by Terry Badger
One of the most beautiful places on earth is on the Valley Island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands. Maui is shaped much like a snowman or figure eight, with the big part being formed entirely by the Haleakala volcano. The volcano is officially extinct, having last erupted many thousands of years ago. It creeps northeastward, away from the hotspot on the floor of the Pacific Ocean which is currently in the process of adding acreage to the big island of Hawaii, as the "drive in" volcano of Kilauea almost continuously erupts.
I have always loved scenery which is vast: The Grand Canyon, Death Valley, The Painted Desert, the Serengeti Plains in Africa. Haleakala certainly qualifies, as the crater is bigger than Manhattan Island. Whenever we go to Maui, we make a point of spending the first night or two in Kula, 2500 feet up the mountain, as it makes the transition from our North County desert to the humid tropical heat of the Islands easier. Also, it gives us a more convenient opportunity to see sunrise or sunset from the 10,000-foot peak of the volcano, both magnificent sights, cloud cover permitting.
Many years ago, my daughter, Cara, her friend Therese and I hiked the "short" trail - 3,000 feet down to the cinder-cone-studded crater floor, through the silver sword clusters with their gorgeous four foot high blooms, and up 1,000 feet to the road where we had left our car. It was 12 miles of beautiful scenery, with the lava gravel varying from black to redish brown, to ash grey with patches of orange and yellow. The cloud cover was ever changing from misty winds to calm, baking sun, and finally a real rain storm. What a day!
This hike whetted my appetite for more, but somehow, I never got around to doing the "big hike," 18 miles from the summit to the Hana road nearly two miles below. I must admit, I am an experienced hiker, but dislike back-packing. Therefore, my hikes have only one requirement, they must be finished in one day. That way, I need only carry the bare essentials - a little food, a first aid kit, and lots of water. I have done the Grand Canyon (south rim to Phantom Ranch and back - 18 miles); Mt Whitney (3 times - never quite made it to the top but covered 14, 16, and 18 miles respectively) and the Coast-to-Crest Trail (still in development) from Del Mar to Julian (9 one-day hikes, over 70 miles). Two years ago, as my wife, Lynn, and I watched the sun turn the Haleakala crater into a radiant, multi-colored volcanic flower, I felt like a bee pulled inexorably downward until the vastness and the beauty could be experienced in full and in person.
I told Lynn as we sat on a bluff a few hundred yards down the Sliding Sands Trail, "I've got to do this hike, and soon. Maybe next year."
Well, last year we did not go to Maui, but this year, my 75th, would have to be the year. My younger brother, Kent, a world traveller who, with all his travelling had never been to Maui, agreed to go with me. We met Kent and his girlfriend, Carol, at the airport late Saturday night. Sunday, we showed them the sights of the Maui "upcountry" of Kula, the winery and Charles Lindbergh's grave, where he and Carol experienced the twists and turns of highway 31, the south part of the Hana Highway. At the Kaupo store on the highway, we drove up the terrible 1 1/2 mile road to the Kaupo Gap Trailhead, elevation 1,000 ft. This is where we would meet the girls, hopefully about 6pm on Monday. Sunday, June 21, was Lynn's and my 52 anniversary, so Kent and Carol treated us to an exquisite dinner at the Kula Lodge, one of our favorite watering holes.
Sunrise Monday was at 5:41 and it was about a 45 minute drive up the mountain from our cottage in Kula. We set the alarm for 4am. The drive up the mountain was beautiful, one of the only times I could remember that the sky was completely devoid of clouds. The moon was almost full, but the stars shone brightly through the moonlight. It began to turn light as we wound our way up to the visitor center at 9,750 ft. By the time we parked the car, the sky to the east was beginning to turn rosy. We walked to the railing and tried to find a good viewing point amongst the two hundred or so brave souls who came up the mountain for one of the best sunrise opportunities on earth.
