It's been a while since I've done a hike of this nature in quite a long time. The year 2011 were the "good old days" of seeking out new routes and challenging myself to explore the unknown. Beyond the Waiʻanae mountains, I've been putting more effort into preservation of the islands through restoration projects, trail and beach clean ups, and the general education of maintaining and "being one with the ʻāina". I've slowly begun educating myself on the native species of flora and fauna and the identification and eradication of invasive species. I even got involved with some of the politics that greatly influence the hiking community. And I dislike politics!
With all of these things going on, there was one particular hike that has been under the radar for some time as well. Back in April, Kenji has been talking about scoping out and potentially planning a summit attempt of the Koʻolau mountains via the infamous Kalahaku Teeth. These teeth are part of the windward ridge that rises up from Kahaluʻu to intersect the Koʻolau summit at the famous Waimalu Meadow, an area that is the biggest area of grasslands on the entire mountain range and possibly the island of Oʻahu. It's definitely one of the most special places on the island and getting here involves quite a bit of distance on foot, regardless of direction of origin. But before we could even attempt, our work and personal life schedules needed to match. Nearly 5 months later, our schedules finally did.
Prior to this, there was only one documented account of a successful trek up this ridge. And the way it was described was that it was something that shouldn't even be attempted at all. I have a few friends who live down in Kahaluʻu who've always gaze up at this fearsome looking ridge line and said that it "looks nuts, doable, and exciting!" Based on the info, there are 7 tooth like formations on the ridge that need to be traversed in order to progress to the Koʻolau summit. Beyond the teeth was "the most insane overgrowth". Judging by all these conditions and the first group's time of 15 hours, we decided to make this a 2 day backpacking excursion. Now, I'm going to say this..... Absolutely DO NOT try this route with 30-40lb backpacks. Seriously. You will regret it and it could possibly put your life in danger. We would end up doing just that and we would hate our lives for the next 2 days.
Once we got all the cars staged, a friend of ours was so generous to drop us off at the starting point. It was about 8am that we would begin our trek. The crew today would be Kenji, Jose, Ryan, and Thessa.
After we went under a gate, we began hiking mauka on an overgrown jeep road. It wasn't even 15 minutes when we located an eroded embankment that mark the climb up to the finger ridge of Kalahaku Ridge. Immediately did we notice how very difficult it was to lug these heavy backpacks upward. My North Face Terra 65 multi-day pack contained my sleeping bag, a Eureka! single man tent, my Canon 5D MKIII and 16-35mm USM II L-Series lens, 2 MREs, a headlamp, my waterproof jacket, an extra pair of clothes for day 2, 2 cans of vienna sausage, 3 liters of water in two 1.5L bottles, and a liter of Powerade in 2 half liter bottles. One of us also had a rather new product that instantly converts untreated water into drinkable water, the Life Straw.
It was about 30 minutes when we topped off at the top of the ridge and we had our first visual of the Kalahaku Teeth further up. I was beginning to get a little nervous. My days of 2011 were long gone and the last time I did a climb this exposed and vertical was the Pohakea Pass on the Waiʻanae Mountains this past Spring.
We proceeded up ridge through a reasonably clear trail. It was very surprisingly clear. The ridge began a right turn directly for the teeth and the incline became more pronounced. It was around here where the trees started to become more dense and this would prove disastrous for our big packs. We had to contort our bodies to literally fit a square pig into a round hole. We topped out and noticed a ribbon. Wonder if this was Puʻu Kalahaku as described on the 1998 OHE article.
We never figured out where the 1st tooth was or if that trail tape behind us marked the 1st tooth. It wasn't particularly difficult at all, lest the overgrowth to our packs. The climb down the backside of the 2nd tooth was a little tricky but not too particularly difficult.
It probably wasn't until around what could have been the 3rd tooth that we really ran into our first obstacle, a sheer climb over 5-7ft of eroded dirt with a 100ft precipice on our right. There wasn't much room either as we were perched to the side of the tooth, which could hold about 3 people uncomfortably with a high risk of a fall. Jose, who was leading us, decided to try a perilous contour over to the backside of the tooth and climb up it to secure webbing for the rest of us. It would seem like hours when he finaltheirly popped out at the top of the tooth. Kenji muttered that we were very ready to progress upward and out of this very uncomfortable position. After the webbing was secured, one by one did we head up. But before each of us actually went up, we tied our heavy packs to the end of the webbing and then made the climb. Finally, we would haul our pack up and throw the webbing back down to the next person. All in all, this probably took about an hour. In fact, we would realize that to get over each tooth would require an hour or maybe more. Time was ticking and the day was quickly heading to afternoon by the time we reached the 4th tooth. The climb up it wasn't perilous, but it was very steep and we had to make use of sturdy plants and trees for hand and foot holds.
