"Can you just poop over the cliff?!!”
When mother nature calls, you can only hit the decline button so many times before she takes over and answers her own call. My friend Jessica and I were scouting out a hazardous section of climbing along the Ko’olau Mountains. The trail had narrowed to a generous 16 inches and didn’t show signs of widening any time soon. We’d been crawling over and around a series of crumbling razor-thin edges for hours when the urge hit Jessica.
Considering we’d been fighting to hold together the eroding remnants of ground below our feet, trying to dig a hole directly on the path wasn’t exactly an option. The only space on either side of the path was air space - a direct drop-off into a plunging ravine of green below. And from the looks of the next climb, wrestling up a loose dirt overhang over a 1700 foot drop-off guaranteed to scare the shit out of both of us if we didn’t take care of it on our own.
And that is how my dear friend found herself jutting her butt over the side of the 1700 foot cliff. With one hand gripped around a small scrubby brush and the other hand digging deep into a mound of loose dirt for stability. So it goes on the Ko’olau Summit Trail.
No worries, she's just climbing here folks.
Ko’olau Summit Trail: Take 2
04/18/2015 Pupukea to Poamoaho: “Awwwwwww shit!!”
Long, ropey strands of wet toilet paper, stuck to a fern branch and twirling in the wind. And now stuck to my backpack. Whoever had left it probably hadn’t realized their doo wiper would be fluttering in the wind across the trail. We hadn’t really thought about preparing for it either, until after our first attempt at through backpacking. It went on the gear revision list, right next to dark chocolate:
‘bring an extra Ziploc bag for carrying out used toilet paper’
Had we completed the trail on our first try, we might not even have been forced to think about it. But it was our second time attempting the trail. We were now retracing our steps, and the steps of others, and there was definitely some er, shit, that they had left behind.
I hadn’t even planned on attempting this trail more than once, but the first attempt had been like pulling back a curtain to reveal a peek at a prize, and I was hooked. We went up again only four days after our first failed attempt. My knees weren’t quite ready. We’d cut our packs from 45 pounds to 35, but I was still struggling. In an effort to distract my mind from the excruciating pain that was shooting through my knees, I diverted my mind to a separate stream of consciousness – running chatter.
In all fairness, they probably didn’t realize their shit wouldn’t disappear quickly. In modern daily life, you flush and never have to think about it again. Out of sight, out of mind. You don’t really start thinking about your shit until you start spending more time in places where it doesn’t easily disappear. I guess that could go for a lot of things in life besides shit. If we had to pile our trash in our own yards and face our own mini landfills every day, we’d probably be more mindful about waste. Everybody should have to bury their shit at least once in life. It just adds a whole new level of – cognizance. Responsibility. Don’t trust a man who’s never had to bury his own shit.
I remembered reading an article that estimated there were about 300,000 dumps taken along the PCT last year.
Just imagine what the trail would look like if those hadn’t been buried away from the trail, and all the hikers left all their toilet paper. What if park rangers scolded hikers for leaving trash the way people scold their dogs for pooping on the carpet?
I imagined a park ranger gripping the collar of a hiker on the PCT and shoving his nose into the pile of dirty toilet paper and trash he had left behind while saying “No! Bad dog!” The thought made me giggle. It distracted from the shooting pain running between my knees and hips.
“Helene, on a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling?”
“Oh, about an eight!” was the cheery reply.
Fuck. I’m a solid three.
We’d decided to combine our two days from our first attempt since we’d had extra time both days, but I was feeling it. It was noon and we were at the first cabin. We’d conquered the bushes, but now we had the mud to fight through.
I sat down on a rock and put my head in my hands.
I can’t do this. I can’t. I just can’t. I literally don’t know how I’m going to move my feet.
“Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast,” Helene coached. She pointed out I couldn’t exactly bail at that point anyways. I had no choice but to find a way to keep going. If I could at least make it to the next cabin, there was a bailout I could take from there the next morning.
I felt like I was balancing the weight of the world on two little toothpick legs made of fine china. I focused my mind by breaking the trail into little checkpoints and hitting them. Get to this point by 1pm. Check. Get here by 2. Check. Get to the boot by 3. Check.
At the cabin, I chugged water and washed the blisters on my feet. I spent the rest of the night with my legs propped up, rubbing my calves to alleviate the throbbing pain. I took a few breaks to rub my lower back and arms. Both Helene and I had extremely itchy rashes from being in the wet mountains for days without giving our skin a proper chance to recover.
04/19/2015 Poamoho to Waimano: Haunted by the mistakes of our past
No Man’s Land is that it is just that. It’s on the Leeward side of the mountains, between Poamoho and Kipapa. The wind is blocked, and it’s completely quiet. It’s a dark, formidable forest of fog and brush, and especially overgrown. Nobody seems to walk through these parts -- it’s a god-forsaken land. It’s also near impossible to tell the trail at times. About every 15 minutes, we’d find ourselves in the middle of a clearing where the trail seemed to end, and realize we had to retrace our steps back to the last spot until we found our clue- usually a small fragment of ribbon peeking out from behind a few branches.
The sad thing is that we still made every. single. mistake. that we had made the first time we hiked through here. No man’s land was still just as confusing. But since we’d made them before, we were a lot quicker to recognize it.
“Oh yeah, we did this last time. Welp, time to turn around again.”
I wondered to myself if that was how life was sometimes. Just because you made a mistake in life and fixed it, doesn’t mean you will never make the same mistake again. But maybe you’ll recognize it faster, and correct your steps quicker the second time around.
The quicker corrections made for quicker times, and this time we made it all the way to our intended campsite at Waimano. We threw together our yellow starfish and collapsed. Surprisingly, my legs had held up.
04/20/2015 Waimano to N. Haiku: Moke
I was in serious trouble. I’d been ignoring my legs successfully so far, but now they were starting to cramp up like crazy. I chugged water and took salt pills in a desperate attempt to make the cramps go away so I could move my legs faster. That was one thing Helene had taught me- when you’re sweating a lot, you lose a lot of salt. Drinking water isn’t enough. Low sodium in the blood means trouble and cramping, especially for prolonged periods of time. Helene had brought along salt pills to replenish, and when I took them, they actually helped with the cramps.
As we progressed through the morning, we realized the climbing wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. The clouds cleared to reveal four prominent peaks in front of us.
“It’s like Goldilocks and the three little bears!”
I was lost in an animated world where everything was cute and fluffy. I panted as I pulled myself to the top of the first notch. Cartoons played in the back of my head. Goldilocks was chasing after us up each mountain peak, her cartoon hair bouncing with each step.
“First she tried Papa’s porridge, but it was too hot.”
I turned my feet sideways to try and catch some grip as I descended down the backside of the first peak. I pulled myself up the second mound, knees pressed to the hills. Small gnats buzzed around my red sweaty face as I pressed it close to the earth and grasped for any clumps of grass I could find to help leverage my pack up the incline. With one heavy gasp, I sucked a poor innocent gnat down my windpipe.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
I collapsed at the top of the second peak, choking and wheezing.
“This porridge is too cold!”
Helene popped up behind me. “Or this mountain is too big!”
As it turned out, Goldilocks and the three bears were joined by all their wicked cousins AND stepsisters. The peaks continued, one after the other. But by lunchtime, we were close to the first saddle – the treacherous climbing sections. FINALLY!
And it was pouring rain, which made it impossible to hike on the saddles. Of course.
Even though it was only the middle of the day, we had no choice but to take shelter in a nearby bunker. The bunker is one of many old abandoned bunkers left in the mountains from WWII. It’s a small covered concrete square building, about 12’ x 12’, with an open door.
Almost all my water was gone. I’d sucked through 3 liters like it was nothing, trying to fight off the massive cramps. And our next planned water source was down in the middle of the saddle, two hours hike and one rainstorm too far away. As the sun set, the rain let up. I rocked back and forth on our small tarp, trying to conserve energy and pretend like I wasn’t thirsty. All I could think about was water. Nothing mattered except water.
Helene went outside to watch the sun. She started shouting.
“The SADDLE! I can see the saddle!”
She dragged me outside to share her first peek at the saddle with her. It dipped low from one mountain peak to another, a loss of about 1500 feet in elevation before climbing back up to the next peak in one smooth, graceful arc.
“It’s like the big grin of a Chesire cat. I can’t stop smiling back at it!” Helene was jumping up and down.
It was cold, so we brought out our emergency blankets and fell asleep huddled together on the tarp. Dreaming of water. Sweet, cold water.
We were awoken at 11pm by the sound of voices and two faint lights in the distance.
We were at least a good 5-6 hours hiking distance from any place in civilization. We weren’t exactly in a popular spot for hiking, either. Who was up here? And at 11 at night?
Night marchers? Ghosts?
“Ho shit, there’s people in there!” cried a man’s voice.
Crazy rapists living in the mountains? Helene and I were frozen.
Their faces filled the doorway. The light from their headlamps cut triangles of shadows underneath their eyebrows and noses. It was enough to recognize them. I sighed with relief. It was Kama and Mike, two men I’d met a couple months ago when I was helping search for a missing kid in the mountains. The very kid who had disappeared hiking the saddle that lay before us.
But what were they doing up here? As it turns out, it was Kama’s 50th day of searching for his little brother.
“Oh shit, you are the brother of that boy!” exclaimed Helene. I’d told her all about his disappearance when explaining why we had to take extra care on the saddles, but this really brought it home.
“Yeah, he’s in highschool. He’s supposed to graduate this spring,” said Kama.
Helene and I glanced at each other. Instant chills. Fifty days later, he was still looking. That’s family.
Kama went on to explain that they had hiked up with supplies to start exploring new areas of the mountains. This bunker was near a new area they wanted to check out, and they’d come up planning to spend the night so they had the following day for searching.
Mike pulled a water bottle out of his backpack. “We brought extras of these if you need any.”
I pounced. Self-sustained or not, I was parched. Helene didn’t want any. She still had enough, and she was dead set on only using what she brought up with her. 100% purist.
“Careful on the next section,” Mike warned, “There’s a piece on the saddle where the rope is gone, and it’s pretty sketchy to climb without. We climbed it with just our light daypacks, and there were rocks falling everywhere.”
This time around, I’d left the big camera behind. It’d been part of our weight cuts. In it’s place, I had a small gopro. I took a shaky photo of the four of us in the shack before we relegated to our separate corners for the night and fell back asleep.
04/21/2015 “What’s wrong?”In the past two weeks of hiking, it was the first time I’d ever seen Helene low. While I’d bumbled along whining, she’d prodded me along, cheerful and persistent. And now, for the first time ever, on our first saddle, she was hesitating. Her eyes were tearing up.“I’m crying because I’m scared,” wavered Helene. I was floored. It was the first time I’d seen any weakness in her. I’d almost begun to fear she was some insane athletic robot, and not actually a real human after all. I tried to put on a brave face, and we both started working away at the saddle, but the climb Mike had warned us about was everything he’d said and more. Rocks fell to either side as we ducked and struggled to find a way to get our heavy packs to the top of the vertical wall that crumbled before us. The weight addition of six liters of water to our packs at the stream in the middle was bringing back the old cramps and knee pains I’d been fighting since the day before. My knee was shaking uncontrollably. And now, of all things, it was starting to rain. The forecast had turned, again, to rain. For the next three days. The saddles just weren’t happening. After two hours of fighting the same spot, we decided we had to come down. There was no way around it.
What had happened to us? Hearing Kama talk about Moke had messed with both of our heads. It was one of those things that made you realize how serious things could get. It made us stop and wonder why.
Why are we doing this? Why do we take risks? Why do we set goals? When is a goal worth pursuing, and why is it worth it? How far would you go to reach that goal?
Our pant legs were catching on everything. They were shredding at the bottoms from catching on bushes. We tucked the torn remains into our long wool socks and pulled our pants high.
“We look like two fashionable old ladies on our way to bingo!” snorted Helene.
I giggled and held out my hand. “Come on then, old lady.”
We hobbled off the mountains and began the eight miles down the nearest trail option for bailing. Helene was flying back to Canada in just a few days. We were both spent, and there was no time, money, or energy left to try again. Altogether, she’d been here for three weeks working on the trail with me, and we’d done a lot. It’d been a good run. I drowned out the crunching below my feet with a steady chatter of inner thought.
If you wanted it enough to pursue it in the first place, it’s worth pursuing. You pick a direction, and goals that align with that direction, but there’s more to it than that. Maybe we challenge ourselves because we want to be better versions of the person we were yesterday. Maybe it isn’t just about reaching the end goal. Maybe it isn’t just about the beautiful moments in the mountains, either. Maybe it’s the person you become in the process of reaching for the goal. About being humbled, and learning. About how your respond and grow from the struggles. Failing, but getting stronger from each time you fail, and never giving up. And about the moments you shared together in the journey. We had a good run.
I smiled as I looked at my fellow little old lady, hobbling down the trail with me. Helene silenced my inner chatter with three short words:
“I’m coming back.”