OHE January 7, 2000 (Mokuleia Ridge via Kealia)

Date: Fri, 7 Jan 2000 01:47:31 -1000
From: DaKine900@aol.com (Tom Cress)
Subject: Kealia-Ka'ala Waianae Traverse attempt 

I headed out at 5 am after a long night of no sleep. Actually, I went rollerblading from about 10pm to midnight to try and wear myself out. No luck there. I had Mt. Ka'ala on the brain. Mt. Ka'ala is Oahu's tallest peak. At 4025 feet, it dominates the Wai'anae Range. It's easy to spot when driving to the North shore. It's the one with the radar antennas very near the summit, which is actually an FAA installation. Just look for the tallest mountain, you can't go wrong. I've been itching to climb it for a while now, but I wasn't too thrilled about using the traditional trails that ascend to the summit.

When I was camping at Peacock Flats almost 2 months ago, I stumbled upon Mokuleia Trail that leads to the narrow Makua Valley ridge. Officially, according to the 'tourist hike' maps, the Mokuleia Trail ends at a small eroded hill with fantastic views of Makua Valley. A sign marks the end of the trail trail, but according to the topographic maps of the area, the trail continues to follow the narrow ridge all the way to Mt. Ka'ala access road.

This trail is unique to any other trail that I've seen so far. It has a very well erected fence about 3 or 4 feet high that follows the ridge. It was placed there to keep the wild boars out of Makua Valley, which the military uses for live fire exercises. Don't go down there! I put 2 and 2 together and decided that this would be an awesome way to reach the summit. Usually you need to get a permit to enter the Pahole Natural Area Reserve, where the trail is most easily accessed, if you want to get there by vehicle. I really didn't feel like waiting around till 9 or 10 am to drive downtown and bug the DLNR guys to get a piece of paper that says I can be up there with my truck. Besides, if I waited that long, it would have severely cut into my hiking time. So, now I needed a way to get up to the Mokuleia trailhead, sans vehicle.

Well, Kealia Trail (the trailhead is at Dillingham Air Field) provides a nice entrance to the area. Kealia Trail starts at sea level and ascends to the spine of the Wai'anae Range. I actually did Kealia for the first time about a week ago. You quickly gain elevation (1900 feet) and it's really not that difficult thanks to the many switchbacks. There are even a few rock cliffs that you can play around on, if you like. The trail is intended to be a loop that ends with a spectacular view of Makua Valley (Ref. Stuart Ball's Hikers Guide to O'ahu, page 213 great book, I recommend it!). Kealia is 7 miles round trip, and it makes a great day hike, minus the long walk up the steep firebreak road. But, it is worth it.

From there I planned to pick up Kuaokala Trail, which according to Ball, is his version of a continuation of Kealia Trail. This would cut out a small portion of the boring road walk that leads to Mokuleia Trail. When I say "road", I don't mean paved. This is a serious 4-wheel drive adventure. It is plagued with steep drop-off's, and no guardrails! Entirely red clay and just plain old dirt, it can get slippery and very steep. I would never take a car up there! But anyway Kuaokala Trail provides the last stretch to the Makua Ridge, just where I needed to be!

So, the plan is set. Ascend the ridge with open access via Kealia, pick up Kuaokala and follow on to Mokuleia. Here I go! I left a little after 5am and got to Dillingham at just after 6am. I had the gate hours backwards! I thought they opened the gate at 6am and closed at 7pm! The sign was a viscous reminder! It read something like "Open to the public 7am, closed at 6pm!" Had to wait almost an hour to get into Dillingham! This kind of put a twist on my plans because I thought I would have 13 hours to go trekking, vice 11. Oh well. So, I pulled up onto the beach and let the tailgate down, soaked up some of the soothing sounds of the waves crashing on the shore and almost fell asleep. I was close enough that I could see anyone that pulled up to the gate. Sure enough, 10 till 7, the unmistakable white truck comes rolling along and the gates were open! In I went. The only parking available is the small lot near the control tower, so I turned in, did one final gear check and headed for the trailhead.

It takes about 5 minutes of walking along a dirt road to actually reach the trail. I started the climb up Kealia and things were going great. The sun had just come out, and it wasn't hot yet. It took about 30 - 40 minutes to get to the top. It usually takes a little bit longer, but I was booking it. I even took a little shortcut to bypass the final switchbacks, but it involves some steep climbs. Yippee! I saved a few minutes. At the edge of the ridge, there is a shelter where you can stop and take a break or have a snack. I kept going.

