Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Halemau’u Trailhead to the Haleakala summit...and back

My initial plan for Haleakala was, admittedly a bit nuts, even by my standards. I wanted to run up the Kaupo trail, then up to the summit, then across the west side of the mountain, then down, and up to Lahaina. 63 or so miles: a 100k. Easy, right?

Well, two problems. First, to get to Lahaina I’d have to run on the highway on the northwest side of the island. After seeing the traffic on it for the first time I started to realize that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. The second problem was how to get to Kaupo. The road you take (the road to Hana) is not all that friendly. My friend Angie, who graciously let me stay at her place while I was there, figured it’d take me two hours to drive over there. Then, after I got there, I had the problem of what the heck to do with the car. Ugh.

So, I reconsidered.

Angie, her sister, and some of their friends had done a hike the previous summer that started at the Halemau’u Trailhead and went to the Holua campsite. I could get there in about an hour and it would give me access to the crater floor and the summit if I really wanted it, plus I’d be able to get back to the car easily.

My route had to revolve around access to water. It wasn’t clear where I’d find drinkable water in the park. The cabins have water, but you need to filter it before drinking it, and I didn’t want to bring a filter with me. So, I planned to carry what I needed and turn around when I got low.

When I got to the park I confirmed with the ranger that there was a water fountain at the summit. I knew this would be about 11 miles and I figured I had enough water to get me up there. Once at the top, the Visitor Center, my options for getting back opened up. It felt like a safe plan, so I went for it. Halemau’u Trailhead to the Summit, then possibly back from there or a quick trip back to the car via the road that went to the summit, or, I could hitchhike down if I needed it.

I started with my Ultimate Direction pack which holds 100 oz of water. Plus a 32-ounce bottle in the pack and my two handheld water bottles. When I’m in a situation like this I always drink my pack first, then the bottle in the pack, and head back when I’ve got only the two handhelds left. That way I know exactly how much water I have left – I’m not spending time trying to judge whether my pack is ½ or ¼ full.

Map of half the park, courtesy of nps.gov/hale

Halemau’u Trailhead to Sliding Sands

Halemau’u Trailhead is at 7,990 feet.  Angie had warned me that it was pretty steep.  She wasn’t lying.  You drop about 1,000 feet over two miles of switchbacks to the Ko’olau Gap.

Trail conditions on the switchbacks
Initially I thought I’d cruise down this section…bad idea. The trail is steep; plus there are lots of little rocks on the trail which makes it similar to running down a conveyer belt with wheels.  Now, this wouldn’t typically be a problem except for here, where you’re running along the edge of some very unforgiving drop-offs…you need to take your time and be careful.

I was down in about 30-35 minutes, a good, safe pace. I went through the gate and started the long, slow trek uphill.

The trail starts out nice; dirt with tall-ish grass on either side of you.  You want to stay on-trail here as you don’t want to scare any of the Nene living in the area, like I did.

The Holua cabin and camp is about a mile from the gate.  I came across a couple of hikers in this section.  They gave me that typical “are you really running this” look.  I just smiled and kept going.

Quickly, the trail starts to become less runnable as the rocks begin to litter the trail, up to the point where all you’re running on is rock. It kind of switches back and forth between dirt and rock as you pass the Holua cabin and campsite up to the north side of the Silversword loop. It then becomes a kind of rough sandy trail that doesn’t really want to be run.

I saw a few more hikers on the Silversword loop. I doubted that they had come down from the summit. I bet they were making a day trip of coming down from the switchbacks. An out-and-back from the parking lot to the loop would be about 6 miles, plus you have to climb out of the valley, so it’s a fairly good hike.

Leaving Silversword Loop you come up to and crest a ridge.  I expected more of the same brown and red terrain that I was in and that I could see in the distance.  Boy, was I wrong.

I was stopped dead in my tracks by the nearly instant change in the landscape.  The gentle and inviting brown path gave way to a pure black trail that would take me further along.  It was breathtaking.  The rocks lost their gentle curves and presented sharper edges, being, I assume, evidence of more recent formation as the wind and rain haven’t had a chance to relentlessly grind away at them like waves on the beach.


The path was still that miserable mix of sand and dirt and ash that taxes you half a step back for every full step forward. It was totally worth it.

I stopped and sat down for a minute just to take it all in.  It was really like being on another planet.  All you hear is the wind constantly rushing past your head, you can’t see another person, there are no familiar contrails overhead, no lights floating in the distance – it’s just you, and this barren landscape that could, and probably does exist throughout our Solar System.

From there I took the trail to the West of the Halali’i cinder cone.  This was my turn towards the Sliding Sands Trail.  I briefly considered staying on Halemau’u and heading out to the Paliku campsite, but my water concerns kept me moving towards the summit and the water fountain.

