Kapilau Ridge P1K

Mon, Jun 23, 2014
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My wife and daughter had to cut short our two week vacation in Maui to attend Junior Olympics in girl's VB, essentially an "invitation only" nationwide tournament held this year in Minneapolis. So after dropping them off at the airport around noon, I took Ryan to the Kahului harbor where he planned to fish and explore while Dad got back to hiking - after all, that's why most people come to Hawaii on vacation, right?

Maui basically has two mountains, the 10,000-foot Haleakalea which dominates the larger east side of the island, and Kahalawai, the 5,000-foot summit that dominate the smaller west side of Maui. Though Haleakela has erupted as recently as the 17th century and may not be dormant, Kahalawai has not seen serious action in half a million years. Since that time, the mountain has significantly erroded from what is believed by volcanologists to have been a 13,000-foot summit to its present condition. Pu'u Kukui is the highest summit at 5,788ft, but the process of hyrdro errosion has carved out immense valleys on all sides. This makes West Maui look more like a series of mountains surrounding the central Iao Valley. There are four summits besides Kukui with at least 1,000ft of prominence, giving West Maui the highest concentration of P1Ks in the state.

One of these P1Ks is Kapilau Ridge which forms the south side of the entrance to Iao Valley. It was the only one of the five that appears to have public access, from what I could gather in combing the Internet. Even with that, there were no accounts of anyone going to the summit. Most visitors do just the first section of the trail to a large white cross erected by students of St. Anthony High School in 1956. I had first half-heartedly attempted Kapilau Ridge two days earlier with my 15yr-old daughter who wanted to join me for a hike. At little more than 3mi one-way, at first glance it seems almost trivial, but with 4,000ft of gain, it makes for one incredibly steep ridgeline. We got as far as the cross on that first attempt before she cried uncle - this was not the sort of hiking she had in mind. I acquiesced easily, knowing I'd have another week with which to do some of these tough P1Ks. Two days later I was back for another try.

1p is not the best time to be starting a serious hike, but then I didn't know how difficult the hike was when I started out. I thought two, maybe three hours to reach the summit, much faster coming back. I told Ryan to expect me back in 4-5hrs when I dropped him off, but it would be much longer than that. The trail starts at an unsigned location just west of where W. Alu Rd splits off from Iao Valley Rd. Parking can be found in grassy turnouts before and after the start. Though unmaintained, the trail to the cross is wide and easy to follow once you make it through the short, initial overgrown section through tall grass. As advertised, the trail climbs steeply, going from 600ft to 1,300ft in that first half mile to where the cross is located. It took just under half an hour to reach it and with the obvious trail continuing past it, I was thinking the 2hr estimate to reach the summit was likely to be more accurate.

Little did I know just how silly this supposition was as I continued past the cross. The trail is actually pretty good for almost another half mile, climbing along the ridge, the trail dry and easily discernable even as it begins weaving through knee-high ferns. Views are quite nice, off the right side looking into Iao Valley, behind to Wailuku and Kahului and further to Haleakala. On the left is Waikapu Valley, no road, no development and almost as beautiful as Iao Valley. Clouds above are obscuring the summits as the Trade Winds carry moisture over the top of West Maui and I expect I'll have limited views when I get up there, but for now the clouds provide some welcome cooling and do nothing to obscure most of the views. A pig fence is reached inside the West Maui Forest Reserve during this continuing good section. A gate has been built into the fence to allow humans to pass through without damaging or stressing the fence. Past the one mile mark, things begin to go south as one continues to head southwest along the ridge. There's no sudden demarcation of good/bad trail, it's more of a very slow deterioration in progress that at first is almost unnoticeable. The ferns are higher, the trees denser, the trail wetter and harder to see. Blue and pink flaggings begin to appear above the pig fence giving one hope, but it is a thin one. The flaggings don't really help with the trail - luckily the route is pretty straightforward and I never had much trouble finding the trail. It basically follows right along the ridge, dropping no more than 10-15ft from time to time on the south side, but always going right back to the ridge. Both sides have severe gradients off the ridge, but the north side is far more serious.

