— John Waters (via blackestdespondency)
I’m standing at the top of a steep ridge, either side dropping dramatically into lush valleys fed by waterfalls. It was a scramble to get up here. Thick roots and boulders make up a trail of short, steep switchbacks that lead nearly 800 vertical feel up and out of the Hanakapi’ai Valley floor. The wind is whipping as I survey the trail ahead. I can only see the next mile or so, a descent into the valley below, then back up to a cliff band that the trail skirts before the ridge ends abruptly, as if cleaved by a butcher’s knife. It looks like the trail winds around the edge, about 300 feet above the Pacific, but it’s hard to tell.
The ridge I’m standing on ends the same way. I inch myself closer to the edge for a peek down and feel my breath hitch as I catch a glimpse of the blue ocean crashing against the base, 800 feet below.
I’m three miles in on the 11 mile Kalalau Trail and the descriptors I’d read of the hike are becoming more real: One of America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes, strenuous, challenging, one slip can result in serious injury or death. Stepping back from the edge, I take a sip of water and scan the trail ahead one last time.
“Better keep moving.”
A and I first hatched the plan to hike the Kalalau Trail two months ago over our dinner table. Like most our conversations on adventures to be had it was short and decisive.
“There’s this hike I want to do when we’re in Kauai. It’s supposed to be beautiful,” she said.
“Great. Let’s do it.”
With that settled we moved on to the next topic, likely how busy our schedules were for the rest of the week or what chores needed to be done around the house.
As our vacation in Kauai neared we were confronted with the logistics of a backpacking trip that would take us 11 miles along the Na Pali coast to an area largely unsupported by the modern world. We would need to carry our own food, water, shelter, and anything else necessary for survival. Like all backcountry travel, self-sufficiency and preparation are often the difference between a good time and a bad one. In extreme situations, they’re the difference between life and death.
In the week leading up to the trip we began researching the trail and what we would need to bring. The first sign that this backpacking trip wasn’t going to be routine was after dinner one night when Alison was searching for trip reports.
“Greg, I think this trail might be kind of dangerous,” she said in a tone that was half question, half statement.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just… there are some cliffs. And some exposure.”
In our relationship, A likes to do the advance research on things and then call me in when it’s decision time. This was the first time I could remember her sounding more nervous than stoked.
As we read more about the trail we learned that people have died doing it, the last time in 2012 when a woman fell at the waterfall at the end of Kalalau Beach that we would need to visit for drinking water while camped there. Then we watched a video of a hiker traversing a portion known as Crawler’s Ledge, the climax to a trail section beginning at mile 7 where you’re exposed to objective hazards such as falling rock and crumbly trail and where a misstep could result in death.
Lots of discussions ensued in the days leading up to our trip. In the end we decided to approach the hike the same way we would backcountry skiing. We’d have a plan A, B, and C. We’d constantly assess the conditions and our psyches, communicate often, and if one of us had a bad feeling, we would turn around. We came to vacation, not have a bad trip.
Back on the trail and quickly dropping into a dark jungle, I take note of the changing conditions. The trail has narrowed from 3 or 4 feet wide down to 1 to 2 feet. Switchbacks have became 2 to 5 move scrambles over boulders and/or crumbly rock, and the edge of the trail has become less and less buffered by vegetation so that I’m staring to get my first glimpses of where I will end up if I slip and fall.
I think back to earlier this morning when the trail was just something of our imaginations, constructed with other peoples’ thoughts and photos. We’d woken at 5 and finished the final details of our packing. Alison spread some peanut butter on tortillas which would serve as breakfast and lunch once we were on the trail. We loaded the car with our packs and set off. There were no cars on the road as we wound up the coast, just a gentle sunrise painting the Pacific pink. We were both quiet, each thinking about what lay ahead.
Now we know. Nearly four miles in and we’re approaching the end of the ridge I had surveyed earlier. The contrast in the trail condition had been foreboding but there is something even more disconcerting about walking along a narrow path that looks as though it simply drops into the Pacific. I slow my pace as I approach, the trail revealing itself step by step as an easy turn, about five feet wide, around the ridge. I focus on choosing my steps carefully, and once I’m comfortable I’m on stable ground, turn to watch Alison. She has a determined look on her face and seems confident and steady. The reality is that you would need to take a significant stumble to fall off the trail in that section. But if you did, you would die.
