Ko’olau Summit Trail 2012

This was a replacement trek after a recent change of jobs, and was supposed to be relatively easy when compared to my planned John Muir Trail trek. Only three days along the Oahu Ko’olau mountain range starting at Pupukea trailhead. The adventure is an annual trek led by Gordon Lau, a local experienced trail guide, endurance athlete, hunter and more who is also slightly older than both of the other two hikers: I’m 40 and Jim Masterson is mid-40’s. I want let out Gordon’s age for absolute fear of unleashing the beast. Jim is just off the plane from Korea where he is stationed with the Army. He is also an endurance athlete in excellent, crazy conditioning.
On Memorial Day weekend starting at 8am on Saturday May 26th, 2012 three trekkers set out on to attempt a 3-day trek along the Ko’olau Summit Trail (KST here out) ending at Kamehameha Highway only a few long, never-ending miles away. The terrain was tropical rain forest with a gradual paved road to start. The weather was overcast and slightly misting with a few showers and mid-60’s. Not too bad overall and a good conversation along the road. Then we stop and I realize my first misgiving – both Jim and Gordon put on knee-length gaiters, protective glasses, protective gloves and brandish their machetes. I had some small gaiters covering my low-profile trail running shoes. And that was the last view of the road until Kamehameha Highway. The trail continues uphill since this is a summit trail. We ascend up the thumb gradually making our way to the spine or hogs-back to about 2,200 feet. The winds begin to pick up as does the mud that is overflowing my gaiters. The brush is thick and getting thicker along the way. Gordon leads the way with amazing pig-hunter navigational skills that were obviously absent from a recent soloist who got lost for five days before rescue. Thankfully, we had a Gordon!
The trail opens up at times, then disappears just as quickly with only surveyor ribbon (yellow, blue, orange, etc.) to search for making this a game of follow the leader, dodge the plants that pulls at every piece of clothing and skin, duck from the objects darting towards your eyes from the wind, stay back from the person in front so not to find yourself the recipient of a recoil, keep upright in the every increases mud pit and of course stay hydrated and eat. I almost forgot to not grab anything to keep your balance since I had no gloves. OK, I think I have everything planned for the next 72 hours of fun.
The raw uninterrupted beauty of the natural setting of the Ko’olaus is truly spectacular. Yes, there are invasive species and many groups are working to remove these plants and control the animals that encroach on the beauty of the island. Until you walk in these harsh places, never assume that they are just hanging our picking weeds. They are truly amazing people working in some of the world’s most extreme places.
As we trekked slowly towards our first destination, Koloa Cabin, I began to realize that I needed to stay at least 10 feet from Jim who was in the middle to avoid getting smacked in the face from all the brush, but somehow keep an eye on him in the misty air and undulating ground where the trail twists and turns with the nature contours of the terrain. Each step is a risky proposition with rocks that move, mud that swallows your leg, brush that grabs at you with passion and just relentless concentration. Then at times, I found myself crawling behind Jim under fallen trees as if we were taking enemy fire from above. On the KST we moved onward to the Kahuku trailhead arriving around 9:30a then over to the Malaekahana trail by 12:25p. Stops for rest were very few as each of us are very familiar with eating on the move, and making steady progress from our years doing ultra endurance runs. And those years came together on this effort. Gradually, the Laie trail came closer around 1:05p with a short section until we took a longer break to get water at the Kawailao area by 1:37p. Time always crawls by in the head, then hours are gone without any realization of how far you’ve gone and what your body is capable of enduring. We filtered our water, Gordon and I with hand pumps and Jim with his cute UV pen and bottle filter. The Go-Lite packs were tossed back over our shoulders, and we finally reach the Koloa cabin by 2:56p on Day One. The rain was ever-present and a cabin setup by the Army was very nice reprieve to the wet and cold day.
