Thursday, July 21, 2011

7-15-2011: Kahuauli (Bowman) to Kalihi Saddle

Head north--- Thru hiking the Ko'olaus? ---Head south

There are three saddles on the Ko'olau mountain range on the island of O`ahu.  All three have trans-Ko'olau tunnels running underneath that are part of highways that link the windward side of the island to Honolulu and Waikiki.  These are the Moanalua (H-3), Kalihi (Likelike), and Nu'uanu (Pali) Saddles.  Numerous hikers have documented their hikes on the Moanalua and Nu'uanu Saddles while Kalihi remained virtually untouched.  Hawaii hiking legend Dick Davis called the section between Pu'u Kahuauli and the Kalihi Saddle as no-man's land.  Pete Caldwell and Don Fox ascended to the saddle via a steep trail that was situated above the Likelike Tunnels on July 14, 1997.  Pete Clines and company did a loop from the highway to the saddle and back in spring of 2011.  Kaleo Lancaster and his crew ascended to the saddle via a powerline trail on June 25, 2011.

On July 11, 2011, Laredo, Francis, and I ascended the powerline trail and scouted the lower portion of the saddle in the direction of Kahuauli.  This included traversing up and over a large pinnacle that was dubbed "Witch's Hat".  The ridge remained mind boggling narrow for the entire way.  I attempted to go as far as I could up towards Bowman but was halted by a completely eroded cliff face.  I tried to free climb on it's windward side but with the margin for error virtually at zero, I decided against continuing.  A top down approach would have to be the answer.  Apparently there are actually two eroded cliff faces and I call these Triangles #1 and #2 due to their shapes.  I only managed to get to the bottom of the 1st triangle.  Unfortunately, after we have turned around and began our exit from the saddle, Laredo was struck by falling rock during the traverse over the Witch's Hat.  Although injured, he was able to hike out under his own power and we all made the exit without further incident.  This saddle is no joke!

Four days later on July 15, 2011, Marcus Griego, Jeremy Kreis, and I would make an attempt at a precarious descent from Pu'u Kahuauli (Bowman Terminus) to the powerline pole that is near the Likelike Tunnels.  We began our trek at the Bowman trailhead and hiked it's entire 6 mile trail to reach Kahuauli.  From there, we were to turn right on the Ko'olau summit ridge and begin the descent into the Kalihi Saddle.

Pushing off at 6:30am, we began the uneventful hike up Bowman Trail.  With speed hikers Jeremy and Marcus a part of my crew, I knew I had to push harder than normal.  As we reached several clearings along the trail, we saw the morning sun peek under the low lying clouds that remained over the summit ridge.  The saddle however was free of cloud cover.  The sun light created an eerie "smile" with the saddle, as if it were taunting us.

The Kalihi Saddle with the morning sun (Photo courtesy of Marcus Griego, taken from Bowman Trail)

After roughly 3 to 4 hours, we gained the summit, which remained socked in.  Sometimes we got sporadic views of the windward side of the island.  After a short break, we began our journey into the unknown.  Jeremy took the ramrod and I took the rear position.  The ridge at first was typical to any Ko'olau summit ridge.  We had to gain another smaller peak before the actual descent into the saddle.  When we began the descent, the ridge already had begun to narrow considerably.  We soon dropped below the cloud decks and saw our first obstacle, a severely eroded dike with a sketchy cliff face at it's end.  Jeremy scouted it out and signaled to us that it was a no go.  Marcus then checked out the town facing side of the ridge and spotted an area where we could contour around the eroded dike.  To get to the "trail" however involved a very steep descent off the crest of the ridge with the aid of ropes.  We all made the contour without incident.

Continuing downward on the still narrow ridge, we reached a point where further progress was halted.  The thin ridgeline literally disappeared.  This gave us strong indications that we were probably at the top of the 2nd Triangle.  We stopped here for quite some time debating our options, including turning around.  The views from here were incredible.  To our left was the expanse of windward O`ahu.  At seven o clock was the Haiku Stairs terminus.  Directly in front of us was the other half of the saddle and the impossible looking climb to Lanihuli.  From twelve to five o clock was the commanding view of Kalihi Valley and the Likelike Hwy that snakes it's way through the forests.  I've never had a heavenly like view like this from a Ko'olau summit ridge.  I wanted to stay here forever.  During the time I was admiring the views, Marcus attempted to scout ahead to the start of the 2nd Triangle and deemed it unsafe to continue.  Things looked grim.  Turning around was probably the best option.