Turning to the West you pass the North side of the Ka Moa o Pele cinder cone.  This is the only true downhill between the switchbacks and the summit.  I used it for all it was worth.  The sand was easy to run - the cushion it provided let me run a little sloppy.  My Garmin tells me I was in the 7 minute per mile range coming down this hill that was maybe ¼ of a mile long. It was a total “I feel like a kid again” stride.



Sliding Sands to the Summit

I hit the Sliding Sands trail and turned to the summit. There was a couple under a bush eating their lunch.  I waved and said hi – they didn’t respond, they just stared at me. That made me kind of sad. Maybe their reaction was due to my ridiculous look.

Always wear protection
It was brutal out there with the wind. I had my desert running hat – the kind that has the flaps that come down on three sides. It was pretty ineffective in the wind since all it really did was just blow around. So, I took my neck warmer and pulled it up halfway over my head. That kept the flaps down on my ears. This accomplished two important things: first, it kept the sun off most of my head, and second, it kept the wind from pounding on my eardrums. The wind was so strong it hurt.

I took a picture of myself. I’m sure I’m in somebody’s nightmare now.

At this point I was at about 7,500 feet. The summit was at 10,000 feet, so I had to climb 2,500 more feet over 3-4 miles. Luckily, I didn’t realize this when I started.  If I did, I may not have gone all the way to the top.

It’s a tough climb. There are a lot of false summits on the climb up. They just keep appearing, one after another…frustrating.

I passed two more cinder cones on the way up. I briefly considered turning off to Ka Lu’u o ka ‘O’o which is about a mile out. But, it was getting a little late and I was out of water in my pack.  I had my bottle and my two handhelds still, but I still needed to head to the water, especially on the uphill.

The plan, if there was no water at the top, was to rely on the two handhelds to get me down the mountain on the road. It’d be about 8 miles, which is fine on two bottles. I had water and ice in the car, so I felt comfortable at that point.

One mistake I made, that I typically never make, is that I didn’t eat nearly enough. I stopped at the Holua campsite to eat some beef jerky, almonds, and GU – not enough for what I was doing. I was also not taking salt tabs enough, and I could tell. My right calf was cramping a bit.

I knew this, but I was determined to get to the top – then I’d eat. In retrospect, that was pretty dumb.

Once I got about two miles from the summit I turned around and was greeted with the most amazing view of the crater floor. Something about the colors in this park really stood out to me. The black, red, and brown mixed with the lightly sprinkled hints of life were very aesthetically appealing.

This is the best photograph I've ever taken
At this point in the climb I started passing folks hiking down from the top. I was a bit surprised at how unprepared some of them looked. Folks in tennis shoes and jeans holding a plastic water bottle passed me with a big smile on their face. I kept thinking “geez, I’m in pretty good shape and this climb is really taxing me, do these people know what they’re in for?”

Finally, I got to the summit. No cowbells or aid station awaited me; just a large pile of rocks and some funny looks from tourists getting out of their car.

11.2 miles by the Garmin and it took me three and a half hours, not counting some of my stops. If I had included the stops it would come out at four hours.

My legs were slathered in a strange reddish-black dust which I hoped was serving as a sort of sunscreen. I was in a t-shirt but I had my sleeves on. Add the two handheld bottles, the pack, and the crazy headgear and you can imagine why people were wondering what the hell I was doing.

I found a nice rock that overlooked the crater and sat down to eat. The view was gorgeous. Kalapawili Ridge sat in the distance. The sky above was as blue and as clear as you could imagine. To the northeast sat a sea of clouds which shielded the Pacific from my view.

The rest of the island was blocked from my view also. The clouds seemed to sit around 7k feet to the north and west. The wind from that direction seemed to collide with the wind from the east creating some kind of current which tugged the top of the clouds up near the mountain in a kind of reverse waterfall of white that never quite made it high enough before evaporating into the blue sky.

Nobody would have faulted me for staying there all day and just watching but I wanted to get back. I couldn’t find the water fountain, so I found a ranger and asked her where it was. She gave me a bit of a concerning look while simultaneously seeming to check my pupils, listen to my speech, and make sure I wasn’t tipping over on my own before pointing me in the direction of the restrooms. I thanked her with a smile that I hoped would convey a “yeah, I’m fine. I do stupid shit like this all the time.”

I filled my pack up to about 64 ounces, thinking I wouldn’t need all 100. I also refilled my bottle and refreshed the water in my handhelds. My water plan going down would be the same – exhaust the pack, then the bottle, then the handhelds. There was some slight protest from my wrists at this idea. I ignored them.

Summit back to Halemau’u Trail

For some reason I didn’t consider how fun the run down was going to be. It took me three and a half hours to do the first half of the hike. That put me at the top around 2pm since I stopped my watch a few times on the way up.

