On April 1, Georgia born Chase Norton completed an amazing feat of fortitude, strength, and bravery. Norton became the first person to hike the entire length of the Koolau Mountain Range on a single try. His journey began on March 25 as he embarked from Pupukea and ended on, of most days, April 1 when he descended the Makapuu end of the Koolau mountains. It often takes people months, years, or even decades to complete what Norton did. Impressively, he was able to do it in seven days with minimal gear.
The announcement of Norton’s accomplishment was first announced by Nate Yuen on the popular Facebook group, Oahu Weekend Hikers. Immediately, the Hawaii hiking community cheered on Norton’s efforts. Jay Feldman, president of the Hawaii Trail & Mountain Club, exclaimed “Congratulations!! That’s an amazing and intrepid feat.”
In 1979, Hawaii hiking pioneer Silver Piliwale attempted the same trail. The then 78 year old Piliwale stopped short of completing the entire KST when he exited Moanalua Valley on the 5th day of his trek. Thirty-three years later, Norton was able to complete what the agile Piliwale could not. Norton was nice enough to allow me to share his experience in his own words.
Below is Part 1 (Chapters 1-3) of Chase Norton’s personal report posted with his permission.
Chapter 1: The Motivation
It all began in 2009 while in a pub with a discussion I was having with a good friend and hiking buddy, Chappy. I wanted to do more backpacking around Oahu, both for the experience and to make use of all the new gear I had recently purchased from REI. After a couple of beers the talked turned to an argument about hiking the entire Koolau summit in a single trip. I was ignorant, reckless and far too confident in my hiking abilities but was adamant it could be done. Of course, this was before I had ever hiked on Oahu. He rightfully laughed at my desires and let me know that even in sections it could not be completed let alone in a full backpacking trip.
This was the time the seed was planted especially for the section hiking of the Koolau summit. As I was doing some of those northern portions or the saddles the motivation transitioned from proving a friend wrong to my own desire to find and push my limits. From that day forward both consciously and unconsciously I began making the necessary changes in myself to prepare and execute a thru hike of the Koolau summit. I hiked more and started to learn and understand the mountains on Oahu. Through these hikes I would meet other hikers who seemed to share the same opinions as Chappy, which simply furthered my desire to take on the impossible. We all want to make our mark in this world.
From that initial argument, I started with the southern portions from Makapuu to Konahuanui. Actually, it took over a year to hike those sections. Some sections I would repeat until I knew them very well. Still, I am not sure why it took so long and now that I’ve done it all in one day, it is even more comical. Regardless, it took me a year to section hike it.
After the southern portion, I turned my focus to the saddles. These were the sections most people argued were undoable. For a long time I was working on the Pali Notches but continually failed in my attempts. I went up many times, perhaps six or seven attempts, but always got stuck at the nub and/or chimney. Then I got distracted by the Piliwale ridge and making route on that ridge. Honestly, after some time I had begun to just let the whole dream go. I guess this is where the drive to prove a friend wrong started to diminish and I started to consider the entire section hike undoable. It wasn’t until I was camping at a bluegrass festival in the Botanical Gardens in Kaneohe that I started to look at the saddles in profile and the gears started turning in my head.
One fateful day, I called up a good friend, Matthew, to see if he would join me up Lanihuli and descend down the Kalihi saddle. If that didn’t look good then we could descend down to the Pali. I don’t think he knew what he was getting himself into, but he agreed. The following Sunday we headed up and after some time scouting we agreed to attempt bottom up approach from the Pali as soon as we could get the time.
The following weekend Matt and I decided to first attempt the Notches on Saturday. After all those months of failure, we were able to complete and get past all the obstacles I had previously failed to conquer. Having someone else there to discuss a problem with, share in the fear and the reward, can sometimes change what might seem impossible. The next day Matt had contacted a friend, Duc, and his hiking friends Rasta and Laredo…people who I have now come to both call friends and highly respect. We asked them to join us for a Pali to Lanihuli attempt. Long story short, we made it up and I got to see what hiking with a solid team was really like much different than most of my solo missions.