Right on cue, the first orange rays peeked through the clouds covering the eastern crater rim at 5: 41. It was a gorgeous sunrise, and we took many pictures of nature's artistry. We drove up to the summit at 10,000 ft to see the silver sword garden in the parking lot, and to get the best overall view of the crater.
We had planned to start the hike at 6am, but because of the scenery at the lower and upper observation points and the many photo ops, Kent and I didn't start down the trail until 6:30. The Park rangers had assured me that the trail was ok "as far as they knew," which, as we were to find out some 7 hours later, was definitely not the case. In subsequent discussions with Park personnel, we found that no one with whom we talked had actually hiked the Kaupo Gap Trail. No wonder it became such an adventure!
It's appropriate here to say a little bit about conditioning. At 74, I play racquetball 3 times a week, do biking, hiking, and canoeing and, although I could stand to lose 10 or 15 pounds, consider myself in relatively good shape. Kent, a college professor and 7 years younger than I, had been riding his stationary bicycle 5 miles a day, was not overweight, and also felt fine. We knew that going downhill for 18 miles was going to be hard on the legs, and we weren't planning to do much in the way of walking on Tuesday (or Wednesday and Thursday too, as it turned out). We both had aluminum walking sticks (an absolute must!), plenty of water (over 2 quarts each) and snacks and quick energy food. We were ready!
We kissed the girls goodbye in the parking lot; the crowd was beginning to thin out as the visitors headed back down the highway. Kent and I headed around the volcanic outcropping at the start of the Sliding Sands Trail, walked up (the last "up" for a long time) a slight incline before, at the top, the crater, more illuminated now as the sun climbed in the sky, came into view. I never cease to be amazed at this magnificent sight! It was a perfect start to what would be a very memorable day.
The trail heading down to the crater floor was in excellent shape, wide enough for us to walk side-by-side most of the way. This was a special time for Kent and me. We have always been close; our age difference is such that we have never competed with one another, and his life has been so different from mine that we have always delighted in that difference. Kent lives in La Habra Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles. So, we see each other often, but not too often. When he was an Eagle scout in Illinois and I was flying helicopters for the Navy, we hiked the Lincoln trail together some 19 miles from Lincoln's boyhood home to the capitol in Springfield. It was the only hike of any consequence that we ever took together, until our Haleakala adventure.
The trail stretched out before us like a long ribbon on the side of the steep slope heading ever downward toward the crater floor. It's a conundrum that in this vast, multicolored wasteland of volcanic pebbles, so much life is present. We passed many flourishing bushes ablaze with yellow and blue flowers. Chukars, beautiful grouse-like birds with the black eye stripe and yellow throat were prevalent and so tame they actually walked toward us as they searched for food. The silver swords were everywhere! This cactus-like plant, endemic to the volcanoes of Haleakala and Mauna Loa/Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, is aptly named. Its sword-like fronds are bright silver as they shimmer in the sun. A number of plants were in bloom. Much like a yucca, the base sends a bloom sprout two to three feet up, where it displays its white, yellow and pinkish blooms on a green stalk. These were sights I had seen before, but my delight at seeing them up-close and personal was undiminished. Kent, however, had never seen any of these things, and he was truly delighted, which, of course, delighted me.
After about an hour, we reached the crater floor where we came to the junction that Cara and Therese and I had passed so many years before. This time, we took the right fork and headed down the middle of the crater, with its hills, cinder cones and ground cover foliage disappearing in the far distance. We were now committed to walking out - and down!
A Silver Sword
The crater floor, as I mentioned, was fairly flat. From the junction we had just passed to the junction of the Kaupo Gap Trail, we would go down only about 300 ft in five miles. It gave us time to stop and have water (lots of water), snacks, a sandwich and generally enjoy the ambience. The cloud cover was cooperating to make this nine-mile journey to the Kaupo Gap Trail very comfortable and enjoyable. We had stopped for lunch at the Kapalaoa Cabin, about 6 miles from the summit. It was the only rain we experienced, which made the cabin's one picnic table unusable. But there was a plus: three ne'nes, the Hawaiian goose and state bird, were camped out at the cabin, and were not shy in coming up to us and accepting some bread tidbits we offered. They literally ate out of our hands.
