A Journey to Lanihuli (1996)

A Journey to Lanihuli (1996)

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For me, the mystique of Lanihuli began more than 30 years ago when my family moved to Kaneohe. For years, I never knew the name of this huge mass of mountain that loomed along the top of the Koolau crest where Kalihi and Nuuanu Valleys converge. It was just there--dark green, often cloud-shrouded, intimidating, mysterious, far-away.

Many Hawaiian songs make mention of Lanihuli (lit. "swirling heavens")--much more than Konahuanui, the highest peak in the Koolau Range. Why this is so escapes me. Perhaps Lanihuli's massiveness and distinct altar-like appearance appealed to Hawaiians of old more than the highness of Konahuanui. Or perhaps some sacred significance exists that I'm unaware of.

I remember riding the bus from Kaneohe to and from Kamehameha where I attended school. Along the way, I'd often look mauka at the ridges on both sides of Kalihi Valley and the notion never struck that people ventured to these remote places. That being the case, how could I foresee ascending these mountains myself? But as fate and circumstances would have it, I would.

The hiking physicians, Pete Caldwell and Gene Robinson, completed the hike to Pu'u Lanihuli with me on Saturday, July 5. Pete, a veteran of many rugged Koolau hikes, lives near the top of Alewa Heights Drive, so we met at his place and shoved off from there at just past eight. To get to the trail, we hiked to the point where the Heights Drive ends, encountering a threatening-looking dog tied to a fence at that point. After Pete assured us that the lion-maned ilio (looked to be a chowchow) was harmless, we propelled ourselves over the fence to the left of the gate at road's end.

Once in the forest, we headed left on a trail along the fenceline (watch out for overhanging barbed wire) until we reached the fence's end and picked up a trail heading mauka. This junction (elev. aprox. 1,100) is above the Kamehameha Schools grounds, in particular a paved road that has recently been laid out by the KS folks.

Eucalyptus trees abound in the initial part of the hike and the climbing is fairly gentle. About five minutes up the trail, we encountered a group young local kids who had set up a tarp across a level clearing that the trail passed through. It appeared as if they had spent the night at the spot and they seemed surprised to see us (and we them). When I asked if they were going hunting, no one responded. Perhaps they were afraid or maybe they were hiding something (pakalolo patch?). Or maybe they just didn't hear me. To their credit, when we passed this area after completing the hike, it was devoid of trash and any signs that they had been there. Thumbs up for young people, at least this group of them.

Beyond that makeshift campsite, the trail eventually worked its way to the edge of Nuuanu Valley side of the ridge. After a couple of hills reminded us of the climbing we'd face ahead, we reached some nice scenic lookout points where we scoped out the Oahu Country Club below and a goodly portion of Nuuanu proper. Towering Norfolk pine trees and a large population of keiki pine sprang up in profusion here.

The trail continued along the ridge's Nuuanu side and we climbed steadily without much discomfort and without great resistance from vegetation. We went by benchmarked Waolani (elev. 1,414) and a few minutes later negotiated a short rocky section. At about the one-hour mark, we passed an uluhe-filled gully on the left crowned by a colorful arching rainbow. Pete, always alert for photo opportunities, grabbed his camera to click off a couple shots.

A few minutes later, Gene's pager went off once (the family member of a concerned patient), then a second time (one of his kids calling to check on him). After answering the pages with his cell phone, (and enduring some ribbing from Pete and I), Gene apologized for the interruption. Pete and I forgave him. :-)

A 20-minute burst of wind and rain had me thinking that reaching the summit might not be in the stars for us that day, but the deluge spent itself as rapidly as it appeared, and after emerging from the protection of a trailside lama tree, we hiked on.

Further upridge, uluhe choked the trail and the rain had softened up the slopes of hilly upswellings on the ridge, the most prominent being Napu'umaia (lit. "the banana hill"). These conditions slowed our progress just a bit but we were cheered by superb views into upper Nuuanu Valley and of cloud-topped Konahuanui. Several good-sized koa trees topped the pu'u we traversed.

At about the 1.5 hour mark, we strode past a bamboo grove on the left and soon thereafter reached a junction where the ridge we were on joined with another. To the left at the junction was the return portion of the Kapalama Loop trail. To the right was the trail to the Koolau summit and our goal--Pu'u Lanihuli.

The trail became more rugged beyond this junction, with fairly steep, muddy slopes confronting us. No outright danger existed during these ascents but we often found ourselves scrambling and gasping for air as we climbed these slopes, some which had a lack of reliable foot- and handholds.

After a handful of tiring climbs, we ascended to a guava-choked hilltop (elev. 2,160) where the ridge we had climbed intersected with Kamanaiki Ridge which rises up from a point off of Kalihi Street in Kalihi Valley. From our ridgetop locale, we had the first clear view of cloud-free Lanihuli. Would the weather and our good fortune hold? We'd see.

That vantage point also offered a view of upper Kalihi Valley, in particular the ventilation building above the Wilson Tunnels and the swath through the trees where Likelike Highway lay. While we rested, Pete pointed out what appeared to be a trail leading to the ridgetop saddle above the tunnels (a week later he and Don Fox investigated this area and climbed the trail). Meanwhile I scanned the farside wall of Kalihi valley to determine which ridge the Bowman shortcut trail was on. I thought I spotted the shortcut route but couldn't be certain.

