Hiking the entire Ko'olau Summit Trail in one through-hike was a dream I had always thought was wildly raw, beautiful, savage, and impossible. But one thing the mountains taught me this year is that the first step to reaching your goals is to actually believe in them.
This was the first of three attempts hiking the Ko'olau Summit Trail.
4/11/2015 Day 1:
Dark chocolate is amazing
The day started at 7am in Pupukea - two hefty backpacks with a couple of woman strapped to their backside. Helene and I hugged Jessica goodbye, the third lady of our group and our woman on the ground.“Make sure your tracking device is working!” she chirped in her mother-bird voice.This was it! After months of preparation, we were finally hiking the Ko’olau Summit Trail.
The Ko’olau Mountain range is the crumbling remains of a shield volcano on the island of Oahu. It’s the breathtaking backdrop to a place many call home, but to a very small group of people, it’s a unique trek. There are many hikes up the sides of the mountain range, but not many people hike along the summit line. The first part, the Ko'olau Summit Trail, is the remainder of an old contour trail. After the official trail ends, the summit line climbs along the spine. Altogether, it's a 52 mile stretch that runs from the North end of the island to the Southeast. While the highest point is only 3100 feet, the length involves climbing a total of 26,000 feet of elevation gain following the rise and fall of mountain peaks formed by fire, wind, and weather. It’s an obscure trek that few people care or even know about.
But for us, it was completely captivating.
It took all of about 20 minutes for the excitement to wear off and the pain to set in. My knees wobbled under 45 pounds of camera gear, camping supplies, a week of food, and dark chocolate.
"Dark chocolate is amazing"
This was the very first note we wrote at the top of our gear revision list. The thoughtful list was compiled after a two day series of misadventures that we called “gear testing.” It started with a beautiful sunset under our ultralight tarp tent.
It ended with a 3am chase after the blown away tarp and a sleepless struggle to stay warm and dry in the rain. The only thing that kept our spirits up was two squares of dark chocolate wrapped in a piece of crinkled foil. No doubt about it, chocolate was essential.
But altogether everything was HEAVY! The straps of my pack chomped into my shoulders. There was a little goblin stabbing a five inch dagger under my shoulder blade.
I HATE the world. Absolutely hate it. My knees were already creaking for a rocking chair. It was impossible to think about anything but the pain. Pain and torture.
“Why are you doing this to yourself, you idiot! You can’t do this and you know it.”
WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY
We only knew of two people who had ever done the trek in one shot. After the first man documented hiking the entire length in 2012 in one self-sufficient trek (meaning no supply or water drops along the way), numerous athletes and backpackers were inspired to fly to Hawaii to attempt the trek in this way and failed. It’s not the typical mountain climb or trail run. It's dangerous. It can be deadly. It requires not just physical strength, but also an understanding of the unique terrain, weather, and navigational factors of Hawaii. It’s climbing loose crumbly terrain with a heavy pack, navigating a confusing network of trails in dense fog and jungle, hunting down unreliable water sources, and a constant fight against shifting weather patterns.
Helene blithely ambled behind me singing random bits of songs. She stopped to admire the different trees, feel the textures of the colored patches of bark, and inhale the sweet eucalyptus. “Look at those little roots hanging down, it’s like they want to be trees!” Helene pointed to a Banyan tree.
She wasn't even breaking a sweat.
I knew I wasn't strong enough for the trek, but Helene Dumais was.
I'd first met her in the summer of 2014, which is when I told her about the trek. She was equally intrigued. I might not be capable, but if she did the trek, I could document it as an inspirational story about women adventurers. Originally, it was supposed to be her and one other ultra runner, but in the end, the other woman couldn't make it. Hiking alone in Hawaii is extremely dangerous. Shortly before Helene arrived, a solo hiker disappeared on one of the climbing sections of the trails, and still hadn't been found. So Helene got a SPOT satellite tracker. I agreed to go with her as far as I could, and then hike up at different sections to check on her and document.
At this point, I wasn't sure I'd make it past the first day. It wasn't long into the trail before we met the bushes.
THE HORRIBLE BUSH MONSTER.
The bushes didn’t just cross the path, they consumed it. When I tried to push through, they scratched and clawed at me, leaving red marks streaked across my neck. I took a step forward, only to be pulled back by bushes viciously grabbing onto various parts of me. I sucked sticky spider webs down my pipes with each gasp as I struggled to push my way through.