This realization seeps in as we push along the trail. It’s not that the trail is extreme, or anything a moderately experienced backpacker couldn’t survive. It’s just that if something were to go wrong, it could go really, really wrong.
The next couple of miles through the Hono O Na Pali Natural reserve become a blur. As the difficulty of the trail increases and my awareness of its consequence heightens, I’m reduced to focusing on each and every footstep. It becomes meditative, each step a rhythm, like breath. Pole plant, step, pole plant, step, pole plant, step.
By the time we reach, Hanakoa Falls we’re tired and hungry. We drop our packs, sit down on some rocks, and take in where we are. We’re in a a thick jungle. The Hanakoa river rushes from the falls past us on its way to the ocean. There’s the sounds of the jungle, animals and birds I’ve probably never seen.
“We should eat,” Alison says, snapping me out of my trance.
She pulls our peanut butter tortillas out along with some dried mango, a handful of trail mix, and three small squares of chocolate, one for her and two for me. We eat in silence save for the occasional mmm-hm. When we finish, we pull out the water filter and go to the river. Sitting there pumping water I recall the warning of flash floods I’d read. Having now observed the landscape, the steepness of the hills, and the narrowness of the valley, I can imagine what must happen when any more than a modest amount of rain falls. It is rain, in fact, that has slowly helped carve this landscape into what it is.
We finish pumping water, get our packs straight, and set back off the trail. Five more miles to go, and from everything we’ve read, the most challenging five miles of the trail.
The Kalalau Trail has three distinct sections. Ke e to Hanakapi’ai (2 miles), Hanakapi’ai to Hanakoa (4 miles), and Hanako to Kalalau Beach (5 miles).
The Ke e to Hanakapi’ai is the most traveled section, and while challenging, the heavy foot traffic has widened the trail and worn down some of the obstacles. The trail starts with a steep 600 foot climb and 500 foot descent into the Hanakapi Valley. The trail may be wide here but there are several scrambles up and down boulders, lots of stairs, and if it’s rained recently, lots of mud. All levels of hikers in sound physical condition should be able to complete this portion with times between 1 to 3 hours depending on ability and conditions.
The next section from Hanakapi’ai to Hanakoa is more advanced and requires greater attention. It climbs and descends nearly 2200 feet in 4 miles, lots of which occur in half-mile ups and downs. In addition to being physically demanding, the trail becomes higher consequence in terms of what a fall could mean. There are several stretches where the trail is two feet wide on a 60 or 70 degree slope. Falling rocks become a greater concern as the trail traverses slide paths of 10 to 30 foot sections of exposure.
From Hanakoa the trail climbs a quick 100 feet from where you get a view of mile 7 where hikers experience their first true exposure in a section called Crawler’s Ledge. The approach to Crawler’s Ledge is a sharp descent down a loose, dry 35-45 degree slope ending in cliffs. The trail as well of the cliff it hugs are made of brittle volcanic rock in varying degrees of decomposition. Falling rocks, trail breaking away, and slipping are all possible and likely fatal. From Crawler’s Ledge, there’s another big climb before the 700 foot descent down the red hill known as Pu’ukulua to Kalauau Beach.
After lunch, the climb from Hanakoa is easy. Fun even. When we get to the top we get our first look at Crawler’s Ledge, the video of which was what raised the initial red flag with Alison that this might be a difficult hike.
“This is sketchy,” Alison says.
This is sketchy. It’s hard to tell exactly how wide the trail is but it can’t be more than two feet. It’s on a downward slope strewn with frock fragment, some of which looks to originate from the trail and other from the cliffs above it— dangerous in either case. The right side of the trail drops down a steep slope ending in a 300 foot cliff. From this vantage it looks like a fall from the trail might be able to be arrested before dumping off the cliff, but not certain.
“I’ll go first,” I say, skipping any ceremony. It’s better to just do these sorts of things rather than over think them. The truth is, I’d felt 100% in control the whole trail. It had been demanding of my focus and physically challenging, but every step had been sure.
As I ease down the approach and then out onto the ledge, I steal a few glances of the blue Pacific below, expecting a surge of terror or to freeze up. Instead, I’ve sunk into a calm mediation on survival. Pole plant, step, pole plant, step, pole plant, step…