Kalalau-Hanakapi’ai Death March

Along the Kalalau-Hanakapi’ai Trail

June 30, 2006–Endurance and survival on the Kalalau-Hanakapi’ai trail

            The day started out well enough, but we did not comprehend what lie ahead as we drove to the trailhead by Ka’a Beach at the end of Highway 560, the north end of the Na Pali coast.  We planned on hiking the Kalalau Trail for two miles to the Hanakapi’ai Beach and then two more miles up the valley to the Hanakapi’ai Falls.  We accomplished all of our goals and enjoyed the grand sights, but the return trip became an ordeal.  If only we had remembered take all of the water in the ice chest with us as had been originally intended…

            The trail set steeply upward over rocks, steps and roots as it wound through forest and brush.  Strange bird calls echoed through the woods, and wind rustled the branches, bringing welcome cool breezes to the dusty trail.  Around a bend Ke’e Beach, came into full view with the reef and swimmers set against surf and sea.  Around another windy bend both the beach and the Na Pali coastline could both be seen.  I held onto my hat while viewing the deep blue waters against the dark cliffs.  Above, foliage clung to towering ridges and cliffs that rose to high, craggy peaks. 

            Around the bend the trail continued upward over stone and dirt that seemed like a never-ending, uneven staircase.  Strenuous indeed; it was rugged and demanding with an occasional smooth, almost level stretch thrown in to taunt the traveler.  The trail led us around vistas and into gulches where remnants of streams trickled and muddied the way.  Halfway to the beach it began its tortuous descent.  We had to step carefully downwards over the clutter since our quadriceps were taking a beating.  Fairy and I were thankful for our walking sticks that helped stabilize us on our descent. 

            On the final slope, signs appeared warning the traveler to beware of surf and tidal waves.  “If the ocean recedes, try to make it above this level to avoid being washed out to sea when it surges back in.”  Right, imagine 30 or more scared hikers frantically scrambling up the scree at half the pace one could normally make on level land.  One or two might make it, but only those already at the trail when the emergency arose. 

            I pushed such thoughts aside as we crossed the stream at the foot of the trail and made our way to the wide, white-sand beach.  Dark lava cliffs bracketed the bright sand and blue waters, while breakers showered salt spray against the shore.  A few hearty souls ventured into the hazardous water, though signs along the trail had strongly warned against it and listed a running tally of the number that had died in the surf so far. 

            We made our way to the far corner on a shelf in the shade where rock yielded to sea.  Waves burst onto boulders and tussled with the beach, but we were just out of reach of the spray.  We had a small lunch of sandwich and trail mix and drank some of our water.  We had enough water so far, but the day was warming and we still had two more miles to go before starting our return.  

            The call of nature nearly shortened our wanderings, and it might have been better if it had.  However, a vile, weathered outhouse of the most disgusting sort, set up on a rickety platform, became refuge and the “call” was relieved, so we were able to continue on to the falls.

            The Hanakapi’ai trail led steadily upward, but was smooth and pleasant at first.  A wooded canopy covered the way, while unusual flowers and fruit brightened the scenery.  Here and there clumps of bamboo rattled in the breeze and a plaque on a tree memorialized a local that had perished in his youth. 

            The trail made a difficult crossing of a stream, the first of many.  Fairy hesitated at first; memories of slippery rocks and a broken arm during her last visit to the islands flashed warning signals in her head.  With encouragement and assistance she made it though just fine and we continued on.  The trail steepened and took on a more sinister character.  It became more rugged than the initial hike, narrower, and wetter.  We scrambled up slopes, slopped through mud on the edge of steep drop-offs and sweltered in the heat where seldom a breath of wind appeared.

            The falls gradually, grudgingly came into view, first the upper most parts, then the main falls, then at the very last the plunge pool appeared as we ached our way to the very end of the trail.  I changed into my swim suit using Fairy and a rock for cover, then stepped carefully into the cold water.  I swam across the dark pool, under the sparkling, filamentary falls and back while the rest soaked their legs and enjoyed the cool air. 

            We lingered for a time, resting, recuperating and enjoying the view.  We were already into our last two bottles of water, which was not a good thing.  The stream water was not safe to drink and we did not have a water purifier.   I wondered how we would make out on the way back. 

            We began the descent, happy to be going downward towards the beach, but a steep, hot climb up the rocky grade awaited us after we reached the beach.  Our muscles were fatigued and we had to be careful of every movement on the uneven, rocky way.  We rested at the beach for a time and downed the rest of the water.  I knew that I could have used more, and wondered about the others. 

            We began the ascent up the final, sun-baked two miles of the trail.  We welcomed every spot of shade and every cool gust of wind as fatigue and dehydration took its toll.  We rested frequently during the trek onward and upward hundreds of feet above the water.  Sam began to feel ill and found some shade to rest.  Another group of travelers provided a bottle of water that Fairy, Dawn and Sam shared.  Half a mile more climbing lay ahead followed by another mile of steep descent.  We needed more water for everyone to make it, so I set out ahead of the group to retrieve more water from the car. 

            I traveled as fast as I could without becoming exhausted while the others rested, walked a while, and then rested more in any coolness they could find.  To keep my spirits up I started singing “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas.”  Finally I rounded the windy point where the final descent and Ke’e Beach came into view.  The trail led down steep rocky steps, over knotted roots, and then over more rocks.  Along the way a pair of barefoot women, gingerly making their way downward, grudgingly yielded the trail without a word.  I watched my steps even more closely then, since I did not want any injury due to carelessness this close to the end of the trail.  Finally the parking lot and car came into view, and I marched right past the car to a drinking fountain and tanked up. 

In the mean time Fairy and Sam were having a tough time.  They walked a while, rested, then walked a little more.  Sam was nauseated, but kept going.  After sitting for a longer rest stop, Fairy felt dizzy and was not able to get up with the others, so she told them to proceed and she would be along in a minute.  The next thing she remembered, she was lying beside the trail with her walking stick skewed across the path.  After a couple of minutes Sam and Dawn became worried, and Dawn returned.   Fairy had recuperated enough to get up again and together, they very slowly continued on. 

            I retrieved three water bottles from the ice chest and filled two empty ones from the drinking fountain, then headed back up the hill.  My muscles protested as I began the steep plod back up the trail.  I had to rest a couple of times, but concern for the others forced me onward with short, deliberate steps like an arthritic old man.  Familiar faces that I met coming down the path, told of the people up the trail having a tough time and urged me on.  Later, people I did not recognize asked if I was the guy in the Disney hat that was returning with water for the suffering people up the hill.  I wondered just how far I had left to go; I really did not want to have to descend part way down towards the beach and return again.   Finally the grand news arrived that they were at the windy point, just ahead on the trail. 

            I am not sure who was happier when we spotted each other on the trail at the point.  We shared water, had some salty chips, and then crept cautiously down the grade to the parking lot.  What a sorry sight we must have been as we collapsed into the car.  We were even a sorrier sight when we pulled into our lodging at Kakalina’s B&B and tried to get out of the car after the 45 minute ride back.  Muscles as stubborn as mules protested in every way imaginable, yet somehow managed to support us as we wobbled into the building. Incredibly, we had survived our foolishness, though from that day on it was known as “The Death March.”