How weird can this be? I'm skiing through a field of giant orbs—which are scattered like lost spaceships in a treeless bowl of slushy snow—while trying not to faceplant onto patches of jagged lava rock. Far below, clouds hug the flanks of Mauna Kea (White Mountain), and vistas of the blue Pacific Ocean extend to the horizon.
It's early February on the Big Island in Hawaii, and though I started my morning in shorts at the beach, I've since donned my ski gear. This caused a minor stir among guests in the hotel lobby. "Snow's up! I said as I strolled through.
Indeed, the white stuff is waaay up, at 13,796 feet. And the moonscape-like summit of this dormant volcano is hardly hospitable. The sun cooks you faster than a rotisserie, and the glare is so harsh that only the darkest sunglasses approach functionality. There are no lifts, no patrollers, no snack bar—just a dozen or so observatories, some encrusted by hoarfrost from the hellacious winds that can rake the summit.
It takes about an hour in Christopher Langan's Suburban to negotiate the rough, winding Saddle Road that snakes between the island's two volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, before reaching a paved spur near the top. Langan, 48, a former denizen of Jackson Hole who's skied here for 25 years, operates Hawaii's only guided ski tours (skihawaii.com), driving 4x4 ski shuttles up and down Saddle to serve the "runs.
Though skiing is possible between November and June, you never know what you'll get. El Niño winters can whittle the season down to a few weeks in a couple of bowls, while La Niña can cover 5,000 vertical feet and open runs averaging 2 1/2 miles long. That's when you can ski the pu'us—round cinder volcanic cones—of which Prince Kuhio is the most famous. But once the sun starts to cook, the snow morphs into slop.
Poi Bowl, an intermediate run, is our main entree. Over the course of three hours, the surface goes from ice to corn ("pineapple powder) to poi, the gooey stuff that native Polynesians eat. By early afternoon, I feel as if I'm trying to trudge through wallpaper paste. So it's back to the Kona Coast for après-ski, Hawaiian style: a pu-pu platter and some mai tais. I'm truly a pomaika'l (lucky) man.