vvv Waialeale

The Trail of the Ancients

Centuries past, long before Cook brought catastrophe to the Hawaiians, they climbed Waialeale by several routes. They approached from the west across the Alakai, from the south over Kawaikini and other long abandoned routes. But the most spectacular had to have been their route from the east which followed a precipitous ridge to the summit plateau. They used this route to make a pilgrimage from their heiaus near the mouth of the Wailua river to Kaawako, a small heiau located close to the lake called Waialeale.

Literally dozens of ridges lead to the summit plateau of Waialeale. To ascend most, you'd likely be forced to invent new techniques, perhaps more akin to ice climbing. Most are untouched by man and will likely remain that way.

While overlaying photos, maps, etc onto DEM's were invaluable in finding a route to Waialeale, the near vertical terrain along the ridge causes distortion as the computer program smears two dimensional graphics across a very three dimensional topography. I've excluded overlaid graphics on this page.

The combination of chemical weathering and rain lead to the formation of the characteristic knife-edged ridges and near vertical Pali's or cliffs of Hawaii. They vary from the cathedral like fluting of the Kalalau Coast to the wider spaced ridges above the deep, amphitheater-headed valleys that are the source of the Wailua, Hanalei, Olokele and other rivers and streams of Kauai. In the driest areas along the southern Na Pali Coast to Waimea, the ridges are broader.

It's a stretch to call the exposed crud in Hawaii, rock. Because of the chemical weathering, it's more of a stiff clay. Most erosion is caused by landslides and you can see the vertical scars where the weathered layers break off. The only "good" rock is at the lips of waterfalls where the softer layers have been scoured away.

Another factor in the formation of the cliffs not mentioned in the guidebooks is the existence of springs at the heads of many of the gorges such as the Blue Hole (misnamed Waialeale Crater by the local helicopter pilots). Even during the occasional dry periods atop Waialeale which may last up to two weeks, the North Fork of the Wailua still flows even though the dozens of waterfalls dry up after a few days. The North Fork's source is the huge "Wailua" spring located at the top of the Blue Hole.

The only account of a climb from the Wailua or east side that I've been able to locate, is a two day trek in 1870 by Austrian Botanist Henrich Wawra, guided by George N. Wilcox and four Hawaiian men and a woman who (although we know who did the work) are nameless. It may have been the first "white" ascent although it's doubtful there were many more (I've since come across a copy of an article from the local paper relating a 1874 climb, again by Wilcox.). The trail was described as being overgrown and abandoned (presumably the Hawaiians abandoned the trail with the decline of traditional Hawaiian religion and the abolishment of the Taboo system). I suspect that the route hasn't been climbed in a century.

I hiked the mile long Hanalei Tunnel not long after the trail was abandoned around 1985 (it accessed a raingage near the entrance to the tunnel)and years before it popped up in the guidebooks. In 2005, I repeated the hike but the only thing recognizable was the tunnel. Heavy traffic and pigs had transformed sections of the trail to mud wallows. Vegetation had forced the trail downslope off the excellent log path. Someday, some dildo will trip, sprain an ankle, sue and the State will probably dynamite the tunnel. Another bit of Kauai history will bite the dust.

Descriptions are vague and few, but the consensus is that the route ascended the ridge that runs east from the summit plateau a little north of the Waialeale raingage, connecting Waialeale with the Makaleha Mountains. The ridge forms the divide between Hanalei and the Lihue basin and is crossed by the Powerline Trail at about 2000 feet. West of the trail, the ridge is pierced by the Hanalei Tunnel, cut through in 1926 and extended to Kaapoko Stream in 1928. The mile long tunnel, now abandoned, was cut to tap water from Hanalei Valley. Closer to Waialeale, the ridge rises to a subsidiary peak or prominent bump called Pohakupele (or should it be Pohaku Pele) so I'll call it Pohakupele or Poha ridge.

