Story - Hawaii 2001

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Under his leadership, George led us to hike on the majestic Rocky Mountains, embrace the natural beauty of Yellow Stone National Park, witness the breath taking images of Yosemite’s waterfalls and finally this year, experience the most unforgettable hike in Hawaii.  This story is dedicated to him as a token of my appreciation for his devotion and hard work to our Club as a President.    

See Endnotes: wishes from others


Thanks to Jomi, Wade, Flora, Cecilia, Josephine, Mr. Chen, Derrick, Tim and John who gave me their opinions, suggestions and encouragement so I could finish this longest story I have ever written.  I am proud of this story, but I am more proud of those whom I spent 14 days with in Hawaii.  It is they who inspired me to write this story.  This is, in fact, their story.

ALOHA and MAHALO to Hawaii
The Most Unforgettable Hike 
November 27, 2001

Chi S. Chan

Ten women and seven men joined the annual CMC vacation trip to Hawaii this year.   Unlike other previous trips, this trip consists of a few unique features:

* A Diversified hiking group: from top, advanced, average, beginner to inexperienced level and two new CMC members. Out of the 17 people, 8 of them never attended CMC annual vacation trip before;
* A Luxury trip; no camping at all.  We even stayed in a motel next to a beach;
* Weather extreme conditions.  From hot to sub-zero temperature, from tropical forest to arctic rocky summit;
*  The toughest hike ever, and rescue 911 was called
*  Unity: a strong desire to do things together as a group

During the trip, we had tasted the most delicious papayas, smelled the sweetest flowers, eaten the wildest guavas, hiked into the hottest crater, strolled under the most refreshing bamboo forest, crawled into the darkest lava tube, and witnessed the most exciting scenery of the hot lava flows reaching the ocean.

At night, we enjoyed a simply home cooked meals, sat around at Mr. Satoshi Yabuki’s lovely kitchen, exchanged a few jokes, took notes to George’s daily plan, listened to the tropical rain, looked over to the Japanese garden, and unwillingly called a night. These are our sweet memories, but not the most unforgettable event of the trip.
As mentioned before, there are two new CMC members in this trip. Without these two individuals, this trip would have been so much different.  Incidentally, they both are considered as one of the advanced hikers in CMC. Let us first introduce them.

Woman of a thousand names
George first called her "Wyoming", other mistakenly called her "Diana", some even called her Naomi, and Raymond told us to simply call her "Na". Regardless of how we called her, she always greeted us with a smile.   She joins CMC less than two months. Her name actually is "Winona".   Winona is a friend of Raymond, the guy who paid 5 years membership fee but hardly showed up to any short or long hike. About a month ago, he found out the Hawaii trip and insisted George to let him and Winona come along.  George finally agreed and because of Winona's present, she made our trip so much more interesting and exciting.

Man of a thousand faces
 Another interesting figure in this trip is also a new member: Wade. He is the youngest Bachelor among us.  When we first met him, he was a quiet and shy person. Perhaps it is the influence of Derrick, who bought out the inner personality of Wade.  After we left Honolulu, Wade became the main attention among us. With his attitude and altitude problems, Wade charmed his big sisters (except Flora, she is his little sister).  Despite his playful side, Wade is a tough hiker, a reliable and a decent guy. He is the first one finished the 20 miles crater hike and also the first one conquered the summit of Mauna Loa. Contrary to his rough side, Wade took out the garbage every night for us and was always attentive to all the women in need of his help. Last but not least, the way he handled the crisis of Mauna Loa impressed us the most. 

Climbing Mauna Loa is "THE HIKE" of the trip.  Most of us who climbed Mt. Dana before were aware of the difficulties and the hidden dangers of high altitude climbing. Unfortunately, majority of this group only had experience climbing a less than 3,000 feet mountain around Harriman Park.  George sent us hiking information before the trip, but not many people actually paid attention to those warning messages.  None of us anticipated or prepared for the worse. It is the lack of communication and over confidence among the group that eventually led to a nearly fatal journey.

