A 59-year-old Hilo woman is safe and sound after going missing Wednesday afternoon on the slopes of Mauna Kea and having to spend the night on the mountain.
“It was really, really cold,” said Jennifer Ho, a massage therapist for Klein Chiropractic Center, about her unplanned overnight stay on the mountain after being separated from a group hiking in the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Reserve Area.
Nelson Ho, a prominent environmentalist and chairman of the Sierra Club’s Moku Loa Group, said his wife started to feel the effects of elevation sickness and told the others she was returning to the vehicle, which was parked on the side of Mauna Kea Access Road. He said the group was only about 300 yards away from the vehicle, so he thought it would be safe for his wife to turn back.
“That was my error,” Nelson Ho said. “I should have escorted her back to the roadway if not back to the vehicle.”
Jennifer Ho said she left her cell phone in the car because the battery had gone dead, and she didn’t have a flashlight or reflective clothing.
“I thought it was just going to be a couple of hours hike,” she said.
County Fire and Police departments, Pohakuloa Fire Department, Mauna Kea rangers and friends searched Wednesday for Ho. On Thursday, the search included helicopters from county Fire Rescue and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, but Ho ended up inadvertently finding the historic Humuula Trail and was descending from the mountain.
“Once I figured out I was going the wrong way, I didn’t want to go back uphill, because it’s too hard to breathe up there and there’s a lot of rubble and stuff, so I thought I would cut straight across and I would run into the (access) road, but I never did.”
She managed to make her way to Saddle Road by midday Thursday, and was picked up by two good Samaritans, Ryan and Louie. The men gave her a ride back to Hilo, shared a hamburger with her and gave her Gatorade.
“When I told them what was going on, they said please, use our phone and call whoever you like,” she said. “I called Nelson and I couldn’t reach Nelson. So I called 911 and they were able to reach the rescue people.
“I had seen helicopters and I had tried to flag them down, but they didn’t see me, because they apparently didn’t know where I was. They probably passed over me as they were going to refuel.”
Ho hunkered down for the night after reaching the vegetation line.
“It was very cold,” she said. “I found a tree that had a little grass growing around it, so it was like a little pili grass hut cut in half or cut in thirds. I thought maybe that would probably block the wind.
“I slept there and as long as the moon was up, it was really, really cold. But when the moon went down, which I guess was about 2 o’clock, it got incredibly cold.”
Due to good fortune, Ho did have water with her.
“I had collected some snow in one of my water bottles,” she said. “I had collected it for the fun of it, but it became part of an emergency water supply. I was collecting it for a (Hawaiian) cultural practitioner who uses it to make medicine, but it was something that helped me make it, because I had only two small water bottles.”
Ho continued her hike down the mountain, which Hawaiians consider sacred, on Thursday morning.
“After seeing the road in the distance you go, ‘Great, I’ll be there in a few hours,’” she said. “But you find that the road is not only farther away than you think, but there are countless ravines and gulches and things that you didn’t see. I had to be judicious, because some of those ravines are really treacherous.
“I did fall once, which was really sort of a wake up, kind of like ‘be careful, you could really hurt yourself and not be found.’”
Ho was already home and had taken a shower by the time her husband and friends returned from the search. She said that she felt “exhilarated” after her ordeal and thanked all those who participated in the search.
“It was sort of a dangerous situation, and I made it,” she said. I’m grateful for all the love. My daughter works for Nawahi, the immersion school, and her whole office staff brought food and jackets and flashlights and walkie-talkies and they went up to the summit to help.
“When I got back, there was a whole dinner waiting for us. It was so loving; the people here are so loving. And I’m really grateful for that.”