This is Part 4 of Chase Norton’s Koolau Summit 8 Day Thru Hike Personal Recap, posted with his permission. Please be sure to read the warning at the bottom of this post before attempting such a hike. This 8 day journey is the result of years of preparation. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 can be found here.
Day 6 (03/30/12)
N. Haiku-Wilson Tunnel Building
Total Pack Weight: 24.6125 lb.
This begins the saddles. There were a couple of eroded sections in the beginning. Three I think. Then the eroded dike. The ridge isn’t too narrow here but you always slip at the second section. Take your time and tie off if needed. Reach the eroded dike(contour leeward) Gain ridge and reach trail junction. Descend 30 minutes to collect water. Refill all containers. Regain trail and immediately it turns back to serious mode. Three problems face you. Remember contour left when you don’t think to and contour right to use the root to climb. Remember to not go too far right and never to climb without veg unless on root. Use two ropes (1 in each hand) to get past the third problem. Soon you will see the pre-Stairs stairs. Climb up to the radar structure. Time depending, go inside for a snack and short break. You have about 1 1/2 hr along the summit ridge until the camp spot. Continue along the summit towards bowman. Reach Bowman terminus and snack. You will not have many more chances until the power lines. Reach eroded dike and drop leeward to contour. Reach 2nd Triangle and descend using rope slightly leeward. Similar with the next triangle. Lower yourself past the witch’s hat and then windward contour when needed. Reach power lines. Descend power line trail to camp spot at power line pole.
- S. Haiku-Halawa 45min
- Halawa-Godek 30min
- Godek – 1st Saddle 15min
- 1st Saddle – Southern Haiku stair terminus 3hr 30-4hr
- S.Haiku – Bowman Terminus 2hr-2hr 30min
- Bowman Terminus – Power Line trail 2hr 30 min
Camp near pole
Bail Halawa, Godek, State trail, Haiku Stairs, Tripler, Middle, Bowman… tempting?;-)
On this day last attempt I had fallen off the saddle and cracked my head causing an abrupt end to my plans. This was in my head all day and hard to shake.
Is it morning yet!!?!? After the worst night of sleep on this trip, at the first sign of dawn I jumped out of my cocoon and checked to make sure everything was still in good enough condition before packing it all up. This was the first morning I’ve woken in socked in conditions and slight rain so I was a little happy with myself being in the shack. I decided to wait and see if the clouds would clear so pulled out my cooking system and made some hot coffee and toasted my flatten bagel with Nutella.
After about 45 minutes the clouds lifted and the saddle began to show itself in full profile. Taking this as a sign, I grabbed my belongings and began walking along the extremely rusty stairs. Every time I am here I cannot get over the obvious impact exposure to the elements has on metal. If the stairs have a bush blocking it, then they have an almost brand new look but a few inches past the bush the metal resembles a creepy rusty dagger ready to impale you.
Passed Halawa and Red hill fairly quickly and was moving with the same sort of speed that had carried me through the previous days. There looks to be good camping at Halawa right before the summit for one small shelter setup. Might consider that if ever near this section and don’t want to sleep in the shack nor descend the saddle.
Began the descent down to the state trail at the middle of the saddle around 9:15 am. Personally, I enjoy this descent compared to other saddle descents. There are two or three eroded areas but the words of my mother the night before to take it slow and I would get through it safely rang through my head often during the following days. It is only at one section where I have to lower myself down an eroded spot and a tree is there for hand holds but no matter what I do I always end up having to let go of the tree and fall a foot or so which causes me to slide down the crap rock and catch myself in the vegetation. Always. Every trip. I considered using my guy line cord to lower myself but knew I would need it for other parts on the Kalihi saddle. So sliding I went and everything went smoothly. Reached the eroded dike and dropped down then contour leeward to get past it. After the dike it is basically smooth sailing to the flat area that marks the trail terminus. Reached it at 10 am and dropped my gear and put my front pack around my waist to descend down to the stream to collect water. Man, going from summit conditions to state trail is a little overwhelming at first and I proceeded to run down the trail. Reached the stream within 10 minutes and smacked my forehead as I saw all the beautiful camping spots that lay around the stream. Next time, next time! I was tempted to take a quick bath but just threw some water on my face, filled up all my water containers and proceeded to run back up the trail ready to get past the obstacle that put me out last trip.
