Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Powerline Trail, Kauai, HI

Halfway into this trail I really didn't know what to make of it. It had been recommended to me by a local runner who said it was a wonderful trail crossing some of the most beautiful parts of Kauai. To be fair to him I did run the whole of the outward leg in the dark. So the jury was out on just how beautiful the whole area was. But what was clear to me was that the trail was heavily overgrown and my legs got mutilated.

It was not a huge surprise to find no one at the trailhead when I arrived at 5.30am. I could sense the overgrown nature of the surroundings even though I couldn't see anything to verify this. I geared up, switched on my GPS and took off into the dark.

The first section is a nose to the hillside climb, but it doesn't last very long and I was quickly skipping along navigating through tall grasses and around large trees. I like running in the dark, but this was more challenging because of the overgrown nature of the trail. My legs were getting whipped by stiff branches and sharp leaves and they were covered in blood after the first mile or so. The other problem was in the form of spider webs. Again, I would catch these in my hair and across my face and I was forever trying to wipe them away and discard them from my body.
This is what running through dense undergrowth in the dark by torchlight looks like.

There were a few sections where I had to crawl through a small canopy in the undergrowth, or twist my way through complex and interwoven fallen branches. These obstacles all served to interrupt my running and slow me down. Because it was like this most of the time I didn't particularly enjoy the running...and that was the whole point!!

But I did enjoy the sense of complete isolation. This trail is in a very remote area and I felt this isolation very strongly. Its a feeling I like. Then I got a bit of a shock that made me question whether i really was alone out there. I was running along a straight and level section of trail when my torch beam picked up a white object coming towards me. Before I had time to stop I was face to face with a small, white, pit bull terrier. It's eyes flashed "fear" and I felt sorry for this small dog. It was probably more startled than I was. I couldn't see anyone in the vicinity and it gave all appearance of being a stray. I dimmed my torch then, in a flash, it barked loudly and ran passed me along the route I had come. I didn't see it again.
First sign of dawn

I was a little more aware of my surroundings after that dog encounter but spent the entire run not meeting anyone.

One of the frustrations of this trail is that the dense undergrowth would occasionally give way to stretches of decent running, but this wouldn't last long. It would be helpful to bring along a machete or bushwhacker, but this is definitely an "unmaintained" trail. Then, at 3 miles, things got a little better. The trail turns into a wide mud "road" the loosest sense of the term...and this meant that I could at least do some running. But it is a steep and difficult section because the surface is so heavily rutted. Eventually this section emerges on the summit ridge and although it was still dark, I could pick out the outline of surrounding mountains in the first light of dawn.
Did I really run through this in the dark?

I plodded on for another mile or so to get a view of the north shore of the island and by the time I decided to turn back the dark had relented and I was able to run without torchlight. I don't know why this should have changed anything, but the run back to the trailhead was really enjoyable. What I hadn't realized until much later is that the final section of the ascent had been particularly overgrown and my legs were in quite a bit of pain from the scratching and scraping along this section. By contrast, the initial section of trail seemed relatively benign and I strode out more purposefully.
Sunrise over Keaka'a bay

I could also see my surroundings and this distracted me from the lashing I was getting. It truly was a beautiful area. There's nothing in the name "Powerline" that inspires the mind, but name aside, this crosses some tremendous countryside and I ended up feeling very glad that I had come. I wouldn't recommend the full trip to the north shore however until someone comes along with a weedwhacker and machete!!!

The trail really does go through here!!!

Kuku'i Trail, Waimea, Kauai, HI

This was my back-up plan. My first choice run was closed - Nu'alolo/Awa-'awapuhi grand loop - due to some trail detrioration on the clifftop section, and as I would be running that section by torchlight I decided to go elsewhere. If I needed a further excuse to go for the back-up, it was also lashing horizontal rain at 4,500' and I would be soaked (and cold) immediately.
First light of dawn as I met the river at the bottom of the descent
The Kuku'i trail is a very steep descent. 2.6 miles and about 2,200' of altitude loss. Starting very close to milemarker 9 on the canyon road it starts fairly gently. It was still dark as I began the descent and there was no rain or appreciable cloud cover at this altitude. It was an eerie descent in so many ways. First, I knew there were some significant drop-offs when the trail traversed steep slopes, but I couldn't see them in the dark. Occasionally I would squirt my torch beam into nothingness and briefly pondered how steep the void really was (I would find out on the ascent!!!). Also, there was the constant screeching of ferrel chickens and much rustling in the adjacent undergrowth. I had read about wild boars and aggressive pigs and didn't fancy meeting one in the dark on a perilous perch. I needn't have worried.

