Pu'u Heleakala (1996)

Pu'u Heleakala (1996)

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The Sunday after Christmas '96, I hiked the ridge to Pu'u Heleakala and beyond with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club. The traditional 1.5-mile approach to Heleakala is via a southwest ridge that rises up from a residential area in Nanakuli Valley (I had hiked this route with the Sierra Club earlier in '96). However, hike leader Fred Dodge, a Waianae-area physician and one of HTMC's most accomplished and daring mountain men, had scouted a shorter (one mile) but steeper route from a northwest ridge that bottomed out at a point along Lualualei Naval Road.

Prior to the hike, I drove to Iolani Palace for a 7 a.m. (yes, 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning!!) rendezvous with club rep John Hall, who gave the six other folks who had gathered there a brief explanation about what the trek would be like ("some hand over hand stuff" said he) and how to get to the place in Nanakuli where we'd meet Fred.

By a few minutes after eight, 15 of us were gathered in the parking lot behind Nanakuli McDonald's where Fred had signed-in everyone and had explained that we would carpool about 2 miles up the Naval Road, hike the steep northwest ridge to Heleakala, and ultimately return via the southwest ridge to the residential area and make the half mile walk back to the shopping center where most folks would leave their cars.

The group piled into three cars (I volunteered to drive) and made the short drive to the trailhead on Lualualei Naval Road. From there, we ducked through an opening in the barbed wire fence and began climbing. Fred hung back with the slower-ascending members of the party and told the rest of us to follow the ribbons he and the trail-clearing gang had affixed along the route the week before. "If I see you getting too far off course, I'll yell," he said. That point made clear, we pushed on.

A few words about Fred. As I mentioned earlier, he is well-known in the club for his daring ascents and descents of Oahu's most challenging and dangerous ridges. To give you an idea of ability of the legendary Dodge, the next time you're driving along the Waimanalo side of Oahu near Bellows Air Force Station, look mauka at the Koolau summit ridge where it forms somewhat of a squared corner. Dodge and a few HTMC daredevils descended three-quarters of a mile along that steep, impossible-looking ridge from Pu'u O Kona (elev. 2,200) to the floor of Waimanalo Valley. While appreciating that feat may be difficult based on my meager description here, the magnitude of such an undertaking grows in significance once you actually see the ridge out Waimanalo way. Give her a look.

Given Fred's reputation, I was somewhat apprehensive about the hike he had planned for us that day. Would he be leading us up sheer rockfaces with dropoffs to oblivion? Would we have to haul ourselves up cliff faces with cables and ropes?

Come to find out, my apprehension was unfounded, for although the hike up the ridge was far from a waltz, I never felt imperilled. The trail up was what one might call "rough" because the path we followed wasn't obvious nor well stamped-out. Like Fred had told us, ribbons had been placed along the route, and we puffed, perspired, and scrambled our way upward over short rocky sections and past a steady abundance of shiny-leaved a'ali'i and Christmas berry plants.

The ridge is situated such that we couldn't see the summit of Heleakala until we were almost upon it. Instead, as we climbed, a prominent pu'u always loomed above us. "The top is in sight," I grunted gleefully to the folks in my vicinity. But when we had gained the high point of the pu'u, we discovered another pu'u beyond the one we had just ascended.

And so we plodded on, taking short breaks now and again to drink some water and to let our breathing tempo return to more normal rhythms. The conditions were ideal for trekking--a high ceiling of clouds, steady light breezes from the ocean to the west, and temperatures in the 70s.

In all, the group I was with completed the 1-mile ascent to Heleakala (elevation 1,890) in about 75 minutes. We rested there for 20 minutes, enjoying the panoramic views of the Waianae-area environs: about 7.5 miles north was Oahu's highest point, Mount Ka'ala (elev. 4,025); 3.5 miles to the northeast was Pu'u Kaua (elev. 3,127); due east was Palikea (3,098); in the valley below us to the southeast was the unpopulated Nanakuli Forest Reserve, cucumber-green from recent rains; south below us was the community of Nanakuli, Kahe Point beyond it; and 2.5 miles west was Pu'u O Hulu (elev. 856), with the sweet gray-blue water of the Pacific stretching to the horizon beyond it.

Several of us decided to press on and explore further upridge. From the summit of Heleakala, the trail continues northeast, initially descending 700 feet in half a mile to a low-lying saddle (1,200 feet). From the saddle, the "path" continues up the edge of a pyramid-shaped mountain side to a high point at approximately 2,000 feet. Viewed from a distance, the saddle descent and the pyramid edge ascent appear menacing, but both are doable with peril nearly non-existent. Moving steadily, we completed the down-up section from Heleakala to the saddle bottom to the top of the pyramid in about 50 minutes.

From there, the ridge continued due east 1.5 miles to Palikea on the spine of the Waianae Range. However, we never proceeded that far. Instead, we traversed several humps in the ridge, negotiated a somewhat narrow rock dike, and stopped at a prominent bluff (elev. 2,252 ft.). When I remarked that the hilltop had a distinct "Sound of Music" feel to it, the five other folks who were there smiled and agreed.

Our "Hills-are-alive" vantage point afforded us a view of the entire ridge route from Heleakala to where we were. We could make out other members of the party moving along the trail in the saddle area--some proceeding in our direction, others away. While we rested, the conversation turned to the story of a female club member who several years before had made the legendary trek to Heleakala, to where we were at and beyond to Palikea, and south along the summit trail atop the Waianae range to her home in Makakilo.

Also while we rested, a HTMC member named Steve mentioned that he instead of retracing our steps to Heleakala and descending the southwest ridge, he was going to try an alternate return route. His plan was to descend to the saddle's low point and veer northwest down into a valley. After recalling that the valley descent appeared manageable, I told Steve I'd join him.

In about 30 minutes, we had hiked from the prominent bluff to the bottom of the saddle. Steve and I waved farewell to three others who had accompanied us to that point. "This shouldn't be too bad," I thought to myself while scanning the valley slopes we were about to traverse. "We should be back to the road in 45 minutes tops."

Heh. Wrong.

We began the initial descent along a not-too-steep rocky slope and after about five minutes of that, we found ourselves wading through a chest-high ocean of California grass. We had to be careful as we worked our way downslope, for even though we weren't in danger of falling off any steep cliffs, we could have easily sprained or broken a leg or ankle on rocks, holes, and branches obscured by vegetation.

Steve led and I followed. We both stumbled a bunch of times and flopped on a handful of occasions. We were making progress, albeit slowly. At about the 45 minute mark, we probably had covered just half the one-mile distance to the road. By that time, we had descended to where kiawe trees in the 20-foot range were becoming more plentiful. I reckoned that the density of the California grass would lessen once we had reached the treeline.

Wrong again, buckaroo.

We did reach a barbed wire fenceline, which we carefully climbed over, and soon thereafter picked up a narrow rocky riverbed (uncharted on my topo map) amongst the grass and trees, following its meandering course downslope for awhile to give ourselves some respite from the grass and hidden-rock obstacle gauntlet.

At about the 75-minute mark, we came upon what appeared to be an overgrown jeep road which we followed makai for an eighth mile before arriving at a junction with a more recently-used jeep road. We turned left there, passed by recently cleared-by- bulldozer parcels, and reached the Lualualei Naval Road about 90 minutes after leaving the saddle and 45 minutes longer than my original ill-informed estimate (I know better now [g]).

We had to climb a stone wall and jump over a seven-foot chainlink fence to reach the roadway. That done, we made the 5 to 10 minute walk along the Naval road to my vehicle parked at the trailhead.

My summation of the day? A good workout and a nice adventure.

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