What was certain for us was that no shortcut trails to Lanihuli existed, so onward we climbed. After a couple gentle ups and downs, the trail dipped steeply to a narrow saddle--the location of the infamous crawling ridge. Wing Ng told me that anyone who walked atop this ridge would be very brave.

Pete and Gene traversed this section by gingerly inching along a narrow, handholdless ledge on the right side of the ridge. Initially, I followed suit, but after a couple steps determined that the sliver of earth might not hold my weight (I probably outweigh Pete and Gene by 100 pounds). Not wanting to chance a collapse and a subsequent fall, I reversed field and commenced the inelegant but relatively safe straddle/crawl atop the foot-wide, 15-foot ridge section. A 1,000 foot plunge lay to the left (ewa) and a drop of 80-100 feet, gentle by Wing's definition, lay to the right. Not one to miss a photo op, Pete, smiling broadly at my plight, snapped some photos of my horsey-back traverse.

The trail continued in a traditional up-and-down Koolau ridge fashion for about a half hour and we rested at a sizable hilltop clearing at the 2,300 foot level. From that vantage point, we scanned a narrow valley to the right. At its bottom lay Mo'ole Stream and supposedly a half dozen waterfalls. Early in '97, Pete, Don Fox, Bill and Willie Melemai, Chris Thomas and I explored the lower portion of Mo'ole Valley, stopping when we reached a sizable waterfall that we didn't feel we could work our way past safely.

Our rest and visual exploration completed, Pete, Gene, and I again turned to Lanihuli, the massive intimidating bulk of mountain that loomed ahead. Since we'd pass this clearing on the return leg, I left there a full 2-quart water bottle and my flashlight (I brought this along just in case...) to lighten my pack for the rugged climb to the summit.

The final ascent was taxing but not harrowing. The ridge was broad and enough vegetation existed to provide decent handholds. Underfoot, the slope was often muddy and, at best, the consistency and appearance of fresh chocolate cookie dough. Stable is not a word I'd used to describe it. Accordingly, footholds toed into the mountainside by Pete and/or Gene were often summarily obliterated by my bulk. And of those that survived my passing on the ascent, most were (unintentionally) collapsed on the descent. Sorry gang! :-)

We reached the Koolau summit at Pu'u Lanihuli (elevation 2,700 feet) five hours after we set out from Pete's house. Factor out the rain delay, photo ops, and assorted rest stops and we probably could have reached the top in about four hours. Speed merchant Pat Rorie told us he had completed the ascent in three hours.

We ate lunch at the top, enjoying the cloudfree conditions for the entire summit visit. To the southeast, Konahuanui was socked in but the rest of the Koolau crest to the north was unobscured. Of course, I scanned the toy-sized-appearing homes of Kaneohe below and was able to pick out my residence in Keapuka and commenced with an obligatory wave and yelp.

Nearer to us, the windward-facing pali below the summit crest dropped vertically 600 feet to a hanging valley that serves as a huge natural water catchment. During rainstorms, water collects in this catchment, funnels into a rocky chute, and cascades hundreds of feet to the windward side. Pete mentioned that rare species of lobelia and other endemic Hawaiian plants probably thrive in this hanging valley, which probably can only be accessed safely with rappelling gear.

A distinct peak lay about 70-80 yards to the left of our summit perch. Pete, again in search of a good photo op and also just for adventure's sake, decided he'd plow through thick native vegetation over to this pu'u. Gene and I, feeling less adventurous, decided to stay put. After about 10 minutes of watching Pete battle his way along the crest where no person had probably tread in a long time (read: no discernible trail existed there), Gene asked me if I minded if he started down the mountain (it was about 2 p.m. and Gene had a 4:30 engagement he wanted to try to make). I told him I didn't mind and that I'd wait until Pete started heading back from the bushwhack peak before I began my descent.

So off Gene went, moving carefully but quickly down the steep lee-facing flank of Lanihuli. Meanwhile, Pete completed his exploratory jaunt 15 minutes later and when I saw him heading back along the ridge to the lunch spot, I started my foothold- obliterating descent.

I reached the 2,300-foot hilltop in about 20 minutes, retrieved the water bottle and flashlight I had left there, and waited for Pete to make his way down to this point. He arrived a few minutes later, and while we rested, Pete told me about the view he gained from the bushwhack peak and also pointed out the descent route he and Don had traversed from Lanihuli to the Pali Highway via the kokohead-side ridge of Mo'ole Valley. A wow! hike.

Thereafter, we descended at a leisurely pace and without incident. Pete snapped more pictures, including a couple more at the crawl/straddle ridge, and he stopped on a couple occasions to tool with the GPS (Global Positioning System) gadget he had purchased the day before from Sports Authority. At the junction with the high point of the Kapalama Loop Trail, I found part of a wooden board that had "2 miles" etched into it. An old trail sign? Probably. Two miles to Lanihuli from that point? Two miles to the trailhead? Who knows.

We reached Pete's house on Alewa Heights Drive at just past 6 p.m. and when we saw that Gene's truck was gone, knew he had gotten out okay (we later found out that he had descended from the top in two hours, running most of the way and even chasing two pua'a down the trail at one point).

After picking up a teri chicken (extra rice) plate lunch from Kenny's Burgerhouse, I drove home to Kaneohe, arriving after dark. I was disappointed I didn't have a chance to gaze at Lanihuli at the time. But when I roused myself the next morning and stepped out into my front yard, there was the mountain peak called "Swirling Heavens"--still dark green, still far away, but no longer intimidating and mysterious as before.

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