I set my pack down to catch my breath. The top section of my pack has been partially detached by the powerful grip of the brown thorny masses.
THAT’S IT! I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS! I AM GOING TO DESTROY YOU BUSHES!
Cue music: final countdown. An epic battle was going down. I purposefully grabbed a handful of crunchy brown spindly branches between my US diver gloves and snapped them in half, just to make a point.
Take THAT, you bushes.
I sweated and struggled to fashion reattach the top of my pack with 550 paracord. Helene came up from behind, giggling. “Oh, these bushes are so lovely!”
The woman’s in her own world.
“What the heck is lovely about these bushes?” (everything is Alexanderandtheterriblehorriblenogoodverybadday right now)“They just love me so much!”“Oh, loving!”“Hehe, yes, loving! They don’t want to let me go!”You can’t go wrong with a French Canadian backpacking companion. The vivacious delivery of Frenglish phrases alone was enough to shake any bad mood. And she did have a way of looking at things.
"Liz, your own worst enemy is yourself."
My friend had laughingly told me this three years ago when I was flipping out on a hike. Now, the phrase was playing on repeat in my head.
Current mood: Aggravated with a hint of amused
We fixed my backpack together, and soon reached a summit with a clearing and views.
The green hills stacked against each other to block out any view of the city that we were in just a few hours ago. After hours of fighting through dense bushes, I was just happy to have clear space around my head.
“Oh yeah!” admired Helene, “Now you’re calling!”
Slowly, a rhythm emerged. Whatever it was, this was the feeling I had been looking for. I was pretty sure the little goblin still had his dagger in my shoulder, but I wasn’t sure. My mind wouldn’t even give the pains the time of day; it had run off to frolic in the vast greenery. Everything started to move faster, one foot in front of the other.
After a bumble in a confusing bog, we found ourselves at the cabin.
Helene perused our maps and munched on our rations of cold water and nutrient-infused mashed potatoes.
I flipped through the stories in the logbook. One theme was consistent in the scribbles: “Look out for the rats.” “Rats live in the rafters now.” “Rats ate my special chocolate.““Do you hear that scrabbling sound above us?” We strained our ears, eyeing the rafters suspiciously. Suddenly, the light filtering through the dusty windows changed to a distinct golden glow.
Somebody had graciously left a large oversized pair of rubber boots by the door. Helene slipped her petite feet into the fourty-sizes-too-big shoes, and together we clomped up the hill to get a better view of the sunset.
he thick layers of dense clouds acted like a dark filter, and made it possible to follow the distinct outline of the sun all the way down in its descent. It was eerily quiet as we watched the small round disk slide behind the dark peaks. A soft breeze of clouds and air swirled around us as we tripped our way back down the hill to our beds.
One solid chunk of dark chocolate down and my aches and pains were a distant memory. I drifted off into a content sleep- warm, dry, and hopeful.
Dark chocolate is truly amazing.
4/12/2015 Day 2: The Giant in the mountains
I was awoken from the fog of a rodent dream by the distinct feeling of something in my sleeping bag.
SOMETHING IS IN MY SLEEPING BAG.
Half asleep, I shook my legs in the bag, and felt a soft fist-sized lump bump up against my leg.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH” I screamed. I hopped around like a maniac until I managed to wriggle out of the bag, still screaming, and fumbled for my headlamp. By this time, Helene was fully awake.
“What is it?”
“RATTTSS!!! AHHHHHHH!!” I switched my headlamp on to its fullest beam and frantically shook my sleeping bag upside down to eradicate the intruder. A dark lump fell out. My pair of extra socks rolled menacingly to the floor. You just never know when a pair of socks will get a mind of their own and turn against you.
We look at each other and shook until the entire hill was pealing with laughter. It didn’t matter. We were in the middle of nowhere, miles from anybody else, just two girls in the mountain.
I knew for a fact the rats were up there in the roof, peering down from the rafter beams and cackling at us behind their tiny clawed hands.
We woke up again a few hours later. The early morning mountain range was one thick blanket of foggy white.“Ave Maria….” Neither of us knew all the words.
Like it mattered.
Helene added a latin rendition while I swept the cabin and she scrubbed our pot from our granola breakfast. There’s something decidedly both eerie and calming about singing in the clouds.