After a short "meditation", I decided to scout and see if we could have any remote chance of descending it.  Windward and townside were not an option.  The ridge dropped almost vertical, making a contour impossible.  Another issue was the lack of well...  anything to anchor rope to.  Miraculously, I found probably the only single "sturdy" 'Ōhi'a Lehua tree and affixed rope to it.  I put sturdy in quotes because it was not sturdy at all, but it did support the weight of us.  Going down the 2nd triangle was one of the scariest moments in my entire life.  Here we were, on a ridge that was virtually undocumented, exploring a new frontier.  To top all of that off, I was dangling off a side of the cliff as I was unrolling rope that was only secured to an unstable tree.  The cliff face was as narrow as the horizontal ridge itself, maybe a foot wide!  The suicide drops surrounded me on all three sides.  I had to keep all of that out of my head and focus on the only 4 points of contact my body has with the 1 foot wide vertical piece of Planet Earth.  Time was frozen in my head and all I could think of was getting down this cliff face safely.  After a long and extremely tense moment, I could finally feel the ridge turning more horizontal as I went more of the townside direction during the descent.  I let go of the rope and contoured the remaining final feet back to the ridgeline.  I've made it and shouted that I was clear of the rope.  The rope was 100-150ft and I had to use all of it for the 2nd Triangle.  I walked on a vegetation free dike until I reached a brush and plopped down, facing the cliff face that I just descended!  Video nor photo will do justice to see what this was like.

With the rope laid out, Jeremy and Marcus made the descent without incident and we all took a short break.  I took the ramrod position and made our way towards the 1st triangle, the same cliff face where I turned around upon reaching the bottom of it.  Once at the top of it, we found a lone but sturdy tree that we could use as an anchor.  Jeremy made the descent first, followed by me.  I got hung up after I dropped down on the town facing side and had to "contour" literally on the vertical cliff face to reach another lone sturdy tree that provided a critical hand hold.  I could not make any head way to reach this tree.  I even attempted to come directly at the tree from above but there was a completely vertical boulder with absolutely no holds, other than the flimsy rope.  I decided that contouring was the only way and had to make the "contour of faith".  I lunged forward at the tree and barely grabbed hold of it and pulled my way past it to reach a rocky ledge that was no wider than a shoe.  The rope got tangled with the life saving tree and was forced to complete the remaining contour without any rope. 

Without warning, I heard the ground tremble and Marcus yell something.  Somewhere far above me, something was falling down fast.  Suddenly, I came face to face with the biggest damn boulder I've ever seen freefalling!  I have to say it was as big as a 50 inch television.  And it fell right over me!  Since I was protected by the ridge itself as I was in a groove that was etched into the side of it, the cliff above deflected the boulder right over the top of me.  I could have probably touched it with my outstretched arm!  It fell harmlessly past me and I watched it plunge further down and explode on impact upon hitting another object, disappearing in a cloud of dust and with a loud boomish thud.  Had I been in the direct path of this boulder, I probably would have not survived as boulder and I would have taken the plunge together.  I had to shake that feeling off and continue focusing on the remaining contour.  Using only loose rock as a guide with my hand, I somehow made it over the ledge and back to the ridgeline.  I was never so relieved to feel those whipping tradewinds again!  Marcus proceeded to finish his descent without incident.

At last, we made it down the two triangles safely and I recognized the remaining ridgeline as familiar territory as we were at my turn around point on the scout hike!  The ridge maintained it's crumbly knife edge narrow profile as we carefully navigated downward.  The descent was beginning to level off and it transitioned into a more level and then down action.  Don't let your guard down here, the danger factor is still extremely high with the big drops on both sides.  I was bummed after discovering that my black Panasonic Lumix ZS7 went missing from my pocket.  I remember taking my last photo just after we all finished the descent of the 1st Triangle.  Somewhere between the 1st Triangle and the last descent prior to Witch's Hat, my camera fell out of my pocket.

Eventually we reached the infamous "Witch's Hat".  The Bowman facing side of the Hat has a 5 or 6 foot face right at the bottom that involves a mighty heave (or a mighty jump if going in the opposite direction).  Just past the Witch's Hat is another menacing looking hill but one contours on the windward side of it to bypass it completely.  Beyond that, the ridge begins to take on a more broader profile at last and we were soon at the powerline pole, 6 hours after we started our trek from the Bowman Terminus!  The powerline trail is actually suitable for beginner hikers, although the trail can be very muddy if it has rained recently.  But the broad lookout where the powerline is at on the Kalihi Saddle makes for a good lunch area, akin to the Kulana'ahane Trail that reaches for the lowpoint on the Moanalua Saddle.  The only problem is access.  There's no where to park your car legally along the side of Likelike Hwy.  Someone would have to drop and come back for you.

As for the Bowman to the Likelike Tunnels via the Kalihi Saddle?  It's hands down the most messed up ridge I've ever hiked.  Never again.  I seriously urge against attempting this.  The ropes do NOT have good stable anchors at all!  And if a group does attempt it, if you find a black Panasonic Lumix ZS7 somewhere on the ridge between the 1st Triangle and the nub next to Witch's Hat, that would be amazing!

What about the Lanihuli side of Kalihi Saddle?  That looks even worse...

7-11-2011: Kalihi Saddle to Bowman Scout Hike Photos:

7-15-2011: Kahuauli to Kalihi Saddle Descent Photos:
Since I've lost my still photos when my camera went missing, I had to make due with snap shots from videos.