Mauna Loa (13,679 ft)
Mauna Loa, in Hawaiian language means "Long Mountain". It is the world's largest active volcano.  The height of its summit is 13,679 ft above sea level. It is a classic shield volcano with a broad profile and gentle slopes rarely exceeding 12 degrees. The volcano covers completely by layers of thin lava flows and its top is a crater elliptical in shape.   In the past 160 years, Mauna Loa has erupted 39 times and a recent eruption broke out on March 25, 1984.

The hike to the top of Mauna Loa, no matter which way you approach it, is a long, strenuous, and miserable trip.  It is considered as the most difficult hike in Hawaii.  Walking over rough, unstable fragile lava is exhausting and tricky. The hike is a real energy drain. Trails on Mauna Loa are marked by rock piles and occasionally, there are signs marking trail intersection, some elevation, and prominent geologic features on the trail. In the winter, sunset is as early as 5:40p.m.  After sunset, it is impossible to follow the trail in the dark. Wandering off the trail can be a deadly journey.

Another aspect of the Mauna Loa hike, which makes the trip difficult, is its high elevation. Altitude sickness can affect any hiker regardless of his/her physical condition.  Most common symptoms include headache, lack of appetite or nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, irregular breathing and vomiting. If these symptoms persist during the hike, the only thing one can do is to give up the hike and go back down immediately.

The climate on Mauna Loa varies from tropic at sea level to sub-arctic at the summit.  After sunset, the temperatures can drop below freezing.  Strong wind can make one shivering uncontrollably if you do not wear proper clothing.  In summary: hiking on Mauna Loa is nothing close to a casual day hike. 

We planned to climb Mauna Loa the day after Thanksgiving. The night before the climb, George didn’t emphasize the potential dangerous and also neglected to set mandatory turn around time.  He invited the entire group to join the hike and simply trusted our judgment and the ability to climb as much as we could. Perhaps, he never dreamed of so many of us could climb as high as we did.  Out of the sixteen climbers (Derrick left us early), only three individuals did not attempt to reach the summit.  Most of us, even failed, did reach as high as 13,000 feet. The accomplishment, however, did not come without a prize. November 23, 2001 is the day sixteen of us will never forget.

The Beginning Hike
Unsurprisingly, the group was broken down into a few subgroups.  Wade, Marjorie and John headed out first; George, Mr. Chen, Jomi, Winona and I stayed closely behind them.  Cecilia, Flora, JoAnne tried to catch up, and the remainders, hopefully, gave up after a short attempt.  I am sure it was the plan in George's mind.

After nearly two hours hike, Wade and George's group met and took a first break together.  The wind was already strong and we found piles of rock-walls (jaggar’s cave) to hide from the wind so we could all rest.  Looking back the trail, there was no sight of the remaining group.  We assumed that they had returned to the parking lot safely, which we found out later was not true.

Jomi, Winona and I were hiking together for the first 4 miles. Jomi and I were at the 13,000 feet mountain before and we understood warm clothings are essential to this hike. Winona although is a good hiker, is inexperience to high altitude climbing.  She did not bring proper winter gears with her. All she had with her were only a short sleeve T-shirt and a thin wind jacket. 

Early Warning Signs
After the break, George and Mr. Chen were staying behind.  Wade, John and Marjorie took off before us. Winona, Jomi and I stayed together in the middle.  At that time, I already sensed trouble with Mr. Chen. George also was not in top condition either.

Mr. Chen is one of the top hikes in CMC. In spit of his age, he can easily hike 18-26 miles a day.  But that morning when he hiked in front of me, I noticed his pace was slower than usual.  Later, his body began to lose balance and he kept moving left and right.  At one point, his footstep even fell backward.  I knew Mr. Chen would push himself hard to reach the summit but if his condition did not improve, he would suffer.  Nevertheless, it didn’t cross my mind that he would have trouble reaching the parking lot before dark.