I did my best to clean my clothes thinking the monster wind would blow them dry on the make-shift clothesline. But the mist and humidity along with the cold temperature made certain that was not to happen. In our metal cabin / container with a few bunks, we rested and slowly began to settle in with warm meals from the hot water provided by the two stoves that Jim and I had. My Jet Boil versus Jim’s MSR WhisperLite, no competition. The Jet Boil rocked. Jim began his hour long yoga poses that Gordon dubbed downward cricket (versus dog) and I just stretched out the body and watched the wind pass by the windows. Night came slowly as did the heavier rains letting us know Day Two was to be another adventure.
While we woke up early, we didn’t depart the comfort of the cabin until 8:15a. This was partly due to the weather and also due to a plan by Gordon to stop short at the Army cabin only a few miles away. Apparently, this was a very nice cabin and Gordon really wanted to stop there. By 10:35a, we reached Castle trail and despite the harsh wind and quicksand type mud, we were making good time. This meant that the Army cabin was reached very early at 11:24a and there was no logical way that we would stop here. Gordon cried and waved slowly bye-bye to the cabin. It was a very sad picture indeed, but onward. The steps ahead were the worst conditions on the entire trail, and challenging was an understatement. The only thing to do was to hope the mud pits didn’t eat your shoes and keep your mouth closed so not to splash any mud into your mouth. But with all the weather hazards, I continued to see beauty all around me. I might slip on a hidden log, and see the ohia flower looking at me. Or almost have my eye poked out, and see the strangest twisted tree that could only come from the mind of Tim Burton or the KST.
By 12:25p we made it to Peahinaia and pushed on to the Cline Memorial by 1:45p with markers of all trailheads and distance along the KST. We moved along the fence line erected to control the pig population and also caused one injury to the team. While moving carefully over a metal spike holding tension for the fence, Gordon landed on top of the spike impaling his right knee with serious damage. Some duct tape and a few curse words made the injury much better. That is one tough dude. He picked up his orange handled machete and pushed on. By 2:05p, we reached Poamoho cabin covered in deep mud, soaking wet and exhausted. And on the front porch of the cabin was a clean couple eating homemade sandwiches. I think we scared them since they departed rather quickly, allowing us to have the cabin to ourselves, Jim to do his yoga, Gordon to sleep and me – well I tried to get some weight off my clothes and body by taking a shower in the water catchment slightly warmed with the introduction of two-cups of boiling water from my stove. That was pure luxury. We rested, then ate and played with rubbing alcohol fires.
While the sound of rats racing along the back of the cabin woke me, I was still able to relax listening to the rain and crazy wind. By sunrise, the skies opened allowing some beautiful views all the way to the ocean. Day Three would prove to be a taxing day from the pure wind impact of the effort alone. And when I describe the wind, it is not like a gentle trade wind at 15 mph. These winds were truly epic and dangerous. If your jacket had any flap, it would slap painfully across your body. The force was strong enough and also amplified by the cliffs on Day Three to push over each of us. As we scrambled along the Schofield terminus by 8:47a, we were blasted with tough footing and heavy winds that sent each of us grasping for anything to hold on to. The cliffs are beautiful from below, just not something you want to visit on a freefall. We made it to the end of our section of the KST at Ka’aumakua and down Waikane trail at 9:12a holding fast to every piece of protection that trail could offer. Along this entire section, I rated every step with a 1-2-3 scale. One meant that a fall would be survivable with a self arrest. A two meant that I would get injured but likely not die. A three meant that a sudden stop would be a few hundred or thousand feet below, not good. And this rating was literally made with every step as the trail was razor thin, holes would form and the wind would knock your center of balance off line. At one point, I reached up in time to grad the pack of Jim as the wind pushed him unexpectedly close to the edge. We smiled, and continued. The decent down Kahana lowback and to the water tunnel was gradually getting easier and eventually turned into a hike. Once we made it down to Kamehameha Hwy, we found a certain Fishman waiting for us with a cooler, food, drinks and smiles.
This was an awesome trip with friends, and an amazing part of Oahu that is mostly undisturbed by people. The efforts by the researching, mountain clubs and universities are truly amazing and unseen. The conservation efforts in the most remote places are protecting the beauty of Oahu for everyone. Until you walk in these places, you can’t imagine how rugged Oahu is and how strong people are that attempt to hike the KST. Total distance, just over 22.6 miles.

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