After a half mile the trail began a series of steep, sweeping switchbacks and I could feel the quick loss of altitude. This section is through a wooded hillside and it took a lot of concentration to avoid the rooted surface. I didn't fancy twisting an ankle - or worse - on such a poorly frequented trail, so I was a little tentative where I would normally have been gung-ho. It felt like a slow descent.

At around 1.2 miles the switchbacks relent and after a contour across a steep slope on a very narrow section of trail it headed down in a straight line following a steep hard mud hillside. Had it been raining this would have been treacherous, but in the dry I found I could make reasonable pace and my torch was able to pick the most obviously trodden line. This direct descent continued for about .75 miles and by the time I re-entered the woods at the bottom of the slope my quads were burning.
Just need to get round that hillside to see the huge waterfall

I am a decent navigator and it made sense to me to push this descent of the mud slope right to the very bottom, but I could also see trails cutting off to the right (facing out) and could imagine a few folk getting enticed by an illusory "easier path". My advice would be to ignore those more promising routes and keep to the tough, direct line.

Things took a different course when I re-entered the woods. With another mile and about 800' of descending ahead, the overgrown trail became damp - indeed very wet - in places. Throughout this whole final section I was slipping and sliding all over the darn place, keeping my balance when I really didn't deserve to. The rocks were lichenous and the trail surface pure mud. It was disgusting. And then just when I wished it would end there was a quarter mile section through head-high grass - grass that was dripping with morning dew. I got absolutely soaked as I ran through it. It was a shower I didn't need and although the air temperature down in the depths of the gorge was warmer, my wet shorts and teeshirt felt really cold. I squelched along the final descent to the river as quickly as I could and reached a primitive picnic area at the bottom. That teeshirt just had to come off!!!
What? No bridge?

I wasn't really sure where to go from here. One option was to head down the gorge and then try to pick up a lower trail that would take me up the far side. Instead I headed up river with the aim of reaching the huge waterfall towards the top of the valley. I made the wrong choice.

Sunrise touching the valley rim
There are two places I have been on earth where an encounter with a live dinosaur wouldn't have been a huge stretch of the imagination. One is the Gorge du Verdon near Castellane in southern France. The other is here. (There is a 3rd - a Republican convention, but here you have to realize that these are pretend dinosaurs...they aren't really real!!!). The floor of the gorge feels otherwordly. This surprised me because the evidence of human impact was all around...after all, I was running on a trail...and I could also see evidence of logging. But the dark, dripping foliage and undergrowth, so obviously lush and untouched, could have harbored almost anything. It was only slightly disappointing that the only wildlife I encountered were wild chickens and frogs...really big frogs...the kind of frogs that wouldn't get off the trail when you encountered them...really intimidating frogs with an attitude!!! Bastards. They were everywhere.

As I tracked northwest by the river I crossed a few streams and after about a mile met an impossible obstacle. It had just turned daylight and as I rounded a corner I was met with a full flowing river about 150' across. And it was fast flowing. I also estimated it to be about chest deep in the shallowest section. I pretended to consider the decision to cross very truth I knew the second I saw it that I wasn't going to cross. It would have been even more foolhardy than is usual for me to attempt a crossing. I pretended to feel disappointed and back tracked to the picnic area.

I had wasted too much time on this fruitless excursion so decided to ascend back up the trail and hopefully get into some sunshine. I determined right at the bottom that I would run the whole way up, no matter what. I do stupid things like this - set myself impossible tasks just to beat myself up when I fail to achieve them!!! But this was one I accomplished. Despite the horrible trail conditions in the lower third, and the excessively steep middle section up the hardened mud slope, and the steep switchbacks and steep traverses towards the top, I kept running the whole way.
Did I really skip across this slope in the dark on the way down?

There was but one problem - a large frog encounter. As I re-entered the dense woods towards the top of the ascent there was a very large frog on the trail. As I approached it did not move. I went to the right - it jumped to the right. I went to the left - it jumped to the left. This was a mean, no nonsense frog. I eventually found myself in a straddle position with the frog between my legs when it leaped ahead again. Slightly off balance I spun around on one leg, lost sight of the darn thing, and then put my right leg out to stop myself falling down the hillside. My footing felt soft - way too soft. I looked down at a squashed frog. It's innards oozed across the trail and a sticky and extremely smelly goo stuck to the sole of my shoes. This was one dead frog. Although I felt bad about ending its life, I rationalized that it was a "him or me" situation. After all, it could have killed me!!! "Frog kills runner" would have been all over the news. Imagine the humiliation.

