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Traveling between Molokai and Oahu occupied much of my time and attention in the morning. Once landed at Honolulu, it took some effort to find my way to the off-airport Hertz rental site (cheap rental cars come at some non-trivial cost in terms of time and logistics, I've come to find).
As we were approaching Oahu I could see that there were significant clouds over the eastside mountains, less so to the west, so I decided to head to Kaala, the highpoint of the western range as well as all of Oahu. There are a number of ways to reach the top, including a paved road, but this would require one to be a contractor for the military towers they maintain at the summit. The only public access route I knew of was from the west, the same as described on the SummitPost page, and it was by this path I planned to climb the mountain.
The hike is just over 7mi RT but gains a whopping 3,500ft - this is one steep route. It was after 9a by the time I had my rental car and I wouldn't get started at the TH until 10:30a. The long, single lane access road goes through some sketchy parts of Waianae on Oahu's west shore as it winds its way into the island's economic backwaters. There are several long-term car camping residents who have set up shop near the road's end. They don't seem to be doing much back there other than surviving, large Hawaiian natives sitting on the tailgates of their trucks. They didn't even seem to be communal with each other. This description may be why some online reports feel their cars and goods may be endangered in parking at the TH. I had the opposite feeling, actually. I wouldn't expect the long-term residents to be causing mischief less they run the risk of having the police run them out of their free rental sites. And having them there full time probably discourages others from considering criminal activity. In any event, I had the back of the car loaded with my gear because I hadn't gone to the hotel first, and happily it was all there when I got back. The portly natives were still sitting on the tailgates.
The route is fairly straightforward and highly scenic. From the beginning one gets views of the stunningly green cliffs that surround Waianae Valley and very soon thereafter the views of the picturesque valley open up behind you. The first 1.2mi are the continuation of the paved road beyond a locked gate, used by the water department to access several facilities upstream including holding tanks and pumps. After this the road become dirt (or mud, depending on weather conditions). Damp clouds with some rain came pouring over the crest from the east threatening the outing. I stopped to put away the camera and get out the pack cover, but this proved necessary for less than 20min. Thereafter the rain stopped and the clouds were far less threatening, though always present. The brief rain left portions of the route slick, not really a big deal until later where it gets steep.
A picnic shelter is found at the end of the dirt road, the trail heading into the forest is obvious. The route is amply marked with painted plastic Gatorade tops nailed to trees with a supply of purple painted tree dots and lots of flagging in several colors just to be sure. By this point half the mileage has been done, but only a fraction of the elevation gain. Now it's time to start climbing. No switchbacks as is typical of Hawaiian trails, just straight up ridgelines and aretes using roots and rocks for hold and sometimes just slippery dirt. The trail winds through a variety of forest types. Guava and other fruit can be seen rotting alongside (or on) the trail in places. Sometimes through sections of ti plants, and in other places through large evergreen forest.
Just past a recent clearing the trail splits. According to the information I had, both route eventually reach the ridgeline where they rejoin. I decided to take the right fork - shorter, steeper, and less used, marked only by occasional pink flaggings. I followed this up a steep arete rising through the forest. The unrelenting angle had me sweating and struggling unlike any hike I had done in Hawaii yet. I was starting to think the 2qts of Gatorade were going to be insufficient. After I had done aboute 3/4 of this fork and could see the ridgeline not far above me, the trail seemed to give out. The area appears to have suffered a significant slide that wiped out a portion of the trail. I spent about 15min trying various spur trail leading from this spot, one even leading to a pink flagging. But the ground was steep, slippery and a fall would be most unpleasant. It was scaring me, I had to admit. Maybe these Oahuans are tougher than I had expected. Where were the aid ropes I had read about? The scene about me was a bit crazy (though it had a fantastic view looking down valley) and I decided to back down. Maybe this one was going to beat me.