I reached the trail terminus at 10:30 am and got ready to tackle the three challenges of the Moanalua saddle to Haiku. Weather was perfect for this attempt and just told myself take it slow and I knew how to do this. First challenge is just rock climbing with a windward contour and was handled with ease. The second challenge, my previous downfall, is to leeward contour but only slightly. Too far and one will begin to ascend with very little vegetation and will likely slip at some point. With this in mind I slight contoured and began to climb the obvious vegetation. This area really could do with a rope if people are actually doing this section as often as seems to be indicated. Had to climb using trees and vegetation until the root needed to gain the ridge appeared and then shifted right until I could reach it. No problems this time and was sitting upon the ridge with smiles on my face.
Honestly, throughout this entire trip, that was the most fear I will encounter because of the mental block caused by my old mistake. There is a little voice inside my head that knows when something does not feel right and in November I ignored that voice with the thought that “If I can just reach that spot right there.” This trip I strongly feel was successful because probably 6-7 times that voice began yelling at me and this time I listened, stopped and reattempted the problem from a different angle. It sounds like common sense but sometimes when all you need to do is get to a spot 2 feet away, it can be easy to quiet that voice and think it is just 2 feet away!!! One of many hard lessons I’ve had to come to learn on the trail.
The third challenge would be more difficult than it was if numerous ropes were not set up. Using one in each hand I got past the third problem with no real fuss and continued on up to the summit. With the main problems of that done I knew the first saddle was behind me which meant I would be going further than I had ever gone before and I was ecstatic!
I reached the Haiku Summit by 11:30am and scarfed down lunch with full intent to cross over to tripler and set up camp. Then who comes running up the stairs but the haiku troll himself! I had seen no one since Sunday and was really happy to see and chat with him. He offered to cross over to tripler with me and of course I let him. We made great time and I loved being able shake the nerves off with some good laughs and stories shared with him. We arrived at Tripler terminus where I had planned on stopping for the day but it just did not feel right. It was only noon and I imagined a repeat of the previous night. So we moved on and crossed over to Bowman. This is when I started to contemplate descending the Bowman side of the Kalihi saddle that day. By the time we reached Bowman I was trying to talk the troll into descending the saddle with me but unfortunately for me a group of 4 wahines passed us on the way to tripler and I knew where his priorities lay. At Bowman it was only 12:20 pm and I knew camp was not going to happen so I said my good byes and pressed on to descend the saddle with hopes of reaching the power line trail. I look back on it all and doubt I would have descended to the power lines that day if it wasn’t for running into him. The ability to laugh and share stories does amazing things for the morale and put me in the right mood. I am very thankful for that encounter.
I began the descent and it is like most of these saddles where first you have to reach a smaller peak before the actual descent begins. The thing about this descent is the problems really do not stop until you reach the middle. There are three main challenges that require use of ropes and sometimes dropping almost a hundred feet just to contour correctly. But even beyond the main challenges, the minor challenges are more difficult than any other major challenges on the other saddles in my opinion. It takes putting my mind in a certain state of pure focus and movement. Fear and nerves were the fuel to push me, but it has taken a long time to learn to use fear as a fuel and not lock up. It also becomes important to learn to focus on only the problem in front of me. If I would begin to try and figure out how much further to the power lines it became overwhelming and my mind would lose focus. At times I look back and realize I have very little memory of these dangerous sections compared to other sections. I think my mind handles the one problem in front of me and when I make it past, my mind removes that entire thought and begins working on the new problem. Adding to the complexity, the rock on this section is some of the worst I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. Nothing is sturdy. As I told a friend in the past, the Kalihi saddle is a section of the summit that anyone could go across and die. You could take the most inexperienced hikers up and lead them through it and maybe they would make it, but then the world’s best hiker goes up there the next day and touches a rock the wrong way and falls to his/her death. It really is a game of Russian roulette. I never suggest anyone do this saddle as someone will get hurt very badly at some point. I had a moment while descending one of the triangles that my footing gave way and I was left dangling by a rope attached to a tree that wiggles when you touch it.