On the other hand, Winona began to fall behind Jomi and I after the break. We kept looking back and called out her name. From a very far distance, we could only saw her white jacket gradually disappeared. Later, George and Mr. Chen caught up with us.  They told us that they tried to stay with Winona but she just could not keep up. They assumed she would give up the hike eventually.

Below 13,000 feet, there were more signs of trouble. Flora was trying her best to catch up with us, but was troubled by altitude sickness. While she was feeling very sleepy, she was fascinated by the landscape in front of her. The moving clouds, the red and black spatter cones, the small shiny tear-shaped pieces of volcanic glass (Pele’s tears) and the various shapes and colors of lava rocks along the trail bewitched her. Flora decided to take a break or perhaps a short nap so she could enjoy her surroundings.  Luckily JoAnne showed up on time.  JoAnne was also affected by the altitude sickness, but she understood how danger it was to fall asleep on the high mountain.  She gave Flora a piece of candy hoping to stimulate her mind so she would not want to fall asleep again.   At this stage, both of them were already exhausted and they were slowing down significantly.

Right behind JoAnne and Flora, the group consisted of Cecilia, Mr. Rong, Clarie and Raymond gradually approached.  While Mr. Rong and Clarie were struggling behind, Raymond began to complain about the pain in his stomach. He asked Cecilia for a "TUMS". Being an experienced nurse, Cecilia knew well it was an early sign of high altitude sickness, so she told Raymond to go down (forget about the TUMS) and stay with Mrs. Lei.

Trouble Began
With much effort, Cecilia, Flora and JoAnne finally reached the 2.5 mile point (elevation: 13,018 ft). They were excited and happy to be so close to the summit. After lunch, Cecilia began to show symptoms of altitude sickness. It was already noontime, so three of them decided to go back to the parking lot.   Caught by their surprise, Mr. Rong and Clarie showed up from nowhere.  Cecilia never dreamed of Mr. Rong and Clarie would try to follow her so high up.  Clarie had a headache right from a start. No one would expect her to push herself to such a limit.  Mr. Rong, walking like a drunk already on a flat Saddle road, was in no condition to even climb a mile. Cecilia nearly fainted when she saw them.  Immediately, she urged both them to turn around.

Altitude sickness continued affecting everyone in the group. With her sleepy mind, Flora wandered off the trail accidentally on her way down.  JoAnne, not wanting Flora to hike by herself, stayed 100 feet behind her and was not aware of Flora’s mistake until much later. Clarie had upset stomach twice by now, feeling so weak, was not sure where Flora was heading, screamed out loud to catch JoAnne and Flora’s attention, but they were just too far apart to hear her. Cecilia, although feeling worse than before, was obligated to stay with Clarie and Mr. Rong.  She watched Flora and JoAnne gradually disappearing behind the lava rocks, sadly prayed to God for their safety.

JoAnne first realized they were lost when she saw Mauna Kea (the other volcano) was at a wrong direction. She looked at the watch, it was already 2:30pm.  They must rush down to the mountain as fast as they could. She understood after 5:30pm, Flora and her would have problem finding their way out. She urged Flora to aim the right direction and cut across the lava flows.  The lava flows outside the trail are loose and unstable.  It took much more energy to hike on them.   Poor JoAnne fell and cut her hands on the sharp lava rocks, but she kept going and was reluctant to take more rests.  She knew the dangers of hiking in the dark.   Flora, being an inexperienced hiker, innocently complained to JoAnne as why they had to rush and not taking more breaks.  In her mind, she would go down to the mountain eventually and the danger of hiking in the dark completely escaped her mind.

Earlier, Wade suggested that we should all give up the summit attempt if we could not reach it by 2:00pm It was 1:30pm, Jomi and I was about half mile from the summit (elevation: 13,462 ft).  My headache became severe. Jomi suggested that we should turn back.  Even I could not walk straight; I still wanted to push a bit more. I told Jomi to give me another 15 minutes.   We sat down and tried to swallow some foods, but we had already lost our appetite. Jomi would not eat her sandwich, and I only took a few bites. An hour before, Jomi accidentally stepped over a thin lava flows and she fell into the cracks. Later, she found out her water bottle was gone. Since then I was obligated to stay closely to her and share my half bottle of water with her. But for some reasons, we didn’t even care for the water.  Without mistake, we both had fallen deeper and deeper to the altitude sickness.