Immediately, you pick up the firebreak road that leads to the Kuaokala Trail junction. It's a long steep walk, and about the only thing to see are the native plants. There are a few scenic overlooks along the way though. After about an hour, I arrived at the Kuaokala Trail sign. Mahalo to the Na Ala Hele guys for marking the trails so well! The initial portion of the trail is actually wide enough to accommodate a vehicle.

After a short walk, you end up right on the Makua Ridge. I saw a few clouds starting to hang around the ridge trail. Didn't look like rain, but definitely a lot of fog. I followed the trail (marked by a few ribbons) until it intersected with the road again. After a short jaunt down the road, I noticed a split. I knew that the well traveled road that went left leads to Peacock Flats and eventually Mokuleia Trail, but I thought it might cut out even more time going right, since it follows the ridge.

It turns out that this was the old Nike Missile Site access road. I guess a long time ago, the military had some sort of missile testing or tracking site up here and most of the buildings are still intact. Way to clean up your mess guys! I think they should have plowed everything over and let the vegetation take over. But nonetheless, you can drive a truck partially up the road eventually having to turn around, or back your way down. The road abruptly ends and continues as a foot path up to the site. It was actually kind of neat to visit but since it really isn't serving a purpose that I know of, they really should tear it down. Some state guys were up there doing something so I didn't stay long.

There is a paved road that still provides access to the site, so I decided to hoof it on asphalt for a little while. This little detour actually saved me almost a mile of walking on the dirt road, so I guess I made a good call. This road starts approximately 2.5 miles before you get to Dillingham Air Filed on Farrington Hwy. Access is limited thanks to many locked gates, but you can use the upper portion to access the campsite. It goes right by Peacock Flats and continues up to the missile site. If you were to take the dirt road that starts at Ka'ena Point Satellite Tracking Station to get to the campground, you would eventually end up here anyway. It was kind of nice having something flat to walk on after all that climbing and twisting.

Before I knew it, I arrived at Peacock Flats. I followed the dirt road up to the Mokuleia Trail. I decided to take a little breather. First break in almost 7 miles. Not bad! I only stopped long enough to eat half of a power bar and catch my breath, about 2 minutes. I think it was about 10:30am at this time. Thanks to my newly broken in Timberlands, my feet were doing great! Awesome hiking shoes! I paced along Mokuleia trail, anticipating reaching the fork where you can continue down into a valley or head for the ridge. The miles were flying by. I reached the fork, marked by a distinct Hawaiian Orange tree transplanted a few years ago and a small shelter and a clearing. To the left, the trail leads down into the valley and straight ahead, it leads to Makua Ridge.

I ascended the short climb to the ridge and turned left towards Mt. Ka'ala. It was nearly the same view of Makua Valley that I had before on the Kuaokala trail, just a different perspective. Before, I was on the far-west end of the ridge and now, I was in the middle. Right away, you start some serious climbing. Torture on the legs! The fence that I mentioned before provides something to grab onto, but I wouldn't recommend using it as a last resort! If you slipped and started to fall off the ridge, it might not save you. And this is a bad ridge too. It is extremely narrow in sections, so you have to make every step count! After the first climb, you reach the end of the "official" trail. It's really not that difficult to reach the end of trail marker. It makes a great spot to stop and have lunch if you are camping at Peacock Flats.

Only thing was, today it was surrounded by clouds. I couldn't see anything! No valleys, no ocean views. But, I didn't start out the day looking for views, so I really didn't mind. The elevation here is about 2500 feet. You really can't get a sense of how high up you are when the clouds glue themselves to the ridge. It's straight down on both sides, except for the right side because of the fence, so it eliminates the chance of falling off that way! Make sure to bring a compass and a good topographical map if you go up there when the ridge is locked in by clouds. It is easy to become disoriented and lose your way.

This ridge is a roller-coaster of a hike. It's a little unnerving trying to climb and descend this ridge, it's steep and overgrown. It was probably a good thing I couldn't see the bottom! That would have probably persuaded me to stop. Scary! At some places you have a little less than 1 foot between the fence and the edge of the cliff. If the rock were to crumble and give lose, or if you made a bad step, you would fall over 1000 feet.

After about mile of this traverse, I saw something that I have never seen before. I'll try my best to describe it. I reached a small summit and the trail suddenly dropped off on the other side. I thought it was as far as I could go. The maps don't show this steep of an incline in the ridge. No way I would try this! I even carry two 50 foot ropes to descend steep spots, but no way, nuh uh! Not this! This was way too long and too steep to count on a rope to save me! It looked like it went down about 250 feet with about a 70 - 80 degree incline. I really didn't want to test out the strength of the ridge fence with my weight. But then I looked more closely at the ground. Somebody had unrolled a fence flat on the ground all the way down and secured it using metal stakes! What an idea! It worked great! It might be hard to picture, but just imagine taking a big roll of standard metal fence (5 or 6 inch square mesh) and rolling it flat on the ground, down a hill. The little squares formed by the mesh make perfect handholds and footholds. It was almost like climbing down a ladder. My new hiking boots seemed to fit perfectly into the "rungs" and the tread is pretty aggressive so it helped hold onto the thin metal fence wire (although, if you wear size 14 shoe or larger, you may have some difficulty placing your feet into the gaps).