With the Pali saddle completed in one weekend, the passion of a full section hike was reignited, but now had become a personal obsession void of any outside influences. I still did not know what the northern sections were like or the two other saddles, but soon I would find out.
One afternoon I received a phone call asking if I wanted to join a Waiahole Uka to Waikane hike. I mention this because this was my first northern section hiking and my first time meeting Pat. This section was completed but not without the ridiculousness that is Pat’s memory and summit hiking knowledge. I remember at one point in the hike he stopped us and said, “Wait, right here 10 years ago we put a….yes…yes there is the stake we put down to mark this contour.” Now, this was in 7ft high Uluhe …in what feels like the middle of nowhere. The information he has shared with me is pivotal to my ability making through these mountains. This specific hike opened my eyes to the overgrown and contouring KST proper. If I wasn’t already, now I was truly hooked.
As the following months and years went by, it was clear that I had caught the summit fever. I went back up for multiple overnighters, traversing sections I had never been on or repeating sections to understand them better. It is my opinion that one can never truly experience the summit of the Koolau Mountains until you have backpacked it. What occurred up there at night taught me more than any day hike I’ve ever done. The struggle of fighting the night wind, rain, lack of good sleeping spot, isolation, finding water, falling in mud all taught me respect and humbled me of my fragility when exposed to these elements. For every additional ounce of pain and misery felt, the mental rewards and growth got bigger until it was common for me to be anticipating the horrible night sleep with a smile on my face.
After years of hiking and backpacking, my completion of the Kalihi saddle meant I could consider the entire summit hiked sectionally. Looking back on what I had learned and where I had hiked, I knew a full traverse was in the cards but the planning and preparation for it would not come easy.
Chapter 2: Preparation
My desires to backpack the entire summit of the Koolau Mountains could be manifested in a variety of ways. I decided early on that I did not want stash food and water and attempting to make the entire trip fully self-contained. This would mean collecting water only from natural sources only the trail and carrying 9 days of food from day 1. In order to make this possible I had to: 1) Learn all of my water sources along the trail and my water consumption needs; 2) Learn to reduce my pack weight and bulk to allow for the food; 3) Learn how to make meals that required little water and little bulk that provided enough calories to keep me going.
Conversion of a typical backpacker to an ultra light weight backpacker
When I first began backpacking in 2008, I went out and purchased every bit of conceivable gear one could think of for a trip. Solar powered battery chargers, collapsible sinks, and a stainless steel trowel are just some of the many absurdities. I was going into the wild right? I needed every comfort of home to come with me, right? It did not matter the weight of my pack. What mattered was my comfort at the campsite. Over the course of next 4 years, I would learn just how wrong I was in my assumptions.
There are really two types of backpackers: hikers and campers. I was the 65 lb pack heavy camper type that hated every step on the trail and thought every minute at the site would be heaven. Lucky for me, my friend Chappy subscribed to a strange theory of lightweight packing or minimalist packing. While his pack would be considered heavy by my current standards, it was significantly lighter than anything I could dream up at the time. So, small jokes came here and there from him on my gear and slowly I started to listen to some of the comments. I started to search out ways to lighten everything I was carrying. Fortunately I found the forum Backpacking Light, a community of people that embody the spirit of ultra light backpacking.
First, I dropped the unnecessary items mentioned above. But this was not enough. My pack was still heavy and it seemed all I was dropping was comfort at camp. So I dug more and read more. I allowed it to become an obsession and strived to figure out how these guys go out on multiple night trips with a sub 10 lb pack. I went through 8 different packs, 3 different shelter setups, 4 different sleep systems and many many different small items. I care to not comment on the amount of money wasted, but the knowledge I gained during the process is invaluable. I would focus on one piece of gear, say my shelter. I would research for months over forums for the perfect shelter that would withstand the elements experienced on the summit. Finally, I would pull the trigger, make the purchase, wait by the mail, and then test the item up on the summit until I understood it fully. Often, the item did not meet my needs or did not perform on the summit well. So I would eventually sell the item for discounted price and start again. This process, while tiring, led me to gear that I not only understand completely but I can proudly and loudly state WHY I am using that exact shelter or that exact pack. I can tell you why it works for my conditions and importantly I can rely and trust my gear on a level very few can. This carried the pursuit down to even understanding the fabric used for gear and now I own a sewing machine to make the modifications I need to allow the gear to perform at its best or make my own (MYOG) when there is no gear made which meets my needs.