The trail, still wide and well maintained, wound along the crater floor until we saw a large cinder cone in the distance. I looked at the map and figured the junction to the Kaupo Gap Trail must be on our side of the cinder cone, but distances are deceiving. After about 45 minutes of steady walking, it became clear that, as the map correctly indicated, the junction was about a mile on the other side of the cinder cone (O'ilipu'u). Now the trail turned primitive, with the terrain on both sides of the trail masses of rough, grey lava. Luckily, the trail itself was still easily walkable, but that junction seemed an elusive target which was still beyond our vision.
As we walked along the north side of the cinder cone, we met a couple going the other way. They said they had spent the night in the Kalipu cabin, just north of the junction, where the weather was windy and rainy. So far the weather for us was quite nice, the temperature was mild, the wind was calm, and the only rain we had experienced was at the Kapalaoa cabin, some two miles back.
Another half hour found us finally at the junction of the Sliding Sands Trail and the Kaupo Gap trail. A trail sign pointed to the right and noted: Kaupo Trailhead - 6.8 miles, Highway 31 - 8.6 miles, Park boundary - 3.9 miles. At the junction we were at 6400 feet. It was 12:30. We had come 9.2 miles, but had a long way to go - down!
After a short rest to let our leg muscles get ready for the coming ordeal, we headed down the trail. It became obvious almost immediately that the good part of the hike was behind us. The terrain changed from lava with a few ground cover plants to a full-fledged rain forest - lots of trees, tall grass and a trail which became less and less visible. I was surprised at how difficult the trail was - it was like no one had hiked it in weeks. I had expected a rugged trail. The National Park Service Wilderness Guide had this to say about the Kaupo Gap Trail:
"From lush Paliku to the dry, rocky coastline of southeast Maui, the Kaupo Trail descends 6,100 feet in 8.6 miles. The steep drop is matched by rugged volcanic scenery and spectacular ocean vistas. For the unprepared hiker, however, Kaupo Trail can be an experience in misery: blistered feet, tortured knees, intense sun or torrential rain, and no drinking water. The lower half of the trail is on private land and drops relentlessly down through mostly open grassy country. Round rocks on the steep trail act like ball bearings, making footing unsure and travel slow."
Even with this warning, we were surprised, to say the least, at the condition of the trail. In a way, it was pleasing. The scenery was magnificent. Through the gaps in the foliage we caught glimpses of the rugged coastline far below. The native Hawaiian birds with their curved bills were in evidence. But the trail was so overgrown and so uneven, that the possibility of a misstep and a turned ankle was real. Kent seemed to be especially cautious in this regard. I am not a fast down-hill hiker. But Kent was much slower. I would hike for twenty minutes and rest, waiting for him to catch up. This I did a couple of times. The last time, I found a nice spot to lie down in a meadow waiting for him. Ten minutes later, he threw his knapsack down beside me and we rested together, thanking the elements for maintaining the good weather. By now it was about 2:30. We had promised the girls we would meet them at the Trailhead at 6:00. We still had a long way to go, and I was getting a little nervous, even though I could not have imagined what lay ahead. I started on down the trail, and remember calling back to Kent, "It looks like the trail is getting better." And it did - for awhile. About 3:15, I heard a bird call that I had not heard before. It must be a native, I thought. So I sat down to see if I could get a sighting while I waited for my brother. 3:30 came, and then 3:45. No sign of Kent. I called, but there was no answer. I was in a quandary. If Kent were hurt (the turned ankle problem?), in my semi-exhausted state, I would not be much help. I could not stomach climbing back up the hill to find him. If I did, neither of us would make it out before dark, and we would have two frantic females at the Trailhead not knowing what to do. To compound the matter, there was absolutely no cell phone coverage on this desolate side of the volcano.
I made my decision. I headed down the trail. I was not worried about any long-term problems with Kent not making it down that night. He had plenty of water, some food, a poncho, and experience in "roughing it." He was an amateur archeologist and a professional scuba diver, and he had been out in the elements many times. I thought it more important for me to get down and "report in."
