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.

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