The transition from a 65 lb pack to 7.8 lb pack carried across the summit had to also occur in my head. It consisted of two main changes. First, I had to learn to embrace the outdoors as much as I embraced being outdoors. To understand that just because I am muddy and dirty does not mean I need a shower or to clean myself. We are all too coddled as it is with showers, soap and the common desire to wear a new clean set of clothes. I learned to embrace sleeping on the ground and getting as close as possible to nature. When I say sleeping on the ground I mean exactly that, not in a tent separated from nature but a part of it. Waking up with ants on you and your stuff was once unthinkable, but now I just smile and get out of bed. This mental toughening was vital to my transition. Be proud of your stink! Be proud of your muddy clothes! It’s ok, and it’s not going to hurt you. This is important as I went to a tarp setup, dropped all extra clothes, and left the soap at home.
Second is the acceptance that less is more when at camp. Why do I go into the woods? To bring all the comforts of home? Doubtful, otherwise I would just stay home. I laid all my gear out and looked at each piece asking myself what I could go without. Then I would go out on a trip without the items and see how things went. Guess what? The trip went better than before! I was not dragged down on the trail but also at camp things were orderly, neat and extremely simple. I had to learn to embrace those nights without the electronics and distractions and learn to allow myself to accept silence. Slowly, I started to see this crossing over into my normal life. I began to throw out all unnecessary items in my home until I am now left with 1 plate, 1 glass, 1 towel, 1 of everything that I need and nothing else. This is something I came to be proud of as I am the same person on the trail as I am in normal life.
Water is often the heaviest thing in your pack at 2.2 lbs /liter, but it is also one of the most essential items. This created a clear problem for reducing my pack weight. So about three years ago I started to push the limits of dehydration on my body beginning with relatively safe steps. First, I removed that camelback straw! How could I monitor my consumption and control my urges when I have a straw right next to my mouth connected to a water reservoir I could not see! Not to mention the fact that those things are awkward, heavy and hard to clean. Next, I would redo a hike and bring 1L less water. Taking note of exactly how much I drank on each and every trip. When did I feel the urge to chug and when was I just flying through the trail without thoughts of water? What were the differences in conditions between those moments? I learned to identify the effects of dehydration on my body and mind. I slow down, I rest more often, I get out of breathe more easily, I hallucinate, but I learned how to keep hiking under these conditions throughout the years.
I began to look at every day hike as a new time to test myself and discover new limits. After 2 years of pushing myself on day hikes, I began to test these limits on backpacking trips and was able to complete the Pupukea to Waikane section on ~3.5Ls over three days. I learned that often I wake up in the middle of the night dying of thirst but while around the camp at night I was fine. This taught me to limit my water consumption while awake at camp because I would need that water for my nightly chugs. I learned that it is best to allow my breathing to return to normal before I begin to drink water or else I would drink too much. I had to know how much water would get me a certain distance in specific terrain in order to plan my water consumption on a trip. I had to know how long my body could go without water and how to properly ration so I could continue to hike at a speed that will get me to the end.
Meals were a hard choice because water must be considered. Often, people think that those freeze-dried, expensive, and over-salted mountain house meals are best. If you ask any long distance backpacker for a list of their foods I promise you there will be zero store bought freeze dried meals. I have an added dislike because of the ridiculous amount of water required for each meal. So I went to the grocery store and just walked around for a couple of hours looking at the calorie to weight ratio with emphasis on simplicity and a requirement for little or no water needed. For my needs, lunch needs to be made in a few minutes or less – and dinner in under 10 minutes. I had to learn that the main function of food is as fuel, not as an enjoyment on the trail. If it can provide enjoyment then that is a plus, but the main concern is to provide my body with the needed fuel to continue moving. I would buy the ingredients for a backpacking meal I’d thought of and go home and test it out with the exact gear I was going to use on the trail. I would repeat this and see how many nights it took till mentally I did not want that meal anymore and make note of it. I began to look at the ingredients of those overpriced mountain houses and realized that with very little effort I could make my own and it would require significantly less water and could be modified for my own tastes. I have learned that without much trouble I can eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 12 days without really minding. The secret is to provide very little but intense changes every so often (i.e., a chinese hot mustard packet one day and sweet and sour the next).