Slowly, ever so slowly I made my way down the ropes, down the rock faces and around the eroded sections until that glorious windward contour that let me know I am very close to the end. I did a little “I am alive dance” at 2:45pm.
1 1/2 saddles completed in 4 hours does a number on one’s heart and nerves. I dropped shortly down to a leeward sheltered area and was able to calm myself back to normal levels before picking up and descending. Down I went via the power line trail about 500 vertical feet to a really nice flat spot next to the old wilson tunnel building and a power line pole. I immediately called certain people and let them know I was alive and had made it to the middle of the Kalihi saddle. Then I did some quick calculations and realized that it would be very wise for me to find the Kalihi stream if I wanted to make it from Konahuanui to Makapuu without a water stop.
First, I set up camp and did all my typical evening chores that had become almost robotic now. Then I grabbed my water gear and went exploring for the Kalihi stream. First couple of stream beds I found were bone dry and I began to get a tad worried. I gave a call to Rasta to see if he had ever run into water. He seemed quite sure that the stream always had water in it and if I went down the road and cut off onto a trail I would find it. He cautioned to not get lost. So off I went down the road and then I found a trail leading off to the left and took it. Some really nice camp spots throughout this trail but ignored them as water was my mission. Walked over some pipes that were dry and continued deeper into the woods. I went probably 40 minutes in and had ventured onto a few trails that led nowhere until I finally accepted no water was to be found. It was almost 5pm by the point and did not want to be wandering around in the dark. So I started to head back until I realized that things did not look right and I was beginning to bushwhack when I never had to coming in. Before I knew it, I was lost. So immediately I got my phone out and took a GPS reading and took note of where the road was and got my compass bearing. Over time, I have gotten lost quite a few times but I have learned how to stay calm and what I need to do to get myself out safely. Normally, it begins with a gut feeling of something being off. After two times of that feeling I begin to take it seriously and go to my compass and then go to my GPS as a last resort. From my readings I knew where I needed to go but could not find the trail to get me there and bushwhacking was becoming problematic without anything but my phone and water gear. Then after some time trying to find my way home I heard the glorious sound of water trickling! Laughing to myself I walked over to a flowing stream.
So it takes me getting myself lost to find water, great. As I told myself, now I have water but am still lost. I briefly washed up and continued down the stream thinking that it would eventually lead me to the road. As I went through a concrete tunnel and vegetation began to block the way I turned left out of the stream and ran right into the road leading to the old wilson tunnel building! Success! Found water and found my way home!
I walked back up to my camp site and sat down extremely pleased with myself for that day’s work. Night was coming and from where my camp was I had a great profile view of my challenge for the next day, the ascent of Lanihuli from the saddle. I made myself dinner and sent out emails as the sun set. At this elevation the temperature was much warmer so I did not need to jump in the sleeping bag as early. I sat out and read under the moon light deep into the night. At some point the lights at the Wilson building turned on which kind of creeped me out but I let it disappear from my thoughts as I got into bed and let sleep over take me.
Day 7 (03/31/12)
Power lines to K1
Total Pack Weight: 22.6125 lb.
Civilization? Today we get to visit the Pali Lookout. The issues do not end until summiting Lanihuli. The next section contains the sharks fin, bunny ears (up and down), doorstop (ascend, lower), pimple (lee contour), can opener (windward contour). Summit Lanihuli and have lunch. The initial descent will feel like any portion. From memory you will need to descend and contour leeward until you reach the base of the dirt rock. Use cable to climb the dirt rock. Cross over narrow ridge then climb a baby tooth. Contour leeward and gain elevation. Continue until you reach more teeth. Look right and descend to the contour of hell. Gain ridge, continue, descend contour around 100 ft face. Descend old Pali road and then turn left to hit the road. Walk down road until reach the hairpin turn and fill water containers. Return to the notches the same way. To the notches(1,descend,ascend,2,use rope to descend on the right) and past the nub(lee contour), up the chimney (Use both ropes) and onward to Konahuanui. Continue on to the Konahuanui trailhead and camp at summit.