After another 15 minutes, my headache became worse.  I buried my head between my legs and hopelessly agreed to give up the climb.  I felt a bit release as we began to descent.   After half-hour, we noticed a white figure moving toward us. It was Winona! We were happy to see her again.  After exchanged a few words, we asked Winona to hike down with us. At that time, she already lost of coordination.  She even joked around losing her balance while she tried to sit down.   On our way down, Jomi continued to stay closely behind me, but Winona was falling further and further away. Even her spirit remained high when the last time I saw her, her physical condition began to deteriorate. 

Around 2:30pm. John and Wade caught up with us on their way down. They passed Winona who complained to John how dizzy she was.  John gave her a pill and lent her his hiking stick.  But Winona never gained back her strength and continued to take more and more rests.  Wade decided to leave her and asked John to hike with Jomi and I.  The thought of leaving Winona alone concerned me. I suggested staying with her.  Wade disagreed and insisted that Jomi and I should follow John.   He briefly mentioned about Mr. Chen and George were still at the summit and Mr. Chen’s condition worried him. He told us he would try to call for help as soon as he reached the parking lot. 

The 4 miles hiking down to the parking lot was endless.  The lava flows were sharp and rough, the later afternoon sun remained strong, the increasing wind gave no mercy to our skin, the observatory, like a mirage, flowing from a far distance, but could never been reached. My mood was the lowest, and I could not help but kept cursing how much I hated this hike!

On the other hand, Flora and JoAnne were still desperately searching for the missing trail.  They never found the trail, but were lucky enough to spot movements on other side of the mountain.  They were not sure it was Cecilia but Flora screamed as loud as she could to catch their attention.  It was indeed Cecilia but since they were too far apart, JoAnne and Flora didn’t catch up with Cecilia.  However, they did manage to find their way back. By 5:30pm, Both reached the parking lot exhausted, and the night was imminent. 

Fifteen minutes later, Jomi and I arrived. It took us nearly 4 hours to return to the group.  I collapsed on Mrs. Lei's lap, and immediately asked Raymond to call for help.  Few minutes later, we were all swallowed by complete darkness. 

The Waiting
We had lost contact with George, Mr. Chen and Winona completely for a few hours. Wade running between Raymond and John, discussing with them as what should they do. Even we all knew George, Mr. Chen and Winona are all good hikers, we still could not help but worrying about them. 

During the trip, there was a bound growing stronger and stronger between us. Although some activities, we had to separate as two groups (hiking and sightseeing), we did try our best to do things together.  Climbing Mauna Loa was never planned as a group event, but the group was getting along so well and George didnot want any one of us missing the opportunity to climb the world largest active volcano.  When he suggested that we should all hike together, no one complained or objected the idea.  Some how, we knew, when in danger, we would take care of each other. 

Raymond's cellular phone went dead.  Wade and Raymond decided to drive one car to the nearest town to call for help.  John would stay behind with another car to wait for George.   The rest of us could only sit and pray.

I hardly remembered the last time I was upset in the public. That night, my emotion overcame me. The thought that Winona was shriving from the freezing temperature, hallucinating from altitude sickness, struggling alone against the hollowing wind, desperately searching for the unfamiliar trail marks, and eventually collapsing from fatigue frightened me, distressed me, drove me into a deep sadness. Possibly it is the feeling of guilt that tortured me the most.... I SHOULD HAVE STAYED WITH HER, I SHOULD...Pele, Goddess of volcano, spare her life, I pleaded….

Outside our jeep window, the sky was clear, the stars were infinite, but the howling wind never stop.  How could Winona possible survive in this cold night?  How could she see the trail in the dark, how could she have the strength to carry on? Would George and Mr. Chen be able to find her?  I sobbed once more....