I really wanted to be back at the car by 5pm – there were some fish tacos in my immediate future and I was really looking forward to them (and a Longboard, or three, of course). Also, It didn’t register at that point, but I hadn’t brought a light with me: amateur mistake. My mother would be very disappointed with me if I tried to do the switchbacks in the dark. So, it was time to hurry.

I started off down the mountain a little conservative. My legs hadn’t seen a downhill for several hours, so I wanted to make sure they knew what they were in for.

After about a quarter to half a mile I really opened it up. I could, it was easy. I basically let gravity take me down as I bounded aimlessly along.

Folks that I had passed on the way up began appearing again. They’d see me coming and move aside a bit, correctly calculating that they’d be on the losing side of the collision equation.

As I went down I realized the greatest part wasn’t the speed or the ease at which I was moving. It was the look on people’s faces as I passed. It was obvious I was enjoying it, and they couldn’t help but smile and realize that the work I put in on the way up was paying off on the way down. I always think about that when I do a long run, I always wonder if maybe someone saw it and thought “you know, that looks fun…I could do that” and got up and did it.

The only other thing to report on the way down is that I caught a Silversword blooming. I can’t say I found the plant particularly beautiful but it is special to see one as it flowers. Haleakala is the only place in the world you’ll find them. They can live up to 50 years and they only flower one time. The stalk can reach up to 2 meters high, and once it’s done, the plant dies: one of those both profoundly sad yet beautiful decisions of evolution that you occasionally find in nature.

I got back to the Ka Moa o Pele cinder cone without stopping. This is the only uphill, aside from the switchbacks, you find on the way back. I walked this, of course, taking time to eat and take some salt.

As I was coming down the north side of the cinder cone I ran into a couple hiking back up. The girl had all their gear and the guy was walking in front of her. He was white as a sheet. I knew the climb they had ahead of them so I stopped and talked to them for a minute. They had water but he just didn’t look good. I gave him a couple of salt tablets, which he took, along with a confident “I’m an ultrarunning med student” which probably made no sense to them.

Halemau’u Trail to the Trailhead

At that point I turned north and kept running. I was going through a little more water than I thought I would, but I’d be ok as long as I got back before sunset.

I passed back through the black tundra and past Silversword Loop. Still running but taking enough time to really appreciate the beauty and the stark differences the landscape presented.

After Silversword I passed the Holua campsite which was now full of folks laid out for the night. I gave a wave and kept going, not wanting to waste the precious sunlight.

A quick mile later I was back at the gate, the switchbacks above me. I had finished my pack so I transferred the water in my handhelds into the pack. I wanted the free hands for the climb should I need to grab something in a hurry.

The switchbacks, from below
With a quick glance and a groan I started up. No way I was gonna run but I did hike it as quickly as I could. It’s amazing how the vegetation changes once you start up. It becomes more of a rainforest feeling with exotic plants and occasional boggy areas of trail.

I stopped a few times for the view. I had a rainbow to the northeast which stayed with me the whole way up and I appreciated it every time I came back to that side of the switchbacks.

Closer to the top and on the north side of the mountain I was greeted by clouds rushing up from below. They covered the trail for me, providing a very cool and calming mist to pass through as I ascended. I was grateful and I came out of each cloud with a renewed feeling of energy. What a difference from the crater floor!

After what seemed like way too long I saw the sign for the parking lot: 0.7 miles. Close, yet far enough to still be a ways off. I put my head down and just kept going.

As a final treat, near the top you go across what I can only describe as a land bridge. The mountain drops off precariously on both sides and it’s a little creepy to walk across. The extreme wind didn’t help either. I’d have almost felt safer traversing it on all fours or without a pack which I considered to be a sail of sorts with a strong enough gust. The view, of course, is amazing.

I reached the car, happy to be done with the run but sad at the same time. Two and a half hours from the summit back – a great pace. The entire experience was, to shamelessly mutilate a line from a movie, the perfect mix of beautiful and stunning. The colors were the best, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

I would like to do Kaupo to the summit and back sometime. After doing Sliding Sands I know I could do it in a day with the right gear. You’d have to start extremely early, say 4 or 5am and have a plan to call it at the summit if it takes too long to hike up or if the weather decides to screw with you.

5 comments:

Cristina Pineda said...

What a terrific story. I have hiked through all the parts that you so bravely did all in one day on several occasions. I was particularly drawn to your description of Rainbow Bridge at the end of your post. We are so lucky to have Haleakala Crater in our backyard, and I am so glad that your experience was a positive one!

Danny Miller said...

Ah! It's nice to know that scary little ridge has a name. You are lucky to have Haleakala in your backyard - so much to explore there.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding report!

Angela said...

I love reading all of your adventures! Great writer! Thanks for sharing!

frank said...
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