Bail Power line, Lanihuli, Pali Lookout
Ready for the most challenging day of your life Chase? Wake up! Got out of bed around 6:45 am and did all my usual morning chores. I was excited because by the end of the day I would either be done with the most challenging aspects of my trip or I would be severely injured and the trip would be over. Today was the day this had all built up to for me and I felt more ready than ever!
I packed up, said good bye to my camp spot and headed up the power line trail to reach the summit by 8 am. The wind was blowing strong but weather overall seemed perfect for today with complete visibility to the summit so off I went. This side of the saddle is a tad better in my opinion than the other side. But after talking to some who have done this saddle I think I feel that way because I enjoy ascending crap rock rather than descending it. Also, it does not feel like every moment is a new challenge. First couple of challenges are up and overs with rope on some section. At one point the option is provided to contour the doorstop leeward or now with a rope affixed one can up and over it. Mistake number 2 occurred here when I contoured leeward. This contour was semi ok when wearing a day pack but with my current pack even as small as it was, I made very slow going through the dense leeward vegetation. With the additional weight and off balance the pack provides, when I tried to gain the ridge line I failed multiple times. First I tried past the pimple and had that inner voice yelling at me to retreat. Unable to find a safe ascent I backtracked to before the pimple but past the doorstop. There seemed to be an ascent possible using tree roots but the rock was crap and my pack made everything hellacious. Finally after about 6 failed attempts in total, I found the right balance of luck and roots to make it up without an incident. Had I been coming top down and had rope there was a nice tree to fix it to and would be a nice addition to this contour from hell.
Now I looked on to the pimple which requires a nasty leeward contour where balancing myself became a true challenge as the rock seemed to want to throw me off. I tried about 4 different times until I had to sit down and gather myself. The only time I ever thought about giving up was at this moment. Again, this is one of those, “if I could just get 2 feet over there!” moments but extreme caution was needed. I could not find a way to contour the pimple and going up and over was just not an option. Then I remembered I had my guy line for my tarp in my pocket and saw a small little root I could attach it to and possibly provide the extra balance needed. Slowly, I undid my guy line and connected it as a loop to go around the root and allow me to contour/swing to the spot I knew I needed to get to. I realized at that moment how much I took the ease of a day pack for granted as it felt like my pack and rock were working against me. Slowly, I made it around the pimple and with feet on somewhat solid ground I knew the worst was behind me. Contoured windward to connect up with the ropes of the can opener and climbing steadily to reach the top. Past the can opener are a couple eroded sections that needed me to cross on my butt with each leg on a different side of the ridge. Soon enough I started to find the signs of being near the summit with a couple of different ribbons and an old red rope now turned white. At 10:30 am I stood atop Lanihuli alive and dancing! Lunch was had and I joked with myself about camping there as it was the original plan, but began my descent down to the Pali lookout.
Almost immediately I could see in the distance the W and incisor and at each someone had put up new rope since my last trip across and I was smiling big. Dropped down leeward and contoured over to reach the rope attached to the anvil rock and what did I find?!? A new rope that was tied to a tree root instead of the dirt rock! Awesome! With all of these ropes I breezed through these parts that used to take forever and move on wards. Mentally, I was in the zone at this point and was feeling great! There is a leeward contour or one can take the teeth both of which I’ve done in the past and after the previous leeward contour hell I opted for the teeth as I decided nothing could be worse then contouring. I believe I made the correct choice. Worked through the teeth and before I knew it I was at the huge descent/contour one must make to get past the wall face at the puka. I quickly descended using the ropes and came out to the puka feeling like I was on top of the world. I could see very clearly the people at the Pali lookout and began to race down. As I approached people after 7 days out I became overwhelmed by smells of perfume and cigarettes so much so I almost had to sit down. I reached the Pali by 1:15 pm and laughed out loud to myself at my accomplishment of that day. I rested very briefly and made some phone calls to let friends and loved ones know I was safe and then knowing time was important, descended the old Pali road and walked down to the hairpin turn where I knew a water source to be. This was the only time I pulled out my iPhone and listened to some music to pass the time down to the stream and it put me into even better spirits. I reached the stream which was flowing strongly and filled up all my water containers and immediately headed back up to the lookout.