Rescue 911
Around 7:00 p.m., we saw a dim flesh light moving towards us.  A figure emerged from the darkness, with hat and jacket covered the entire body, sluggishly approaching our car. The man waved to us slowly.  He seemed very tired, no desire to make another step. As he moved closer, we recognized him. It was Mr. Chen! HE IS ALIVE!

We pushed Mr. Chen into our jeep, kept him warm, let him eat and drink.  As soon as he gained back some strength, we asked him about George and Winona. He told us on their way down from the summit, George and him saw Winona straying aimlessly on the trail. She was cold, lost coordination, didn’t know where to go. George only had a pair of gloves to keep her warm. At the beginning, Mr. Chen stayed with them, but later on, went ahead on his own.   He explained that it was too dark to see the trail. He kept looking back and used the fainting white light from the sky as background to locate the piles of standing rocks (markers). It took him an hour just to pass five markers.   The last time he saw George and Winona was the intersection between the jeep trail and the summit trail. We knew at once, it was still very high up at the mountain. George desperately needed help.  After he finished his foods, Mr. Chen empties out his backpack, took my jacket and some hot water with him and went back to the trail to find George.  We saw Mr. Chen’s shadow gradually diminish in the dark.  He was too weak to go back to the trail again….

Fifteen minutes later, we heard a helicopter moving towards our direction. It flew closer and then turned back.  It flew towards us again and started to circle around.  Almost at the same time, we heard John from the radio that he saw two police vehicles on Rt200. Another fifteen minutes later, one of the cars parked next to us. Wade was sitting on the back seat. I jumped out, ran to them and tried my best to describe the situation.  Suddenly, we heard George’s voice from the radio. “Can anybody hear me, anyone….” We called back, but no response, his voice fainted away and he was gone…..

The helicopter continued to circle around and seemed to stop at the West Side of the mountain and then flew away. Some communications went on between the helicopter and the firemen. The helicopter had located George and Winona. About six to seven firemen, wearing heavy winter gears, with bright flesh lights, headed out to the mountain.  It was another long long wait again…..

Up on the Summit Trail
Winona was shivering uncontrollably. All George could offer her were a pair of gloves. On the other hand, Mr. Chen had been separated with them for a while. George was not too comfortable to see Mr. Chen hike by himself.  With his condition, Mr. Chen would easily got lost in the mountain. If anything happened to him, George would not know how to face Mr. Chen’s wife.

There was a story about an accident occurred in 1981 on Mauna Loa:
“….a hiker walked off the trial and got lost after dark….  After 7 days for the most extensive air and ground search in the Park’s history, no trace of this hiker was found…”

Even with Mr. Chen at the back of his mind, George needed to focus on helping himself and Winona first.  Winona clung to George desperately and would not dare to let go of his hand. George told Winona to stand still so he could go to check out the trial.

If it was only him in this situation, George would have followed his instinct and ran down to the mountain as fast as he could. Now, he had Winona with him. He needed to consider Winona’s ability to hike in the dark.  If she fell and could not move, how could he carry her? If he fell accidentally, what would happen to her?  He had to find a solution, which would minimize all the possible dangers.   After checking out the trail ahead, George decided to give up the summit trail and took the jeep trial instead.

The jeep trail is used mainly by the Park Service for maintenance purpose. It is a much wider and safer road to walk on. The only draw back is: the jeep trail is a much longer road. The distance of the summit trail from the intersection to the parking lot is about 2.7 miles but the jeep trail could be 3 to 4 times longer.  As time passed by, the temperature continued to drop further. Could Winona be able to stay alert for another 3 hours in such a windy and freezing night?  To make the matter worse, George’s little fresh light went out of batteries. In a complete darkness, George remained calm even he understood they were at the edge of “a life and death” situation, but he must not let Winona aware of it. He turned to Winona and explained his plan to her.