About 4:30 I reached the gate which was the Park boundary. I left Kent a note on the gate, that if he got there by 5:30, to continue on down, we'd be waiting for him. However, I had no idea how bad the trail would become on the private land. First of all, the trail markers were few and far between, and, as Kent was to find out painfully the next day, a hiker could easily head off in the wrong direction. Plus, the rock "ball bearings" were constant on the old, eroded truck road that served as the first mile or so of trail. I tried to go to the side of the road, but the terrain, though rock free, was very uneven and many times went through thick underbrush. The trail passed through two more gates; one I had to climb over, and the other squeeze through. By then I was getting really tired. Finally, at a confusing sign that Kent would miss, the trail left the truck road and headed down a steep valley. I had been picking my way along these treacherous trails for over two hours. It was past 7pm, and daylight was disappearing fast. It seemed every time I glanced through the bushes at the coastline, it remained far below. I thought to myself, "Will this never end?"
Finally, what seemed like an hour later, I came around a curve in the trail, which had, at last, turned fairly shallow and grassy. There, in dim filtered light of approaching evening, stood the most beautiful sight I had ever seen: Lynn. She and Carol had walked a few hundred yards up the trail from the Trailhead, obviously worried about Kent and me.
Lynn asked, "Where's Kent? You look like death warmed over!"
I answered, "I have no idea where Kent is, and I'm sure I look much better than I feel. We'd better get to a phone and call 911."
I staggered back to the rental car and lay down in the back seat, knowing I would not be able to get up in the foreseeable future.
Well, this tale has a happy though completely unpredictable ending. After many calls to the police and the Forest Service, and with much help from local ranchers, we finally determined that Kent would be spending the night on the mountain. I would kid him later about the possible fine he would incur for spending the night unauthorized in a National Park. As it turned out, he had gotten my note on the gate about 7:30 (he never admitted that he had fallen asleep in one of his resting spots, but I think that is the only explanation for his getting to the gate three hours after I did), and had decided to spend the night there. He said the night was spectacular. About every three hours he would wake up and look at the heavens bursting with stars in the inky-black night.
At dawn, the Forest Service helicopter found him, but he refused transportaion, wanting to complete the hike on his own. When the Forest Service called me at our hotel in Hana, I was overjoyed, and relieved that he was not injured and able to walk. I figured he'd be down in no more than three hours and that Carol would pick him up at the Trailhead and bring him back, where we would pack, check out, have some laughs and drive to Ka'anipali, our next destination. Wrong! Keep in mind, there was zero communication from the Trailhead to civilization. We heard nothing for the next seven hours!
Well, it seems Kent didn't understand the trail going over and through gates, so he managed to get lost at least three times on the way down, and probably hiked an extra ten miles. He finally accepted a ride from one of the ranch hands, and made it back to the Trailhead at 2:30. In the meantime, I had been pestering the Forest Service to "go get my brother!" They called me when he was safely in the car and headed back to Hana. The Hana Kai hotel manager (who had hiked the Kaupo Gap Trail and knew the problems) was most cooperative, and let us stay in the room, with access to the telephone, until 5pm at no extra charge.
Kent and Carol got to the hotel about 4pm, and after a long bath and a cold beer for Kent, the four of us piled into the rental car and headed off down the notoriously winding Hana Highway, which somehow did not seem as daunting as it once did.
It was an incredible adventure, one that will stick with all of us in the days and years to come. This wonderful mountain, known as The House of the Sun where, according to Hawaiian legend, Prince Maui lassoed the sun to make it go slower, will shine, like the suns rays, as one of the brightest spots in our lives.
And, oh yes, it took both of us about three days before we could walk without emitting groans of pain for our aging and way overworked leg muscles. But, oh, was it worth it!
Terry M. Badger
July 20, 2009
Two exhausted brothers, Terry, left, and Kent, right,
at the end of the trail.