Maunakea Rangers of the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Center for Maunakea Stewardship (CMS) are urging the public to exercise caution when visiting the mauna. As visitor arrivals to the islands increase, many are eager to explore Hawaiʻi but may not be aware of possible risks.
“We want to make sure that they are safe to and from the summit,” said Maunakea Ranger DuWayne Waipa. “This is one of the responsibilities that was put upon us to protect and mālama this ʻāina, this mountain.”
One of the dangers, especially on the summit, is that the nearest ambulance team would take at least an hour to arrive. Since 2019, the rangers are responding to about four distress calls a month for everything from altitude sickness to medical emergencies. They are trained first responders and are on duty seven days a week. A minimum of two rangers are on patrol during every 14-hour shift.
In 2018, prior to the pandemic and protests that closed the road, a total of 60,000 vehicles drove up to the summit. In January 2020, Gov. David Ige approved administrative rules for UH-managed Maunakea lands that allows the university to address excessive traffic among other things, which included a ban on two wheel drive vehicles above the 9,200-foot elevation. Rangers now have a checkpoint at the area known as Halepōhaku, where visitors’ vehicles are inspected and examined closely. As of May 2021, the rangers have turned around more than 5500 vehicles.
“We are trying to protect people at this level before even going up and make them understand that this is the risk you take without passing all this and saying, ‘I’m going to be ok,’” said Waipa.
Drivers with four wheel drive vehicles are also warned about what could be a dangerous 8-mile drive to the summit’s nearly 14,000-ft elevation. More than half of the drive is over largely unpaved roads with steep inclines, blind curves, rocks and no guardrails. According to CMS, anywhere from 6 to 12 accidents have been reported on the road each year, ranging from single car crashes to serious events such as rollovers. Rangers respond to each and every incident including flat tires and vehicle break-downs.
“Our rangers are integral in protecting the mauna and everyone that steps foot into this revered place,” said CMS Executive Director Greg Chun. “Most are retired firefighters or police officers and bring with them extensive years of experience from their critical roles in public safety.”
The rangers also monitor cultural sites easily accessible to visitors to make sure they are not negatively impacted. They serve as ambassadors of Maunakea, reminding visitors to treat the mauna with respect along with answering questions regarding the mountain’s cultural, scientific and natural resources.