While they were struggling on the jeep road, George continued to radio out, screamed out loud to get anyone’s attention.    All the sudden, Winona remembered her cellular phone and the extra batteries in her backpack.  She turned her phone on and gave the extra batteries to George. George asked Winona not to check her messages, instead call 911 first. Unexpectedly, George seemed to hear a rumbling sound of a helicopter. He looked up and saw a helicopter flying towards them. Right away, George knew that we had already called 911 and the helicopter, no double, was searching for them.  In order to catch the helicopter’s attention, George put the new batteries in his flesh light, waved it vigorously to the helicopter.  THE HELICOPTER SPOTED THEM! 

Up at 13,000 feet, the air is 40% less than the air at the sea level.  The thin air precluded the helicopter from circling around and staying with them.  Also, there was no flat surface for the helicopter to land.   George and Winona must continue to hike on their own.    The pilot told George that the help was already on its way and the rescue team would meet them very soon. 

Looking back his life with CMC, George never dreamed of being rescued by others.   Joking with Winona, George told her, it was the first time in his life holding a woman’s hand and hiking under moonlight.  Perhaps this flattered Winona and motivated her to go on.  (Unfortunately, Winona is two months too late, a joke, only 17 of us would understand)

The Reunion
Back at the parking lot, John found Mr. Chen at the trailhead and urged him to return to our car, so the rescuers could begin their search. All we could do were to wait and hope for the best.  It seemed like ages, and finally one of the fireman broke the good news: THEY FOUND GEORGE & WINONA!  Both of them were still in high spirit.    After 30 minutes, we saw half dozen bright flesh lights dancing in the mid air and moving towards us. George and Winona accompanying by the firemen finally emerged from the darkness!  This time, I was not ashamed of my emotion. Hugging both George and Winona, we were happy to have them back in our lives.  Welcome back guys! 

Although Winona’s hands were ice cold, but she was still strong enough to talk to us.  George, on the other hand, was happy to see Mr. Chen again. He first thanked the rescuers, then jumped into his car, gave us a big smile and said: LET US GO HOME. 

Back to AYH, it was nearly 12:00 o’clock in the morning. When we finally went to bed, it was 1:30am.  But six of us (Cecilia, JoAnne, Flora, Jomi, Winona and I were roommates) had no desire to sleep.  We closed our door and listen to Winona to begin her story….



Jomi: “He is a knowledgeable and a well organizer. I believed that he spent a lot of time and efforts to prepare for those yearly trips.”

Winona: “…..I am two months too late….”

Wade: “…it takes great sacrifice and patience to be doing as much as George is doing for the club and organizing yearly trips.”

Tim & JoAnne: “..George has been doing a great job for CMCNY, we all recognize that! Just wish our next leader would devote himself/herself to the club enthusiastically as George did. Best wishes to George!”

Raymond: “George is a nice gentleman.  I believe he would take care Winona better than me. He did a good job in taking care of her in that cold night at the top of the mountain.  He saved her life by keeping her warm and leading her way down to the safe place. George and me… competition.”

Cecilia: “It takes a lot to be a leader. In the time of crisis, you can change any disaster situation into a safe ending. George has proven that he really can handle anything.  If it is not George’s true leadership quality, the ending may be different.  Thank you George for your devotion, unselfishness and intelligence.”

Flora: “I don’t really know much about George, until Hawaii trip.  He is a responsible, hard working, and organized leader.  George Is also an experience and extremely crazy hiker! A humor and friendly person. I thank him a lot that he offered me the opportunity to go to Hawaii.  I had a lot of fun, and it was an arduous and unforgettable trip.  A special thanks to JoAnne, who was watching and caring for me during the trip to Mauna Loa.”

Josephine Lei: “I always like and respect George.  I learned a lot of outdoor things from him. From how to “walk” on the trial, how to read the maps and trail marks…, why “trail maintenance” is so important to us…. I just wish George will continue to help/lead the club as he did in the past whether he is on board or not. I know he will.”


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