I topped out in 47 minutes - the second fastest recorded ascent. Again, not too shabby for a frog affected ascent.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Nounou Mountain, Kauai, HI

Moon over early dawn Nounou Mountain
So, why am I writing about a 3.5 miles, 1,000' ascent run that under normal circumstances wouldn't be worth tying my shoelaces for? Because it's a real gem.
Sunrise over Kapa'a taken from summit

It's the kind of trail when I think it is better to ascend in the dark by torch, as I did this morning. This way the unfolding scenery is hidden from view until higher elevation is reached. This trail is all the better for concealing its charm until the end.
Spectacular summit dawn panorama at end of knife-edge ridge - a bit windy up there!!!

You might think that such a short trail would be a pushover, but this isn't. Ascending steep ground in the dark with so many rocky outcrops and tree roots is challenging enough. There are a couple of class 3 moves on rock steps to encounter, but nothing difficult, and other than this it is running the whole way. And it is pretty tiring. At an average altitude gain of 700' per mile, this isn't an easy run. But it is so much fun.

Early in the run the switchbacks enable rapid elevation gain and this is followed by some sweeping traverses where speed can be picked up. The dense undergrowth meant my torch needed to be illuminated longer than I expected, but this added to the atmosphere of the climb. Just after a mile and 800' of climbing there is a picnic area preceded by a lookout point across the bay to the east. A little further and a view of the summit is offered, in my case illuminated by moonlight. It really is a wonderful little climb.

Looking east through the summit cave
After the picnic area there is a short climb then the trail descends along a shoulder to the final summit ascent. There is a sign at this point saying "Trail closed", but being the law abiding citizen I am I breezed past this pretending that English was my second language and thinking "closed" really meant "close". The final climb is abrupt, steep and rocky and topped out at one end of a narrow rocky arete. With the real summit still a few hundred feet higher I jogged up through the emerging dawn in the teeth of a fierce gale and was met by a rock summit stone, but with limited views because of the surrounding vegetation. Clearly the rocky arete was the place to go so I descended quickly and galloped along the ridge. It was an exposed and precipitous place with sheer cliffs on 3 sides. At the end was a small rock platform and it was an airy place to stand in the wind as a sliver of rising sun split the clouds on the horizon to the east. It was a spectacular sight.

Looking southwest through the summit cave
As I turned to descend I spotted a trail traversing to the north across a steep cliffside. It seemed unusually well-trodden, so I had to take a look. What a good job I did. At the end of the short spur was a through-cave. The whole promontory above was suspended above this cleft - for how much longer? I crawled through the gap to see the last of the sunrise. No need for my torch for the descent as the light arrived so quickly. I retraced my steps and felt the 3.5 mile trip was good value. I'll take on a more significant challenge tomorrow!!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Haleakala Crater to Halamau'u Trail

I am used to appalling conditions in the mountains. Having spent a lifetime of competitive running in the UK I know what rain, mist and wind looks and feels like. The last 5 years in Colorado have taught me about cold at altitude. I almost have to pinch myself writing this at the start of a post about a run on Maui, Hawaii, but those were the conditions I had to deal with.

Driving the long 38 mile approach road at 4am in miserable, heavy rain and wind wasn't concerning. After all, at 10,000 feet I would be bound to be above cloud level and all would be OK. With the wind direction I also felt confident that the crater would be shielded from the worst of the wind. What could possibly go wrong?

The plan was to drive to the Halamau'u Trailhead, park the car there, then hitch a ride the last 6 miles to the summit. I would then do a long, arcing route via the Paliku Cabin and trace my way back to the Halamau'u trail - 22 miles and get back to the car in about 4 hours. The first problem was getting out of the car without losing the door. Shorts, thermal teeshirt and light (and I mean light) waterproof jacket - I was soaked in seconds. I carried a small waist pack with first aid kit, hat, water and camera. I jogged to the road to thumb a lift. I must have struck a wretched sight - who on earth would pick me up. I jogged up and down in the cold rain waiting. 2 cars flew by, then a third stopped and I gratefully squeezed into the back seat. One of the passengers lived 5 miles away from me back home in Boulder - we had a good chat even though I sensed the incredulous feelings of my fellow travelers towards my plans for the morning.