At the top of the 4th tooth, there was a pretty cool vantage point of the 5th, 6th, and 7th tooth. The 5th tooth looked very similiar to Kalihi Saddle's "Pimple". It was crumbly thin and looked ready to collapse at any moment. We noticed a lot of trees to the left of this tooth and decided to contour it, bypassing it completely. There was just enough natural hand and foot holds to make this contour safely, although some of them require stretching our arms and legs out over a pretty good sized drop. I had a flashback of my 50ft fall while trying to contour the "Pimple" and "Doorstop" of Kalihi Saddle. We all made it safely and we were now looking up at the 6th tooth.
There was this pattern that was forming in our heads and it began to play mumbo jumbo with our minds. Each tooth demanded an incredible amount of energy. Our heavy packs became heavier over the course of the day and we were starting to feel the effects of fatigue. We were probably on the 1st tooth at around 10am and we would reach the 7th tooth by around 4pm. While climbing up the very steep and crumbly grade of the 6th tooth, I've noticed that one of my Powerades were missing from my side pockets of my pack. My other Powerade was nearly empty and the full, unused one had to be the the one to go missing. I looked down and it was about 4ft below me, but with our hands completely occupied, we were unable to retrieve it as we needed both hands for safety. Not wanting to jeopardize safety, we were forced to abandon the bottle. That was not what I needed to lose, unused vital resources. Going down the backside of the 6th tooth proved difficult but was only a prelude of what was to come on the 7th tooth.
The 7th tooth featured a crazy looking nub with clean surfaces with nothing to grab on to. On either sides of the nub were death drops to oblivion. Behind the nub was a 10ft wall that was the most exposed out of all the teeth, making for a harrowing climb. The climb up the wall didn't bother me too much. It was the nub that really started to mess with my head. Kenji was ahead of me and did this okole butt launch to the top of the nub. He landed on his butt and wobbled as he was off balance. I've got to witness all of that and began to cast doubt on my ability to get over this obstacle with such a heavy pack strapped to my back. These packs truly added an entirely new dimension to climbing and I was almost having to learn how to climb all over again. As the crew of Apollo 13 had to fly with a dead Command Module in front, they said it was like flying with a "dead elephant on their backs". I felt exactly like how they felt with this pack.
It was my turn to go on the nub and I shooked my head and announced that I was going to bail down the side ridge on the 6th tooth. Ryan overheard me and almost excitedly said that he would join me. Apparently his stomach wasn't feeling well and he didn't seem too sure about going over this obstacle himself. Kenji tried to throw some words of encouragement into us, saying that we were almost pau with the teeth. I looked at the nub again. Jose looped a webbing around the nub for us to make use as a hold. I still said no. We're going to bail. I was about to turn around when Jose called out said "Wait. I'll get your pack." That guy was able to make the climb with his pack, put his pack down at the top, secured another webbing, and come BACK DOWN to the nub and offered to take my pack! I glanced back at Ryan and he motioned his head towards the bail out ridge behind us. "Don't be ashamed, David". I was stuck in the middle of whether to continue this trek or to call defeat and head back down. I couldn't make a decision. It was probably 2 or 3 minutes later when Jose called my name. I glanced ahead of me and there he was on top of the nub. He calmly said "Give me your pack." So I did. Then, he gave me another rope and told me to hold onto all three ends. I heaved with a loud grunt, shot myself upward, and landed on my butt on the top of the nub.
It took me a split second to realize that I was still on solid ground. He ducked down and told me to go forward over him and climb up to the top. The climb up to the top of the tooth was still difficult, even without a pack on. There was even an instance where I had to squeeze through two tightly placed trees with barely enough room for one to squeeze through. How everyone else did that with their packs on is beyond me. I continued my scurry upward towards the top and could hear Jose helping Ryan and Thessa over the nub. I plopped down next to Kenji in a safe flat section. He was on the phone with his place of employment regarding work schedule.