Somewhere in the second mile I realized it would be three hours to get to the summit as I took stock of my progress. I kept hoping things would improve despite the fact that there was nothing indicating this was even remotely likely. I was finding the trail muddier and all the flora wet from periods of mist earlier in the afternoon. My clothes were slowly saturating as were my boots and gloves. Thank God for gloves. Even with them I was getting scrapes and scratches on my wrists and arms from pushing aside branches, not all so pliable as the ferns. Things only got wetter the higher I climbed and soon I was tunneling through trees and overgrowth, slipping in muddy holes, clinging to moss which covered things in giant blankets that made identification of the underlying plants difficult. Still, the trail continued and though I was struggling to make my way along it, I knew I'd get nowhere without it. Somewhere I hit a snag and got my foot hung up. At first I thought it was more of the tougher ferns which can send out vines that are difficult to break, but upon inspection found myself with a piece of 1/8th-inch stranded steel cable around my foot. What is this new treachery?, I wondered. It turns out they're pig traps. More than a dozen of these were set up on one 1/4mi section of the ridge intending to snare pigs who might travel along the ridge and get their head stuck, only to find the snare tightening as they struggled to get out. A gruesome death by strangulation, to be sure. I was just happy they weren't using steel jaw traps like they did in the old days. These newer versions were more people-friendly and it was not hard to get myself out. I reset the trap as intended and began watching out for others. Even though they were often (but not always) marked by pinik ribbons overhead, I still got myself snared another 3-4 times. I wonder if the pigs have any better chance? I didn't come across any strangled pigs, so I guess either there aren't any left here, or they're a lot smarter than me.

A second pig fence is found at about the 2-mile mark. Traps are set up on either side of this fence. Additional traps are coiled and left unused in a small pile on one side of the fence. It's hard enough just to hike along here - I've got to admire the folks that come here and do actual work, whether setting traps or building fences. Lordy, those are some hardy people. Meanwhile, the trail continues to worsen. I gto to a point parked 3,811ft on the map. I can see the remaining route to the summit and it looks really hard, plus I have to lose some elevation. The GPS indicates I have 6/10th of mile remaining but I'm somewhat despondent. Three hours have come and gone. I'll be lucky if I make it in 4hrs. (In fact, in my enfeebled state I have lost proper track of time. I thought I had started at noon, but it was only the next day upon reviewing the pictures that I realized I had started at 1p. Thus, it really took an hour less to reach the summit than written here, but let's go with my delusion for the rest of this write-up) I'm looking at my watch and thinking it might be dark before I get back, and I wonder if Ryan will be worried when he doesn't hear from me. I stood there for several minutes, clinging to branches while I considered my options. I was very close to calling it quits, thinking I should have saved this for a day when I could get an early start.

I decided to continue, and in the end was glad I did. It was even slower going, taking me just over 4.5hrs to reach the summit (Ok, really just 3.5hrs). The last stretch is one of the steepest on the whole route and I had to claw my way up and along. The summit is a misty, cloud-enshrouded mini-forest without any obvious highpoint over a stretch of about 50yds. All the stunted trees are enmeshed in moss without any obvious way to photosynthesize. Do they even have leaves under there? The trail, poor as it is, more or less just peters out without any ribbons or anything else to mark its conclusion. While it would have been nice to have views, the lack thereof was entirely expected. I was just happy to have reached the top. To my surprise, I was able to send a text to Ryan to let him know I'd be late. He responded, "Np, I'm not in a hurry." Now to get down...

Still clueless about the extra hour I had calculated for the ascent, I was amazed at my progress on the return. How could I make such good time when I wasn't even moving very fast? It took a little over two hours to return to the cross. Much of it was in clouds that had come in thicker and lower during the descent. I moved the GPS from my pocket to a clip outside where I could refer to it often - I wanted to make sure I didn't wander down the wrong ridge which I've managed to do more often than I'd like to admit. I got snagged in two more pig traps even though I was watching for them carefully (or so I thought). I made sure to resize the noose and reset them after my release - I don't want the Forest Reserve folks getting pissed at me for upsetting all their traps. It was just after 7p when I returned to the car, a dirty, soggy mess, but at least all in one piece (can't say the same for my pants which took a beating). This West Maui hiking was turning out to be harder than I had expected. Much harder. I might be smart to give myself more time on the next one...


David A comments on 06/25/14:
There were quite a few other hikers when I hiked up to the cross a few years ago. Had I known about the continuation of the trail up the ridge, I would have brought long pants. Loved the views of Iao Valley from up there.
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