Putting on cold muddy socks and pants was like wrapping a cold slimy snail around our skin. We had optimistically hung our clothes up to dry. Silly, silly girls. Nothing EVER dries when you are up in the Ko’olaus.
My backpack was now one dinner and lunch lighter, and the pain in my shoulder felt more like a familiar friend than arch enemy.
We stepped out onto the trail and straight into knee high mud, setting the theme for the day.
Squelch, suck, squeak.
It was a bit of a struggle to stay balanced in all the mud, plus I had my new backpack. I remembered reading about the special new technology.
“This pack uses a custom 3D pivoting hipbelt for dynamic load transfer. Because the shoulder straps and hipbelt move with you, friction and hot spots are eliminated.”
It had sounded promising. Eliminating hot spots was good, right?
Maybe on a normal trail. The Ko’olou Summit Ridge is not a normal trail. Every time I slipped, my pack swung on my hip to compensate. But my pack was already really heavy, and as I slipped, my pack would swivel even further, hurling me into the ground with 45 pounds of force. Eventually my backpack and I shook hands and agreed that we were going to be going separate ways for the rest of the day.
Squelch. Suck. Thud! Helene and I pulled ourselves up from the mud, wiping hair out of our faces with our muddy paws. Helene burst out laughing as she looked at my face, and I laughed as I saw her disheveled hair and muddy streaks on her cheek. “Do I have mud on my face too?”
We weren't alone. Other pigs had left trails that criss crossed with ours, and we found ourselves wandering around in a boggy forest. The trees were covered in thick clumps of dangling moss.
We were lost.
We turned around and retraced our steps until we found the trail. We repeated this about five more times.
Around lunchtime, human figures appeared in the distance at the top of the approaching peaks. After two days of isolation, we were bummed to see people, but it marked our arrival at the Poamoho summit, which was incredibly clear and sunny.
I had a feeling we might be paying for that clear summit later.
We arrived at the next cabin around with the entire afternoon free to clean and plan. A look at the weather confirmed our worst fears. The weather had shifted, and a rainy streak was coming in fast. The three worst climbing sections were still ahead of us -- the “saddles.” There was no crossing the saddles unless the weather was clear and dry.
We’d have to race to make the most of the last few days of clear skies before the rain swept in, so we might as well leave any excess food behind, and travel as quickly as we could.
“It’s in the box!” grinned Helene triumphantly.
“What box?” I glanced around.
“You know, it’s in the box. We’ve got this!”
“I think you mean it’s in the bag. And yeah it is!”
When I said it, I believed it. Helene’s persistently perky optimism was rubbing off on me.
Current Mood: Quiet calm, when your heart beats in rhythm with the rise and fall of the mountain ridge, and all else is silenced.
Somewhere in our muddy struggle, I had let go of my own internal struggle. Not only were we lightening our packs by eating through our food, but the giant load on my mind had been lightened as well. We were feeling silly and giddy, light and happy. We were having fun. For the first time, I had a bold thought. Maybe I actually could do this whole trail!
Helene clomped in from washing our dish outside, wearing an oversized pair of slippers she had found to spare her feet from our wet shoes. “I think there is a giant living in these mountains,” she said, “and he goes stomping around leaving his massive boots and slippers in different places. Wherever he is at, I think we’re getting closer.”
4/13/15 Day 3: It’s in the box
The small ping of Helene’s watch was enough to wake me up, but it was still dark outside. Helene slept right through her alarm. Everything was so warm and cozy. It sounded so cold and wet outside. I could sleep all day.
The lullaby of comfort was drowned out by the voice of the little inner photographer shouting in my face. “GOOOOOOOOD MORNINGGG RISE AND SHINE! Sunrises are always worth the struggle, you know this!”
I sighed, and swung my feet onto the floor in resignation.“Helene, wake up, your alarm went off.”
We did the cold-wet-clothes-dressing dance, and shuffled out onto the trail. The trail from here was easy and clear to see. We were finally on a nice section of the contour that cut through the mountain.About time.The contour led us around the corner and out to the windward side where we could see the….OH.MY.GOD.
It was a sunrise sundae. The same view from the summit yesterday, but this time the cones were topped with cotton candy clouds and dripping in brilliant golden hues. The clouds slowly lifted and permitted rays of carmel to flow into the valleys. Rays so vibrant we could taste them - sweet, syrupy, melt in your mouth delight. The flowers and seed tops of the plants waved gently, and the dew drops on a spider web caught the light like a million diamonds.