With everyone safely up, we all regrouped and rested for a while, thinking the worst was behind us. We prodded on and to our disbelief, there was yet another steep climb upwards. "Another tooth?!!!" we all exclaimed. The time was about 6pm and we were no where near the summit. We had to descend steeply into a notch, but the initial climb up to what we would call the 7th and a half tooth wasn't too steep. Jose, Ryan, and Kenji were already half way up the climb when I reached the notch. I waited for Thessa to come down and retrieved the webbing. By this point, we were getting exhausted. We made the climb up to the base of the steep climb and sat down on a relatively level stretch, but the ridge remained very narrow, about 3 feet. Thessa said that she couldn't go any more and that she lost her flashlight somewhere in the notch. We were both out of gas physically and mentally and the sun was setting fast. It was around 6:30pm when I called Ryan and said that we would have to wait until morning to finish the climb up to where they were at. They said they have to keep moving forward a bit because everything above the 7th and a half tooth was head high Uluhe ferns. Jose had to hack a new trail and a makeshift camp spot.
I woke up at around 5am the following morning and looked around. The clouds were still above the mountains and I could still see the city lights below. I glanced at the horizon and could make out a slight tint of daylight. The sun was to rise in about an hour. I had one of my MREs for breakfast, 'Beef Ravioli'. While the taste was less than satisfying, having hot edible food was amazing. After breakfast, I checked in with Kahaluʻu base camp and then waited for the sun to rise. I then heard Thessa and she had her breakfast. I got my Canon camera ready for the sunrise shoot and snapped away when the first rays of sun came upon us. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I've ever seen from the windward side.
At around 7am, I received a text from Jose saying that we should meet them at the top of the hill. Thessa and I packed our things and tiredly made our way up. Again, the trees snagged our packs every 2 strides. There was one small eroded section of the climb that made it more harder. But there was barely enough holds to make our way up. The ridge began to level off slowly as we encountered huge thickets of Uluhe taller than our heads. But it seemed like one of the guys ahead blasted a trail through this thicket. Another 10 minutes or so and we met up with Jose, Ryan, and Kenji who had a nice wide open flat section to camp on. Lucky buggas....
We all continued on, but the lack of any trail made progress painstakingly slow. The overgrowth was indeed insanely thick, probably the thickest I've ever seen on any trail since I've started hiking. It would make the KST on the northern Koʻolaus look like H-1. Jose and Ryan traded turns using the machete to hack away at the Uluhe. Some parts we had to crawl through tunnels of Uluhe. It didn't help when we got hit by a passing rain shower as the winds suddenly picked up and the rain started coming down hard. It seemed like an hour when we finally emerged into the open and saw our first glimpse of the rest of the ridge heading straight up to the Koʻolau summit. There it was, the Waimalu Meadow! But it was still far away.
The overgrowth became more windswept, the kind that we are all too familiar with on Koʻolau crossings and we were grateful. The terrain was much more manageable and we picked up our pace a bit. The summit got closer and bigger. One more steep climb and we were treading on the soft grassy meadow.
After around 14 hours of total time, eleven hours on day 1 and three hours this morning, we made it to Waimalu Meadow at last! The time was 10:30am. The clouds socked us in and the winds really began to pick up. The rain became steady and it was a typical windy and socked in day on the Koʻolau summit. Although the views were nonexistent on this day, I actually came to this meadow 2 weeks ago via the Waimalu Middle Ridge.
The two photos below were taken when we did Waimalu Middle Ridge on 8-3-2014
Ryan immediately kissed the cold metal sign and we all laid down on the small grassy area. The winds were really howling though, as it was for the summit crossing. Just 7.2 miles to go and we were back at the car. This leg of the hike was just simply putting one foot in front of the other for the next 3 or so hours. We were mentally and physically dead and we wanted out. We wanted out now! It was exactly 5:42pm when we crossed the Waimano trail head.
Fricken pau! No more! So over it!
When we totaled up the final times, we calculated that we were hiking for 24 active hours and spent about 12 hours in camp, making for a grand total of 36 hours spent in the Koʻolau mountains. This was definitely the hardest hike I've done to date.
All photos with the ©DGC are property of David G. Concepcion
All other photos were taken by Kenji Saito, Ryan Meyer, and Thessa Bugay. Used with permission.
Video coming soon!