Chapter 3: Gear
Note: Norton put together an extensive gear list of every item that accompanied him on his journey. Below you will find a link to a document containing his full inventory. Below that you will find descriptions of each of these items.
Pack fabric is 210D double wall ripstop nylon. I’ve found this to be just satisfactory for the summit conditions. Small holes were in it by the end. Pocket for a pad that provides frame support and removable frame stays. Removed all outside mesh pockets. No form of mesh pockets can last on the summit and by the end of the trip I always had lost some gear from holes. Removed all straps and the upper tie cord and replaced with lighter weight versions. Removed the pad pocket on the inside and all compression straps. Removed the tags. Added a hip pocket for day snacks.
Trash Compactor Liner
Bought at most any locations. A pack cover will never keep out all the rain and if relied on solely could have very bad outcomes. Also, the summit will rip and grab at your pack cover continuously. I still do not know why people use these. In addition, they are often extremely heavy at 4-8ozs. A 2mil trash compactor liner at 2.2oz is the standard method for any UL long distance backpacker and will keep all your gear inside dry no matter the intensity of the rain or overgrowth. Most all are long enough to tie it off at the top and tuck it into your pack for added waterproofing. Try to go with the unscented versions but are hard to find.
With the removal of all outside pockets I had a concern of water bottle locations. This was solved by a front chest pack made by Zpacks that incorporates the idea of proper weight distribution/balance with the ease of access to essential day items. This fits 2 1L Gatorade bottles and 1 other small item. That would put ~4.4lbs of weight on my chest to balance out the weight on my back. This is a beloved item. It detaches from my pack and becomes a waist pack that allows me to drop down and collect water without the weight of my heavier pack. It resisted damage from extreme overgrowth abuse and only showed small holes by the end.
I have gone through many different shelter setups and this one has taken the most to learn how to use correctly. However, now that I understand its proper use it has become my absolute favorite shelter setup and I can rely on it to withstand the extreme winds and rains of the summit. At 4.805oz, it is made from a fabric new to the backpacking community called cuben fiber. I love that it does not sag when wet like silnylon.
Man oh man have stakes been the bane of my existence. I went through a 6-month period of testing different stakes and many nights of waking up to my shelter flying around in the wind. The soil up on the summit is soft and typical stakes will not hold. Period. To worsen the issue, the wind will put extreme pressure on stakes and if not built well or with good material will bend or break. It would be ideal to just tie the guy lines off to rocks or trees, but such luxuries are not in abundance on the summit. After all the tests, these stakes were the best for the weight. I found snow stakes worked well but were way too heavy to be justified. In the time I’ve used the groundhogs I’ve never had one be pulled out or bent. These allowed me to get a good night of sleep without having to worry about waking up to restake a tarp/tent flapping around in the wind.
When working with tarps/tents and high winds, I like my guylines to be as taut as possible. This involves either repositioning my stakes after the initial placement or to use linelocs and adjust the tautness as needed. I opted for the linelocs because often space is limited on the summit and I did not have the option of placing the stakes in the best location for tautness. It took me a while to learn how to properly use them but now I would not leave home without ’em.
This is a material I swear by for my groundsheet. Lightweight but importantly it is durable and stiff enough to create â€œthe bathtub effectâ€ to keep rain spray off my gear.
Borah Custom Bivy
I love tarps now and often on short backpacking trips would not bring a bivy. However, due to the length of the trip I opted for it. It was custom made for my sleeping pad and body. The bottom is silnylon and the top is M50 with a 0.7 face cover and side zip. I added a pocket on the inside for my iPhone and tie outs on key location. I think I will change the bottom to cuben fiber in the future and add reinforcements to the tie outs.
