Snowfall on the Big Island's Mauna Kea.
Snowfall on the Big Island's Mauna Kea.

I’ve heard you can snowboard in Hawaii. Is this true?

Snowfall on the Big Island's Mauna Kea.

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Each winter, snow covers the peak of Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot dormant volcano located on Hawaii’s Big Island. And, yes, this “pineapple powder,” as locals call it, is ready to rip.


Just don’t expect chairlifts, or any amenities for that matter. The barren, moonlike summit—which is technically state parkland but also houses 13 astronomical observatories—can only be reached via a service road.

Once at the top, it’s a free-for-all. Pick your angle, get at it, hike back up and repeat. Beware of the lava rock beneath the snow, mind the high winds that sometimes whip through, and you’ll be in for the one of the strangest runs of your life.

Just ask pro snowboarder and Sochi halfpipe hopeful Elena Hight, who carved a few lines on Mauna Kea in 2010.

What was it like riding Mauna Kea?
Snowboarding on Mauna Kea was a crazy experience. We went there in the beginning of March to check out the mountain and see if snowboarding on Hawaii was really possible. Because you are driving from sea level to 14,000 feet, you are required to stop on the drive up at 10,000 to acclimate. It is crazy to go up that high in elevation in about a two-hour drive. The snow is much like Mt. Hood in the summer—slush that gets iced over when it is cold at night and softens up during the day with the sun. The terrain is pretty minimal: basically just short slopes between switchbacks on the road. We were able to hike up one face that gave us a long ride down, which was pretty incredible.

Did you have to hike back up at the end the runs?
You can do vehicle shuttle runs, where you just ride down to a low spot on the road and get shuttled back up, or you can just hike. It is not great snowboarding, but just the experience was something worth going for.

What are the views like at the summit?
The views at the top are amazing. You can see all of the Big Island as well as the close islands of the Hawaii chain. It feels like you are in the middle of nowhere because you can see that you are completely surrounded by water.

It was definitely among some of my weirder snowboarding moments, especially because after we snowboarded we went back to the beach and went surfing in the same day!

Sochi is no Hawaii, but it is subtropical and has similar sea-to-sky altitude gains. Does having experience on a variety of terrain help you approach a unique environment like Sochi?
I have never been anywhere that is like snowboarding on Mauna Kea. Sochi is subtropical, but once you get up into the mountains where our event will be, it is full alpine and loses the subtropical feel. Mauna Kea still feels like Hawaii even at the top of the mountain.

Follow Elena Hight on her Sochi journey through her web series Hight Hopes: