Kulepeamoa Ridge

Kulepeamoa Ridge

by Dayle Turner

Like most folks, I usually use Sunday mornings to catch up on lost sleep time. For some reason, I woke up at 5:30 this morning (Sunday 10/6), and despite several attempts, couldn't return to the sweet realm of slumberland. What to do?

While laying there, I decided to go hiking as a pat-on-the-back for grading essays and working on my tenure dossier for ten hours the day before. Still wiping the sleep from my eyes, I realized that the esteemed Stuart Ball, the author of *The Hikers Guide to Oahu* and the *Backpackers Guide to Hawaii* would be leading a Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club outing up Kulepeamoa Ridge. Yup, that's what I'd do, I told myself.

So began my Sunday.

Along with about two dozen other folks, I met Ball at the gazebo in the back of Iolani Palace at eight this morning. A managment-type for Bank of Hawaii, Ball looks like a 40ish version of Dick Clark, the American Bandstand emcee. Ball was personable, introducing himself and greeting hikers with a firm handshake as they arrived for the pre-hike briefing.

Today's adventure was advertised as a six-mile loop hike up a ridge in the back part of Niu Valley. In his introductory spiel, Ball described Kulepeamoa as "a very advanced-level hike," featuring stiff climbs, some narrow ridge sections with steep dropoffs, cables and ropes, and a challenging descent. He also suggested--gently and seemingly in an embarassed way--that anyone uncomfortble with such conditions might be better off attending another (tamer) hike the following weekend.

We drove from the Palace to Niu Valley and to the hike's starting point at the end of Anolani Street (check a road map of Oahu if you're interested). Ball debriefed us again, pointing out the ridge we'd ascend and the one we'd descend on the return leg. I also noticed that a few folks had apparently heeded Ball's suggestion to try a less challenging hike, for some faces that were at Iolani Palace weren't present at the trailhead.

We departed at 8:50 a.m. under overcast skies with temperatures probably in the low 80s. During the first 20 minutes, we hiked up Pia Valley along the right bank of a waterless, boulder-lined Niu Stream. Then we began a lung-busting, sweaty climb to the top of Kulepeamoa Ridge. With my trademark orange mesh shirt completely drenched, I reached an ironwood grove at the ridge's crest at about 9:50. The climb up was at least 1,000 feet, perhaps more. I plopped down ("collapsed" would be a more apt verb) at the first available spot and began my attempt to replace at least a bit of the fluid my body had expended to cool itself.

After resting for about five minutes, I roused my wobbly legs and hobbled on. For the most part, the trail followed the top of the ridge over a series of humps. At times, we moved over the open ridgetop where we could enjoy superb views left and right of two plush, undeveloped valleys--Pia and Kupaua. Also in view was a good portion of the south coast of Oahu from Koko Crater to Diamond Head. The cloud-covered Koolau summit hovered ahead.

On other sections of the ridge, we climbed steadily through thickets of guava, uluhe, and an assortment of native Hawaiian flora. These periodic canopied sections along with continuing overcast conditions helped to make our mountain-top romp more bearable.

At around 11:00, we reached a steep finger ridge (50-60 degree grade) with a somewhat intimidating 100-foot rope/cable affixed to a tree atop it (experience told me that these sections appear worse than they actually are). A half-dozen folks had already negotiated this segment, each waiting for the person in front to finish before ascending. After waiting for the chap in front of me to complete his climb (each person would yell "Okay!" once completing the section), I hoisted myself up, mentally rehearsing the belly-flop-and-claw technique I'd use if I slipped (I didn't) or if the cable/rope broke (it didn't).

The rope/cable section now just an undertaking I could write about, I huffed and puffed up a sometimes narrow trail. Precipitous dropoffs in the order of 2,000 feet on both sides reminded me to carefully monitor placement of boot to terra firma. When I needed to catch my breath, I used the idle moments to scan the route we had climbed. When the topography permitted it, I could see most of the way down the ridgeline, our group spread out at varying intervals along it.

I reached the spine of the Koolau range at 11:15 in a small clearing hacked out by the club's trail clearing crew the week before. A handful of today's group was hunkered down there, most sweat-soaked and wearing tired eyes. Views of the Waimanalo coastline appeared then disappeared as clouds drifted over the summit.

After a ten minute rest break, I pressed on, heading Ewa along the summit ridge. In describing the route to us, Ball told us we'd have to scale three humps along the ridge crest, the top of the third being the highest point of the Hawaii Loa Ridge trail that we'd use as our descent route. He also advised us to move along the summit trail carefully and slowly, for a fall, particularly to windward, would be fatal (one guy even offered a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that "If you're going to fall, fall left").

Actually, the summit leg, danger notwithstanding, was the highlight of the hike. While it took only twenty minutes to complete, what a superb twenty minutes they were. A sweet whisper of wind wafted over the ridgetop, and the clouds had lifted just enough so that all during my traverse I could see the green farms in the back reaches of Waimanalo and the soft blue water of Waimanalo Bay. Olapa, ohia, hapu'u ferns and an assortment of low grasses populated the summit trail along with the hellish scourge weed--clidemia.

At 11:45, I reached the summit of Hawaii Loa ridge, and spent 20 minutes resting my weary legs, wolfing down a jelly sandwich, gulping down a liter of water, and trading hiking tales with others resting there.

The descent phase, at least the first 40 minutes of it, was straightforward, for we just trekked down the well-used Hawaii Loa Trail. However, instead of following the trail all the way to its starting point at the top of the exclusive Hawaii Loa Ridge community and its million dollar homes, we veered left off it, descending steeply through a guava forest to the upper reaches of Niu Stream (still waterless). Pink ribbons marked the way. This leg took about 20 minutes.

From there, we followed a trail along the banks of the stream, passing what appeared to be a heiau or rock structure of some sort and several nice swimming holes (if there were water in the river). We eventually reached a junction at the point where we made our initial ascent to Kulepeamoa ridge and continued down the valley until we reached the end of Anolani Street where we began.

Total time on trail for me: 5 hours, 10 minutes.

All in all, a nice adventure and, believe it or not, a pleasant alternative to a few extra hours of sack time (I have a lifetime of Sundays to catch up) [g].

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