I was under a bit of a time constraint for a very stupid reason - I had to be in Waikiki by 5p to meet a guy who was going to provide me with parking for the week. You can do you own research, but if you're staying in Waikiki, don't expect to find parking a simple matter. Anyway, I had figured I could get to the top and back and still make the longish drive to the other side of the island in time. But I hadn't counted on a serious route-finding issue. As I started back down I considered I might have to write this one off and call it another day. Besides the time, I was already pretty tired - it was warmer than it had been on any other hike the past week and it really made a difference. The downhill went smoothly and easily and by the time I reached the junction I decided to give it another go up the left fork.
This worked out much better. There's a reason most reports recommend going this way. The route continues as a well-marked route, crossing a few (normally) dry streambeds before again turning very steeply uphill. Ugh, ugh, my legs were bitching me out. I slowed down considerably, but what an effort it still was. The steps were often 1-2ft which really puts the pressure on the upper thighs. More ugh, ugh. A few ropes were encountered before reaching the main ridgeline. Though not really necessary under drier conditions, they are quite helpful when things get slippery (in Hawaii, that's often most of the time). Only about 10yds each, the ropes ended and I climbed the remaining distance to the ridge. Powerlines that had been overhead most of the way up, crossed the ridge here and went down the other side. A pig fence is encountered here running up the ridge. I turned right to continue up, happy to have the fence for something to grab onto where things got steeper. This goes on for several hundred yards until suddenly the fence takes a sharp left and drops off the ridge into the next valley on the left side.
Beyond the fence one begins to encounter the more serious rope sections. Some of these go up rock sections that would be class 3 when perfectly dry. Others simply aid up slippery dirt slopes with poor footing. Many small, but well-rooted trees can be used for aid in pulling up, but the ropes seem reserved for sections without a good supply of trees. The ropes come in many varieties - manilla, cotton, nylon, webbing, dog leashes, phone cables, steel cables, and more. The most annoying were the dynamic climbing ropes that stretch and require more care and effort. All of the ropes, though weathered and covered in dirt, seemed well-anchored. I made no effort to avoid using them, to the contrary - I welcomed each like a member of my own family. Putting my arms to use was most appreciated by my over-worked legs.
On and on the ridgeline goes up, steep cliffs on either side. More sweat and aching legs. My pants are filthy from slipping. My hands are covered in the same brown volcanic mud and wiping them on plants or my pants doesn't seem to do much. When I have to itch an eye or something on my face I look for the cleanest-looking finger, but I know I'm just transferring the stuff to my face. All good fun. Eventually I reached the top of the ridge after what seems a very long time. I've watching the two ridges on either side of me fall below my current elevation and it seems I'm just about to top out with nothing higher around me.
But I also know this isn't the case from the research I'd done. At the top of the ridgeline one enters the Kaala Forest Reserve, a high, wet plateau with stunted trees and a host of endemic species found nowhere else, much like the Alakai Swamp on Kauai. Signs on reaching this point give some information about the area and there's a bootbrush to wipe invasive seeds off your soles. A grated boardwalk runs for 4/10mi through this unique forest from one end to the other where eventually one encounters civilization in the form of modern military communications. Several tall structures including a monstrous golfball inhabit the summit. A truck was parked inside a fenced area where two technicians were working. A sign indicates the end of the hiking trail, but I had not reached the mountain's highpoint. Luckily, one doesn't have to breach military security to get there. A muddy use trail goes around the left side of the main fence and through a small gate to where one can find the KAALA benchmark at the highest point just outside the perimeter of the secured area. I actually had some views down to the ocean on one side and snapped a few pictures before they went away. Breezy and mostly cloudy at the top - fairly typical for Hawaiian summits, it would seem.
In returning, I was even happier to make use of the ropes and cables. Even with them I managed to slip several times. Once I landed hard on my back against the rocks - cushioned thankfully by my pack carrying extra clothing. I made it back out before 3p, making for an outing of 4.5hrs - not bad considering the time lost on the wrong fork. Even with the usual Honolulu rush hour traffic I was in Waikiki well before 5p. Not too shabby for a travel day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Kaala
This page last updated: Fri Aug 22 13:31:58 2014
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