The Ko’olau Summits Trail


Mad ramblings and disjointed thoughts:

The winds are gusting out of the east, and I’m making my way along a fence line, holding onto it at almost every step dispite the fact that its sharp facets are tearing my hands to shreds.  At my feet the mud sprites that inhabit the sides of the narrow foot trail playfully try and trip me up with mud, root and rock snares. I know they are doing this because I can hear them laughing among themselves as the wind whips through the low shrubs. 

To my left is the Punalu’u side of Kahana valley, on my right, over the fence and below the long sloping upland plain, lies the entire west side of the island.  But I can not stop to appreciate the views, as the valley cliff falls off directly below me, perhaps a 200 foot roll to the first of an endless succession of steep drops that leads to the valley floor, and the trail, which is no more than a foot step wide, now negotiates itself around a rock outcropping. Just as I let go of the fence the wind whips up, and I grab a poor handhold on the rock. I shudder a bit, the sprites laugh hysterically among themselves, and I move carefully around the rock my back to the steep drop, grabbing the fence again regaining my precarious footing on the path and looking ahead to see if  I can spot Fish’s white hat. I move slowly along the fence biting my hand occasionally as I grab it,  and every now and then I wipe the blood off on a fern or tuft of grass. When the trail widens a bit, I stop and stare out at the incredible view of almost the entire district of Ko’olaupoko. In the foggy haze there is only the island and myself, no one else exists.  I am the last man, the first man, the only man, and the island is overwhelming in its presence. I intone a wordless prayer of respect and awe—and a desperate plea for safe passage. The wind gusts up again, I grab at the fence as I feel myself tottering, look along the narrow track, and hurry on not wanting to lose occasional sight of Gordon and Fish.      

From the narrow pali the trail bends to the west, transverses a narrow plain of native grasses, and then loses itself in the dense vegetation on the leeside of the ridge. On the sloping ground I stop and look around for a moment. The clouds blow wispy over the ridge line creating a moist softness,  a chill world where the sound of the wind is dampened, and the dew so heavy the ground is soft enough to swallow one up if you were to stop long enough. Far below is the Wahiawa plain, and off to the north the blue of Waialua shores.  Across the grass meadow and through the foggy haze I can just make out an orange ribbon tied to a bush.  I contemplate a minute of rest but the wind chills my wet body into movement and I pull my feet slowly out of the thick mud and make my way across the boggy grassland, following fresh tracks and looking occasionally over the misty forest in hopes of a glimpse of Fish or Gordon.  I see the top of a tree shudder and trust that is them.  At the ribbon the trail suddenly seems to stop as the sodden grasses give way to thick wet shrub. I force my way in, trusting the marker. My feet disappear in the low branches and grasses and each step becomes a minor act of faith, where slipping and sliding are expected, and the soft feel of a foot sinking into deep mud the norm. Finally pushing into the low forest, the trees gain some height, and I bend a bit to see the narrow track, the mud above my ankles, the tracks left by Gordon and Fish only depressions in the watery mud, uncertain assurances that this is the way.  I move on, the limbs pulling at me, the ferns scratching, the thimbleweed sticking occasionally as the  vegetation seems reluctant to grant my passage.  All the while the mud sucking at my feet, the squishing and sucking marking the asynchronous rhythm of my march. Losing orientation I slip, grasping wildly at a branch that is spongy with thick wet moss.  I stop, reorient for a moment and then move on, knowing that a succession of slips and slides is unbalancing and  guarantees a hard fall, or a slow motion topple onto my rear end. The wind glides through the trees, tickling the upland spirits into light giggles, and occasional fits of conversation. Birds sing in low riffs of reed like music. My ears listen trying to filter out a bit of human speech, or the ‘Ka-ching’ of  Gordon’s bush knife as he works his way through the brush. My eyes constant on the next few feet in front of me. I bend under a tree limb, heavily covered in moist dripping brown-green mosses, slip down onto a rock step, fern almost hiding the foothold, then drop again into a long muddy trough of soft clay that smells of pigs, the mud pulls at my calves, reluctant to let me go, offering to remove my shoes, inviting me to stay and wallow a while. I do a slow motion high step though the mud—raising my toes to keep the heels from slipping off—pass into a thick barrier of Ohia branches that grab at me and hook onto my pack as I twist and pull my way forward, and then struggle up a low rock and mud slope covered in grass and fern but offering me no easy footing. I struggle to the top  and look down through the branches at denser growth, seeing bits of rougher ground.  I spy a foot print on the ground and follow its direction, slipping down a muddy slope, losing my balance and landing on my ass—finally cascading feet first onto a deep plain of mud.  I stand a moment to regain my bearings while I sink slowly into the earth and begin a cycle that appears it will be one stage more difficult than the last. In the distance against a dark wall of vegetation an orange ribbon tells me I am still on the Ko’olau Summits Trail.

I have gained a new and higher level of respect for Gordon and Fish after marching across the island with them from Laie to Puamoho/Helemano.  A part of that on the remains of the now ancient Ko’olau Summits Trail, largely built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.   The signs said we did six on that trail, but every other indicator I have says a lot more—and Gordon agrees so I’m not just whining as usual.   It was often through terrain that was almost not identifiable as trail, or so thick that it might as well not have been trail, or so deep in mud that it didn’t matter that it was.

We started out at Laie at about 8:00 AM I believe.  It took us a few hours to get to the KST.  It took us until 3:30 to get to our overnight.  We got up in the morning and took about six hours to make our way out.  We did at least 25 miles, perhaps 30.   

If you plan to do the HURT you need to go up there and do a few miles of the KST and it will cure you of  any complaints about the trails of  Makiki-Nuuanu-Manoa. Prepare like me and you will just thank the gods and spirits of the islands that you actually get yourself out.   

I never really knew where I was, nor after a while, did I have the energy to care.  Gordon and Fish had the trail wired, and we only wandered off once, and that in thick cloud cover and was for no more than a hundred yards.  That is an amazing achievement from my perspective. Fish carried food and water for an army.  Gordon had a small stove and cut trail.  He lent me a pack at the last minute when the one I had proved to be good for only 100 yard hikes.  They treated me very kindly despite the fact that I proved a rank amateur at this kind of hiking. I did the Conan thing and made like it was just a part of the training.      

I fell down and screwed up my right arm pretty bad. I couldn’t do much with it without a bit of pain.  It added some personal suspense to the final two thirds of the hike.  It was ok, I just pretended I was an ostrich or a chicken—depending on how far down the cliff  I could look—and did it on my legs. I took a lot of Ibuprofen and managed to make it out without too much whining, though I stayed back from the guys so they wouldn’t have to hear me scream every damn time I went down—so much for being a two legged one armed beastie. 

I would love to do the same kind of hike again but I do not know about wandering around up there for more than two days. It takes about a day to figure out how to hike that kind of trail, or lack there of, depending on your perspective.  Oh, and wear long heavy pants, a thick long sleeve shirt, gloves, put an iron plate in the seat of your pants, and wear gaiters up to your ears.  There is a pack load of other stuff you should be carrying but I ain’t the guy to tell you what.   

Route:  Laie-Ko’olau Summits Trail-Klien Memorial at Puamoho Summit-Helmano Approximately 25+ Miles. Total Hiking Time: 13+ hours.   This trail is beyond highly technical, and should be ranked RFR.