Black Diamond Distance FL Pole
A trekking pole holds up my tarp so one is required. I played around with many different options and finally decided on this one. Trekking poles have to have the flip lock mechanism. The twist lock types do not hold and have always resulted with me waking up to a tarp on my face. The ability to fold into three pieces and fit in my pack is also huge. I loved using it from Pupukea to Red Hill, but over the saddles I like to have both hands to climb and do not want the pole in the way. There were some options 3-4oz lighter, but did not fold and were not adjustable in height.
This cottage company has since gone out of business, but only because the owner got burned out. The products were top notch and unrivaled by competitors in terms of weight and durability. A pillow is a luxury right? An ULer would argue it is one. I would too. So call this a luxury item at 2.370oz, but I have found that I sleep better with it then on the nights I packed my rain gear up on my shoes and slept on that. On small trips, I would leave it at home, but over 8 days I knew I would need good sleep. To make it feel even better I would put it in my sleep system stuff sack before blowing it up. I suggest trying the shoe/rain gear method first though as many find it satisfactory.
A great pad perfect for my needs. Thermarest has since come out with a xlite that I would opt for when this pad begins to fail as the xlite is only 8oz and has horizontal baffles. For my environment it works, but the KB pad has a very small R value so anywhere with a cold ground should reconsider.
This is the only item in my entire pack that I made right on my first purchase and man am I glad (these cost in the mid 300s and up). At 19oz, 3in of loft and 14oz of down I am kept warm no matter what the summit weather is like. I have the left zip to allow me to open it when the conditions are warmer than expected. It is the mummy bag for those colder conditions. The versatility of this item has allowed me to take it from summit of Mauna Loa to the beaches of Malaekahana. Love this bag. If you know how to treat gear, I would always suggest down bags.
But you HAVE to have a knife on a backpacking trip right? Why? Ask yourself what are you cutting? Honestly, a razor blade is not even needed because there is nothing I am cutting. I bring one for that random sauce packet that might need cutting but mainly for first aid.
Don’t want your razor blade cutting your other gear
The holy grail of cooking setups. Can use wood, alcohol or esbit! A cottage company that builds a piece of Ti into the windscreen that also supports your pot makes it. The design and execution of the product is spot on. Each cone is designed for a specific pot so you have to specify at the time of ordering.
Come with the Ti-Tri and is the simplest stove imaginable. Three small pieces of Ti that connect to form a platform for the tablet.
Oh the esbit. On my first attempt I used HEET and wood as fuel in my Ti-Tri. I found I could never get the exact amount of HEET down for each meal and wood was frustratingly wet. I read about guys who swear by hexamine/esbit because one tablet is 0.5oz and can give an entire’s day of cooking. I went with 9 (9 days) tablets this trip and honestly it was the best experience Ive ever had with cooking on the summit. If you are going solo this is great. Do some testing if you are going with more than one person.
The solo backpacker needs nothing more than 550ml pot so 600ml is overkill right? I have two 600ml set ups. One is a wide short pot (the evernew) and one is a skinny tall pot (Snowpeak). I found I enjoy cooking on a wider pot as it distributes the heat better. Personal preference as many swear by the 600ml Snowpeak mug as their pot. The beauty of the evernew is my entire cooking system fits into it including fuel. Simplicity at its best.
Really a spork is unneeded because rarely do backpackers need the fork aspect but it is what I bought. I went through a couple of sporks until I realized this point. Decided on this item because it folds into my pot making everything neat and simple. It does have the tendency to unfold when in use so that is a negative.
I love the ability to purify 36L of water with items weighing only 0.81oz. With each tablet cleaning 1L of water, it allowed me to plan out my water needs very precisely. I liked that a lot. The 4 hour waiting period was annoying and at times dangerous. I have a Steripen but wanted to save the extra 3oz to allow for another item. Now, I would go with the Steripen/tablet backup. It would have been very nice to drop down to a water source, fill up my 1L bottle, Steripen it, chug, repeat until super hydrated, and then fill up and use the tablet. This would have eliminated many of my least enjoyed moments. Lived and learned. With all that said I drank from a variety of odd places using the tablets and never had any real stomach problems so the tabs were doing their job well.
My long term water storage. It is how I could go multiple days without a water source. It meant adding ~6.6lbs when full but you do what you gotta do.