I left them sat in the car at the summit parking lot and I immediately had my hat whipped off by the gale. Thankfully it caught on a rock 20 yards away and I retrieved it - I would be thankful of the hat later in the day. My hands were already numb (no gloves of course - who brings gloves to Hawaii!!!) and I fumbled around switching on my small torch in the screaming wind. A blast of light illuminated horizontal rain mixed with sand that I could feel blasting my legs and face. I clicked on my GPS watch and began picking my way through boulders at the top of the Sliding Sands trail. I could barely breathe the wind was so strong.

Moon over Haleaka summit - enveloped in a heavy storm - from the crater floor
Cresting the top of the trail before the long descent the wind plucked me off my feet and deposited me about 10 yards lower down the hillside. As I landed I put my hand out to steady my fall. I could feel the pain immediately and I clutched my hand to my midriff. I shone my torch and could see blood all over the front of my jacket - I had a 3 inch gash across my left hand. I immediately though of returning to the trailhead, but I couldn't even imagine being able to walk back through the strength of the gale. Anyway, I had come this far and wasn't for giving up so easily. In what was a borderline stupid decision - given that there would be no other person down in the crater that day - I jogged off into the dark.
Dawn breaking over Puu Kumu

I can't remember a lot about the descent. I just focused on where to place my feet and tried to keep my balance in the wind. The lower I got the less ferocious it felt, although each time it seemed to relent I relaxed, only for it to whip up again and buffet me around. It really was brutal. I had already decided that Paliku Cabin was out of the question. I needed the shortest route back to the car so I aimed for the Ka Luu o ka cutoff trail that would take me to Halalii cinder cone. As I dropped below 9,000' I came out of the clouds and got some visual assistance from a full moon. The rain was still pelting me hard but the worst problem was stinging sand hitting my eyes and flesh. I was able to pull down the brim of my hat to protect my face but this meant running awkwardly with one hand on my hat and the other trying to keep the torch beam steady.
Washed out at Holua Cabin

I was going at a fairly quick pace on the descent and luckily picked up the cutoff trail when I could quite easily have missed it. I turned to the left into a cross wind and again lost my hat to the wind. Again it caught against some rocks and I retrieved it. Made no sense trying to wear it in the cross wind so I carried it for a few miles. There is a nasty little ascent on the floor of the crater before the junction with the Halemau'u trail, but this was nothing compared to the section of trail that came next - directly into the teeth of the gale. The problem was the wind was inconsistent - one moment I could barely make forward progress, then next I would almost fall forwards as the intensity eased. During one of these eases I fell and crushed my knee on some lava rock. There wasn't a lot of pain, but it did bleed profusely. I used some water to flush out some grit but it didn't make a lot of sense hanging around in such an exposed position. Better idea was to head to Holua where I knew there was some water and possible shelter from the wind.

The trek across the crater was outstanding. The wind turned sideways again and I could maintain a really steady pace. I picked off the Silversword Loop and after topping a ridge could see the Holua Cabin in the distance. The descent to the cabin was rocky and runnable and I could make out people moving around in front of the cabin. Overnight campers no doubt. They were shocked to see me given the weather and were a little sickened by the sight of so much blood. I went to the ground faucet and flushed as much of this away as I could. There didn't seem to be too much damage, but in the cold I'm not sure I would have felt it in any case. Best to head off.
Approach to Halamau'u ascent

The approach to the Halamau'u climb is quite intimidating. A gentle, flat grassy trail met the switchbacks at what seemed a 90 degree angle. Just where did the trail go? The closer I got to the mountain the more I was able to piece the route together. It looked fantastic and I felt I had to make a go for a fast time. The wind had dropped considerably and there was no mobile sand smacking against my skin. I knew the record for the ascent was beyond me, but I hoped (and paced myself) for 30 minute ascent of the two mile climb. I went through the trail gate that marks the beginning of the ascent and began to grind out my effort.
Looking back down the switchbacks with Haleakala in the far distance still covered in clouds

Altitude was quickly gained and it was a lot of fun. The route was forever interesting and challenging and I found that I could easily run the whole thing. I even had time to stop and take a few pictures. I did the first mile (and 700' of ascent) in 14 minutes, so I knew I would be close to my target time. But I also knew the top section would be back in the teeth of a gale and this would definitely slow me down. I mentally conserved some energy for the final mile and kicked in hard as I passed 1000' of ascent. Although the terrain made it hard to keep a steady pace I found I was able to run the gradual climbs quite quickly and then just kept moving over the steeper areas. I topped out but wasn't interested in checking my watch as I was back in the wind and rain and just wanted to complete the final mile to the car. It was only later that I realized I had the 4th fastest time in just over 26 minutes. Not too shabby for an old guy.