I inhaled deeply - everything was so fresh and clean and pure.
The world is amazing. I love the world. Absolutely love it.
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god!” Helene moaned.
The woman has a point. Drunk on the mountain morning, we stumbled through the next five hours of no man’s land to the beginning of the true ridgeline hiking. No more contours -- just straight climbing up and down from here on out.
e made a short climb off to the side to filter some water out of a puddle. Small little dead bugs floated on the surface in serenity. They seemed to have enjoyed their last sips.
"I'll have what she's having."
We tossed in purification pills, crossed our fingers, and started hiking again.
We were climbing out of the gap, our first major dip in the ridgeline, when a sheet of rain slammed into us sideways with the pricks of 10,000 microscopic soldiers with spears.
Or maybe those squatting little green army men with the bayonets raised over their heads. I hate stepping on those, they're the WORST.
he rain had caught on to our plan to speed past it, and matched our pace.
I huddled on the edge of a one foot crumbling edge and pushed myself against a bush while I hurriedly packed my camera into a drybag. Too late. The buttons were already malfunctioning.
I silently cursed.
We got to flat campable spot with ten minutes of remaining light, one ultra light tarp, one trekking pole, and a few small stakes and strings. The only spot with enough shelter and space for both of us was under a low hanging mossy bush-tree.
After a brief struggle we assembled something that bore a resemblance to an oversized and mis-shapen yellow starfish. The strings pulling the sides of the tarp out at random angles and attaching to various pieces of tree and ground.
But we were finally out of the pouring rain. The shelter of the little starfish felt like a five star hotel. And I was starting to acquire a taste for that cold capt'n crunch potato mix.
Our sleeping bags weren’t warm enough, so we lined them with our emergency blankets. I fell asleep shivering and hugging my camera to my chest.
Pitter-patter. Drip-drip. Scuttle-scuttle. Slimey slimeeee…...
It was 1am. Something was definitely on my face. Yep. It was moving. Centipedes?
Come on Liz, camping in Hawaii under a tree in a wet area with an open tarp, and you didn’t expect that?
I slowly reached one hand and flicked a long creepy crawly off my face. Somehow, after surviving the attack of the great rat the night before, a centipede didn’t seem so bad. If we could survive that, we could survive anything.
“It’s in the box.”
Day 4. 4/14/2015 “Live to try another day.”
I shivered miserably and hugged my muddy pants to my chest. It was time to face the facts. We were enveloped in a cloud of thick grey. The rain was here to stay for the next four days. Trying to hike the saddles in the rain would be like playing Russian Roulette in reverse- five bullets and one empty chamber.
I texted Jessica:
"If we come down, I'm not going to have the strength to do the first part again." "Maybe just Helene can go back once the weather clears. She can hike it really fast from the beginning, and you can just go up farther down and meet up with her with your camera a few days later."
It sounded great to my knees and shoulders. My body was done. It was our original plan. So why was that idea bothering me so much now?
We dejectedly packed up our little starfish and bailed down Manana, a side trail.
It was the point where I’d planned to end my trek. But my plan had backfired. It might have been some of the mountain magic. It might have been some of Helene’s annoyingly persistent optimism.
As soon as the rain cleared, I knew she was going back and starting the trail all over again from the very beginning so she could do it the entire thing in one shot. And I was going back to the beginning of the trail with her.
I wasn’t sure how, but that didn’t matter. For once, I was starting to believe in my goals. For myself. Where there's a will, there's a way.
I'd figure it out. Right now, the only thing that mattered was that every single step I took was closing the gap between me and a hot steamy mocha.
Note: Huge thanks to the hiking community in Hawaii for everything they do to make it possible for people to keep on enjoying the mountains. While this is a hiking story, this is not intended to be an informational guide. It is merely a story for entertainment purposes. Do not rely on anything written here for actual hiking information. Many trails are closed to the public and not safe. Consult the Na Ala Website for information on hiking trails and permitting. The writer is not responsible for any accidents, injuries, rescues, inconvenience, or loss of life by anyone attempting hikes mentioned. It is the responsibility of the reader to know their limits and abilities before attempting any outdoor activity, and use common sense and good judgement.