1L Gatorade Bottles
Simple, lightweight, widemouth and fit neatly into my front pack.
I have to say these pants went through two attempts at the full traverse and performed amazingly. I lived in these pants and would never buy anything else. The material is tough and even when torn does not just fall apart. Hands down a favorite item
A great lightweight item that kept my arms from getting torn up by the overgrowth. The downside is it holds odors and can get very smelly compared to merino wool. Also, when the sun is baking you but the overgrowth is bad it makes for very hot periods of time.
Gloves are a must for most trails here. I loved the day I realized this and soon I was not fighting the veg but using it to my advantage.
Forget those Smartwool heavy and horribly made socks. They normally fall apart after 500 miles of use and are the reason for blisters and fungus foot. Injinji socks became popular from the craze of five fingers but I enjoy them for their toe separation and lightweight aspects. 1 pair got me through the worst the summit can offer and gave zero blisters or hot spots. Also quick drying and easy to air out.
Dirty Girl Gaiters
Do not work on the summit. These are praised by ULers everywhere with a cult following. Everything about these failed for me on the summit and will not be using again.
Innov8 X-Talon 212
Innov8 is an interesting shoe company. They started appearing within my circle about 3 years ago though have been around for much longer. They focus on extremely lightweight outdoor shoes for high performance. The X-Talon 212 (212 grams) are a hybrid of cleats and hiking shoe. They are used by ULers around the world with many swearing 1000+miles on them. I hate Microspikes. hate hate hate them. They destroy our islands vegetation, make you rely on a piece of gear in a situation it is not designed for, often break and are ridiculously heavy. What people should be doing is searching for proper footwear. The X-Talons are my answer to a Microspikeless trip. The secret to them is removing the included liner and replacing with a sport hiking insole and comfort will be had for the entire trip.
I can not say enough good things about this piece of clothing and comes with me even on car camping trips. The wide brim hat provides protection from the sun, wind and most importantly during heavy rain I can still hike without any problem. Also, I find during windy rainy conditions, a bandana on my head and then the hat on top keeps a significant amount of warmth in.
Cut the weight and reduce the bandana down to only what you need. This is multi-use item. Keeps warmth on my head. Reduces sweat in my eyes. I filter the big floaties out of my water through it. It is my camp rag. I wipe condensation down from the tarp with it. Truly a beloved simple item.
Let’s face, who wants to admit to wearing the same boxers for 8 days straight. I went through a long period of searching for the perfect boxer to handle this task. Briefs, boxer, boxer briefs, commando in the ultimate goal of reducing chaffing. These were praised by other backpackers and so I gave them a try. Hands down, the most amazing piece of under garment I have and probably will ever own. A morning and evening liberal dose of gold bond and no chaffing was had for either of the attempts.
An amazing device. I removed the strap and just attached it to my wide brim hat for even less weight. Too often these days people are bringing headlamps designed for long night hikes when they are really just using the light for the 30 minutes or so of darkness before bed. Why? I know after this trip that given my conditions I could have gone without the petzl. Ask yourself why you need light and plan accordingly.
Both devices are around the 4-5oz mark and are definitely my ultra luxury items. These items are never brought on short trips. On longer trips, I find it nice to communicate with a ground/support crew and get some good reading in during the dusk hours.
Continue Reading Part 2 of Norton’s Koolau Summit 8 Day Thru Hike….
Warning and Disclaimer: This trip has been put together from years of solo backpacking trips on the summit of the Koolau Mountains. I do not encourage anyone to repeat this hike as the dangers and risk level are very high. I am providing a very detailed account of my trip, but do not take it as a guide. Information on water locations, cabins, weather and trail conditions can all change in the blink of an eye. The gear list provided is what I have learned to work for me in the environment I enjoy backpacking in. As you will read, it has taken me years to learn how to get to a sub 10lb pack while maintain comfort, functionally and safety. This list represents a philosophy and mindset that one must understand in order to best use this gear. Also, most all the gear listed has been modified after purchase or been custom built for my needs. You must have a complete understanding of the hiking environment and conditions for which your gear will be used in. All times and miles are approximate and can vary wildly depending on conditions and skill level.