the rangers said it was hail. Which ever it was, it was frozen water that had fallen from the sky and blanketed the summit in white. I wanted to get a closer look, but did not have the time to drive to the summit, a journey of some 2.5 hours along a winding road that is said to be the steepest highway in the world. Happily for me, the answer to that dilema was at nearby Kahului Aiport - my Cessna 172 named "Manu Mele", Hawaiian for "Song Bird". That's only reason I know the date exactly - it is recorded in my pilot log book.

Flying east from the busy airport at 1500 feet, I headed east along Maui's rugged north shore, and once clear of the airport's control, started to climb. The airport is only 20 feet above sea level, so it would take me about 25 minutes or more to reach an altitude of 12,000 feet, from which height I could get a good view of the snow while staying out of the way of the tour helicopter traffic and above the park's minimum altitude for reducing noise. The temperature at sea level was warm and tropical as one would expect, so the landscape showed the usual lush greens of grass, pineapple farms, palm, mango, breadfruit, and other trees. High up above it was a different story.

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Maui's Coast Near Kahului Airport

Once at altitude, I spent about half an hour enjoying the view and taking photos with my 35mm camera. I flew at times with my side window open to the freezing cold air so that I would not have to shoot the photos through the plexiglass. I later made some enlargements that earned me three ribbons at the county fair that year - one 3rd place, two runners up. The pictures here were scanned from the old negatives which have some scratches, but hopefully convey the idea.

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Haleakala's peak with volcanic caldera in lower right and island of Lanai just visible in the distance.

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Haleakala Highway winds its way to the summit with the caldera on the left.

Scanned and reduced as they are, these pictures do not show well the islands in the distance or the shore line of Maui behind the summit. The dramatic contrast of the snow covered volcanic peak against a vast tropical island backdrop of blue ocean and green islands I must leave mostly to your imagination.

Back on the ground, I logged a total flight time of 1.9 hours, well short of the time it would have taken me to drive to the summit one way, and a I got unique view as well.

To see more of Haleakala National Park, which is over 30,000 acres in size, click on the title of this post. Aloha!


Robin said...

Must be the effect of global warming and green house effects.

The weather on this planet is certainly getting more and more usual.

Thanks for the wonderful post!

Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, that's a great post. Love the pictures. Thank you for sharing.

Plexiglass - is this the material used normally instead of the real glass? What about for commercial aircrafts?

Pandabonium said...

Robin, thank you. The weather is definitely changing around the world. The waters off Santa Barbara, in southern California are the lowest they have been in 1400 years according to scientists.

Happysurfer, thanks. Haleakala is beautiful anytime, but with snow it really is striking.

Plexiglass is a brand name - like Perspex, or Lucite - for acrylic plastic. The technical name is polymethyl methacrylate.

It is the same stuff they use to make those tunnels and walls in big aquariums. Yes, airliner windows are also acrylic, though more complex in design to withstand presurization. Cockpit windows too, but those are very high tech with added chemicals and layered construction that allow them survive bird strikes and hail storms at high speed.

Probably more than you ever need or want to know. Glad you liked the pics in any case.

Happysurfer said...

Pandabonium, yes, I'm just surprised that Plexiglass (acrylic plastic) is used instead of actual glass. Thanks.

Pandabonium said...

Hi again Happysurfer. I knew I would over-explain the question. :P

There are several reasons for using acrylic on planes. It can be more easily shaped to conform to the aerodymic requirements of airplane windscreens, requiring only about 100 C of heat. It is very tough, and perhaps most importantly weighs half as much as glass.

You've declined kayaking on FH2O blog. How about flying in a small plane?

Happysurfer said...

Hi again Pandabonium, no worries about over-explaining. The two factors you mentioned make sense - being more pliable and lighter. My inquisitiveness has been satiated. Thank you. My apologies if I gave you a hard time.

Is that an offer? Wow! That's awesome but you know I'll have to take a rain-check - more like an open-ended one. Thank you, kind Sir.

Pandabonium said...

Not a hard time at all, Happysurfer.

I'd be happy to take you flying, but I too need to make it "some day". I'm always happy to take people flying when I have the opportunity.

bonnie said...

Great post.

I got to fly a small plane once - a friend of my dad's was a pilot & he took me & my maternal grandparents up on a wonderful flight. I was in the co-pilot seat & he let me fly for a while. I was in high school, this was in the Seattle area (we'd left Hawaii for Washington State as I was going into my junior year).

Squeex said...

Mauna Kea on the Big Island had a foot of snow or more within this past week. Everything, including the observatory was blanketed in white. It was pretty awesome. They closed the summit to the public, but it was on the TV news for days.

Staying warm in Kula, Maui!

Pandabonium said...


Seattle is a beautiful area to fly around. That must have been fun. I'm glad you got to experience that.
Speaking of getting a different view of our surroundings, I added a link to your blog "frogma" . The views of New York from your kayak offer an interesting perspective seldom seen.

Wow, I bet there were some people sneeking up Mauna Kea to try snowboarding or skiing.

I get a chukle every time I remember the day you and I flew over Haleakala and down to Hana. ;o

bonnie said...

It was pretty amazing. I don't specifically remember this but my mom told me one time that I asked for flying lessons afterwards. Turns out flying lessons cost a bit more than the more garden-variety schoolkid lessons (horseback riding was the big one, there were desultory efforts at ballet & music lessons - I hated practicing but I'm still getting the payoff for that everytime I go play Irish music with friends) so they kind of had to say no. And now I'm all wrapped up in the boating!

Going up in one of those gliders over Mokuleia was also pretty amazing.

Pandabonium said...


Music does offer rewards for a lifetime.

I've only been up in a glider once, though I used to watch them a lot in California. Always wanted to fly one out of Dillingham Airfield on Oahu where you went, but never got around to it. The view must have been great.

Sailing/kayaking and flying have a lot of elements in common. Solitude, and a connection between you, the boat or plane, and the elements.

I envy your sailing experiences.

L.N.a said...

Snow on Haleakala is not that unusual. Snow or hail, I don't know specifically but it happens regularly about every 3 years or so. Most of the time they close the road & don't allow anyone up (the islanders really don't know anything about tire chains & black ice, lol).

When I was a kid growing up on Maui I vividly remember being out on a sailboat in December of '86, I think it was, the surprise & wonderment of looking up & seeing Haleakala topped with white against the clearest blue skies. There were 1 or 2 other times it snowed when I was really little that I don't really remember. In '83 or so there was a big one. A few days after the storm they opened the road again & I got to play in the snow the first time in my life. It was hard & icy by then but almost still snow enough that I made a lumpy snowball. The funny thing was no one has clothes for such things. My sister & I went out with 2 pairs of our dad's socks on our hands for "gloves", which were of course soon soaking wet. Frozen fingers, loads of traffic, carloads of amazed locals... SO MUCH FUN!!!