Now, I had two options. Find camp nearby or try and finish the saddles. This half saddle is one I have done many times in the past and one in which I really enjoy. Also, I knew that the sleep I would get that night would be made even better with the thoughts of all saddles pau and just K1 to Makapuu left. So off I went at 2:45 pm making the climb to the notches. The first notch was passed with no problem but coming upon the 2nd notch I noticed all rope had been removed. I had descended the 2nd notch once without rope but it ended with me jumping a good distance to the ground and I did not want to risk an injury this close to the finish line. So undeterred, I started to work with the rock to find a route down and either the previous saddles had taught me something or I’ve gotten better at climbing as the descent happened almost without thought and before I knew it I was down and heading to the nub. A contour around nub and then the climb up the chimney were done quickly. Someone has put new black webbing at the top of an annoying rock climb past the chimney and so I used it to help with a contour ascent.
The challenges fell fast and then as if my body knew the worst was behind me I hit a mental and physical wall of exhaustion. It felt like my body just let go of all the built up stress over the last 7 days. I had never felt so empty of everything inside me. I had run out of water around the last rock climb and still had 2 1/2 hrs until the hairpin water was deemed drinkable. It was around 3:30 pm at this point and I knew even if I went extremely slow I would make it to the summit before dark so the remainder of the ascent became 2 minutes of rest for every minute of hiking. Literally, 5 or 6 steps, rest, then repeat. That last climb up the steep mud with the tree you have to use for footing was by far the hardest thing I have had to do the entire trip. But I made it and dragged myself to the summit laying on top K1 at 4:45 pm.
It took about 30 minutes until I could move enough to call friends and family to let them know where I was and I was safe. Even talking was difficult. My mother later told me she has never heard me sound like that and it had worried her. I played with the idea of crossing over to K2 but my body quickly told me what I could do with that idea so the highest point on the summit of the Koolau mountains was my home for that night and I could not have been happier. I was exhausted, extremely dehydrated and starving but I was alive and had successfully crossed the saddles in 2 days.
As the day faded into night, clouds began to roll in and for the first time this entire trip I was setting up my shelter for possible rain that night. I welcomed the thought of it knowing tomorrow would be a very long and very dry day. I hoped to do the entire section the next day, but since I had pushed my body beyond its limits today I told myself to just go as far as I could.
I sent out a email to the ground crew, quickly ate dinner, chug the now drinkable water and climbed into bed for a great night of sleep. Throughout the night I awoke to the sound of rain coming down making me snuggle up more into my sleep bag with a big smile on my face. Life is good.
Day 8 (04/01/12)
Total Pack Weight: 18.6125 lb.
The standard trek. Its the cool down from the workout. Enjoy every moment and laugh the entire way. You have made it, but still take caution, now is not the time to injure yourself. If you do not have it in you to finish today there are many camp options. Mariners, Camp Awesome and Chaps to name a few. But you got this so push!
Bail A lot, don’t do it though
Pitter patter against the tarp woke me around 6:30 am and I decided to try and wait for it to pass before getting out of bed. Shortly, the rain ceased and I began what would turn out to be the last day of my journey.
Today I started with 3L of water to get me to Makapuu and what does idiot me do? Make 500ml of coffee to start the day! Really would have enjoyed that water later in the day. Mistake 3. At K1 there used to a pink ribbon blocking the descent of a side ridge. It is no longer there and in the fog of my morning mind and the excitement I made mistake 4 by descending down this ridge. At some point I realized the clouds were much darker around me than the ones to my left and a quick yell confirmed my suspicions that I was descending off the summit. Grumbling, I retraced my steps to my camp site and started off an hour late at 8:45 along the summit.