Up until this point it really hasn't been very dangerous, except for the narrow sections, but now the adrenaline factor was at 10+. Although the ridge was wider here, if you were to slip, there was almost nothing to stop you from tumbling down, unless you were lucky enough to grab a tree. I think I got too confident with the descent because I actually slipped and fell about 5 feet. I managed to somehow twist myself onto my back and use my shoes to slow my fall. I got a new puncture wound on my left hand from a random fence wire that decided to stick up and an accompanying fear of fall falling to remember this event by. When I stopped falling, I thought that it would be a good time to take a break when I got to the bottom.

I rested for probably 5 minutes. I was so eager to reach the summit of Mt. Ka'ala. Now going on my third wind, I got up and ventured on. Time was running out, and I really didn't feel like spending the night up here. 5 hours had passed. I was at my halfway point on time, but still short of the geographic halfway point. I suddenly had a great idea! I would keep going but instead of backtracking, I would just follow Mt. Ka'ala access road (paved road leading up to the FAA radar installation) down to Waialua and jog back, or maybe get lucky enough to hitch a ride back to my truck at Dillingham.

So now, I gave myself a little extra time! Yeah! Things were looking good. The trail got a little wider, but the clouds still blocked my view. It slowly ascended to another flat-topped summit. I can only imagine what the view would have been like. I was on top of Makaha Valley! I walked along the plateau for a short distance when disaster struck. The path suddenly became a very narrow ridge along the Makaha Valley, and the winds were kicking up. The clouds started spitting out some harsh rain. It wasn't coming straight down on me, it was batting against me horizontally. I watched the mist drift by at what seemed like 20 or 30 mph.

Now at nearly 3000 feet, I was suddenly on the most dangerous hike of my life. I guess this turned out to be the most difficult ascent to Mt. Ka'ala. The trail did another drop off, but no fence this time. It wasn't nearly as long of a drop but much more steep. It was nearly vertical. I had to face a tough decision. I had enough rope to descend, if I used both of them. I really wasn't up to lowering myself down 100 feet of rope. I actually had to sit down and think this over for a while. I just hiked and climbed my way through 8 miles of ridge and now this? It was just over a mile away! And besides, even if I did get down the climb, I would stand a good chance of having to climb back up it in the event that the final ascent to the Mt. Ka'ala access road was too steep to climb.

I made the call to turn around. I really wasn't discouraged at all because I had actually traversed a long stretch of the Wai'anae Range, something I really wanted to do anyway. This was just impossible, given the circumstances. What I had ahead of me was indeed more than what I wanted. This trip just turned into a 16+ mile round-trip to a rainy peak with no views that I couldn't pass. It took just over 5 hours to get here, but I really didn't feel like a repeat performance on the way back.

I probably added another 20 years of age to my knees on the return trip, but I just wanted to get out of there. I ran wherever I could. I ran out of water, I thought surely 100 ounces would be enough, but didn't plan on running. The rain came and went, and I didn't even bother pulling out my emergency poncho because I was already drenched. When I finally got to a clear spot, I pulled out my map and tried to find a quicker route out. I decided to just follow the ridge all the way back to Kealia Trail. That turned out to be a big mistake. I should have came out the way I went in.

I bypassed the Mokuleia - Peacock Flats trail junction and followed the ridge. Little did I know that the trail here suddenly ends for a 1 mile section and picks up on the other side of a very steep valley that you can only get around by going through the Pahole Nature Area Reserve, which I decided to pass. I had to backtrack, adding an extra mile, to regain the actual trail.

After that I decided to stay on the firebreak road. My knees were shot. I couldn't wait to get out of there. I was soaked, tired, out of water and cold. After 2 hours of walking, I finally reached the Kealia Trail marker. I was so excited. As I descended the ridge, the weather broke and out came the sun. Along the trek down, I watched several gliders drift by. When I finally got to the parking lot where my truck was, I just wanted to crawl up into the seat and pass out. I drove out of Dillingham and went on towards the highway. Over 16 miles and 9 hours, I was drained. I'll think I'll try DuPont next time...

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