To Repeat The ‘Full Ascent’ of Mauna Kea, You’ll Need A Submarine

Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain by most measures. But in terms of overall height from base to summit, Hawaii’s Mauna Kea has it beat.

Mauna Kea is 9,330m tall, making it 482m taller than Everest. However, over 5,000m of it are underwater.

Many ascend the dry part of the dormant volcano, which is a reasonably casual bike/walk. But climbing it from the base requires mountaineering tactics you might call unusual.

Victor Vescovo and Dr. Clifford Kapono started the first complete ascent of Mauna Kea earlier this year in a submarine. The climb technically begins 43km off Hawaii’s big island, 6.4km deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Vescovo happened to have a submarine. An aha moment inspired the ascent.

“The light bulb immediately went off in my head of saying, ‘well, I have a submarine that can go to any depth,'” he said. “And so I thought, what a wonderful ability to mix marine activity with mountain climbing and climbing Mauna Kea.”

Mauna Kea first full ascent details

Over three days, Vescovo and Kapono — a marine biologist and Hawaiian native — used the sub, an outrigger canoe, bikes, and finally hiking boots to summit the mountain.

The trip got underway with Kapono’s submarine descent. Though he had previously studied ocean floor species, he had never seen them in their native habitat.

mauna kea full ascent expedition

Vescovo’s submersible.


The submarine dive went off without a hitch. The 43km canoe trip looked like a different story. The men wanted to complete as much of the ascent as possible under their own power, but Vescovo was a novice paddler. Unfavorable winds and currents promised an abrasive experience.

“The paddle was rough. I am not a paddler by nature, so this was new to me. I had to train for [it],” Vescovo said.

They employed a local canoeing expert, Chad Cabral, to help smooth out the wrinkles.

During the six-hour trip, “[We] didn’t tip the canoe over,” Vescovo said, “which was great.”

Day two featured a 60km all-uphill bike ride, from the small oceanside city of Hilo to a lodge on the mountain 2,750m above. The ride took the explorers through a wide swath of Hawaii’s climatic zones. Starting in lush jungle, they ascended through sub-volcanic terrain with scrub vegetation and finally to bare solidified volcanic flows.

mauna kea first full ascent


After observing local rites at an altar built from lava rock, they threw themselves into the 17% grades.

The ascent concluded on day three with a snowy hike above the clouds, presided over by a local elder. Dissonantly, machine gunfire and explosions echoed from a military base below. However, the men shared a peaceful summit, where Kapono issued a quiet prayer.

Sub rental rates? A repeat looks unlikely

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Vescovo and Kapono’s adventure constituted the first “full” ascent of Mauna Kea.

Depending on how many mountaineer cyclists also own submarines, it might be a while before the ascent gets a repeat. Among the submarine guide/rental services in Hawaii, ExplorersWeb is unaware of one that will take clients six kilometres below the surface.