I crossed over to K2 and took a short break before heading to Olympus. I ran into a small group checking out the summit, said brief hellos, and continued onwards. Lanipo came up shortly after which I ran into a OWH group and chatted with a guy named Dan for some time as their group tried to find their way through the socked in summit to Wiliwilinui. When possible I side skirted them and continued onwards at a steady pace. Summited Wiliwilinui around noon and met a guy chilling on the bench. We sat silently and ate lunch together. He left shortly after I arrived and a grandfather/grandson summited. We talked briefly and I was excited to hear the young grandson so eager to hike and push himself. Really nice folks. I had to respectfully decline the food they were offering and stood up to depart around 12:30 pm. I was now down to 2 liters and understood that rationing was to be required. I allowed myself 3 gulps every hour which turned out to be too generous. The rest of the cross overs were made without much thought to time or really which summit I was passing. At some point past Kaau I realized I was going to have to make it the whole way or else I would be camping without any water. My head was down and my legs were pumping to get me home. Around Hawaii Loa I was down to 1L of water and by the time I reached Mariners I was empty. The section between Mariners to Makapuu while enjoyable hiking wise, was very difficult due to lack of water. It is not like I was well hydrated to begin with and by the time I was empty I was already very dehydrated. As the sun began to lower itself and the heat reduced some I was able to move a little faster but still my hiking was mainly, “Get up that and then I’ll lay down for 10 minutes” and repeat. I have done this section countless times and again knew if I took my time, rested when needed, I could make it to the lighthouse by nightfall. Just as the light was starting to fade away I tagged the lighthouse fence and quickly descended back down to make it to the road/look out right as complete darkness set in around 7:45.
I called Rasta for a possible pick up but he was unavailable so he called Duc and Thea who both happened to be coming to pick me up. I descended down to the Makapuu beach park water fountain for a well needed water chugging session. Silly, just a little knob and fresh clean ready-to-drink water in unlimited supply. With the last few percentages of my battery I let family know I was safe and let Duc know Thea was coming to pick me up. She showed up with what I believe to be my first lei and an amazing one at that! It had the power to mask all of my horrible smells! I enjoyed a great conversation with her on the ride back into civilization. She had driven me home on the attempt in November and we both agreed this drive felt much better:-)
Slowly, we pulled into my apartment building and with a hug and good byes I walked back into my old life, stronger and more confident in who I am and my abilities than a mere 8 days ago. My apartment may be in town but my home will always be in the mountains. A great friend summed this entire journey up well in an email afterwards, “I feel like you have completed a long journey that has covered years gradually building up your knowledge and abilities. Discovering the KST, the tough sections, not listening to naysayers (like me) and just seeing and doing for yourself.”
Chapter 5: Thank you
Thank you to everyone who was on my emailing list. They have absolutely no idea how vital they were in my successful completion. Every night I looked forward to their replies and words of encouragement. It and reading from my Kindle were the only two leisure activities.
Rainbow man and Rasta, the sections they joined me on were pivotal as the first leg of the journey and the cross over beyond the November attempt.
Thank you to those who provided reliable contacts for rescue if the worst were to occur. Something we never wanted but knew was always a possibility.
I want to thank those who came before me. Often, I was walking on the shoulder of giants. This trip would not be possible without the many hikers out there who have found routes, laid rope, cleared trail and made the impossible possible. For legal reasons I will not name names, but I thank those who laid the route on the Moanalua, Pali and Kalihi saddle, to the people who have helped clear route up on the northern summit sections, HTMC and their clearing crew who make the routes up to the summit possible and provide this island with so many of the trails we love dearly.
Lastly, thank you to my parents who I contacted every night by phone and provided an amazing ground crew. My mother’s words to take it slow and I would succeed echoed through my head during every struggle or difficult moment.
It should never be underestimated what the power of love, encouragement and support can do when challenging one’s self.
Aloha and safe trails,
Mahalo to Chase Norton for allowing Exploration: Hawaii to share his story! What Chase accomplished was amazing. He pushed himself to the brink of exhaustion to accomplish something that many people thought could not be done. Well done, Chase. If Chase’s story has inspired you please know that his 8 day journey through the Koolau Summit Trail involved years of planning and preparation. Please do not attempt this without the proper research, physical preparation, and mental preparation. -Coty
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.