Another factor favoring this route, is undoubtedly trails crossed the "Hanalei" divide to the Lihue - Kapaa area. At one time, the island was crisscrossed by dozens of trails, dropping down into Kalalau Valley, off the Wainiha Pali at Kilohana and into many of the isolated settlements of the Na Pali Coast. Atop this ridge, you're already 2000 feet up Waialeale.

Not being slave to consensus, I studied (using the 3DEM freeware from Visualization Software and USGS DEM's(Digital Elevation Models) the ridges and concluded that the consensus was reasonable. Slightly easier ridges may exist, but they reach the plateau miles from the heiau and even worse, started at the heads of remote valleys. Nobody would witness me desperately hugging a ridge that's probably a foot wide if I were lucky.

The first computer look at Poha Ridge was intimidating. Knowing that the slopes would be steeper and the ridges even narrower than the graphic, it seemed, even by Hawaiian standards, one helluva of a ridge. (I've found the DEM's accurate except they tend to under estimate the steepness of the terrain, the depth of ravines, etc.)

Now that really looks promising!! Only 3000 feet exposure above the Wailua River. Fun! A stiff breeze and Poha ridge might blow over! (Stiff winds and driving rain are the one thing you can count on near the summit of Waialeale)

Fortunately, this is an illusion which I'll call the "Iao Needle Effect."

Seen from the viewpoint, Iao "Needle" appears to be a precipitous pinnacle that'd reguire techical climbing to ascend. But in profile, the "Needle" becomes a bump on a ridge. In reality, there are hundreds if not thousands of ridges in Hawaii, that seen end-on, are even more needlelike than the famed Iao needle. That's not to say that reaching the top of the ridge is easy by any means.

Looking at the ridge profile from the south, it's obvious that the crux would be Pohakupele. If I could pass it, the upper ridge should be a cinch (Although there will certainly be ten or fifteen or thirty foot cliffs that do not show up on the graphic).

Looking up at ridge, showing details omitted in graphic. The view along and upward exaggerate the ruggedness (I hope) although I've no delusions as to the route being easy.

Pohakupele from the Southeast

As I studied the wedge-shaped Pohakupele, I noticed perhaps a weakness. Maybe I wouldn't be forced to go across the top. The north slope wasn't as steep as the south. The ridge seemed to lead up to a shoulder and then maybe it'd be possible to traverse the north face! (Sure wasn't going to be able to traverse the south face)

Pohakupele from the East

From the Northwest

Of course, this type of analysis will only take you so far. The 1870 account described holding onto branches, etc. Would there still be enough vegetation to hold onto or, especially on the traverse, were there sections stripped bare of brush by the mass wasting? Ultimately, I'd have to go and see firsthand.

But where to begin? I don't know for certain where the ancient trail joined the ridge. Perhaps near the entrance to the Tunnel since some sources say they followed the North Fork of the Wailua River on their pilgrimage. The North Fork cuts off west near the Fern Grotto tourist trap. One of its tributaries is the stream that leads down from near the Tunnel. They could have followed that drainage to the ridge top.

But since the ancient trail no longer existed, why should I recreate it? Might there be an easier way the ridge?

Should we start from either the Powerline or Hanalei Tunnel trails or another subsidiary ridge? From my TOPO! program, I noticed that the Tunnel Trail not only was half the distance of the Powerline, but passed near another southern ridge that also led up to Pohakupele. Was this an alternative? Click here for a map of the area.

The southern ridge was the steepest. And one would either have to traverse the south face, the east face or go over the top. None of these look feasible unless I pioneered brave new techniques for climbing Kauai's Krumbly Kliffs of Klay. We'd better go with the lesser slope of Poha Ridge.

Should we use the Powerline or the Tunnel trail?
  • The Powerline trail at least guarantees reaching the ridgetop.
  • Although the Powerline access is twice the distance, there could very well be an existing hunting or pig trail along the ridge for at least part of the distance
  • According to the TOPO! program, the climb up from the tunnel is with few exceptions, the steepest part of the route, even steeper than Pohakupele. Without switchbacks and the uluhe ferns and it might be extremely difficult to reach the ridge. Paradoxically, the short Tunnel route could be much harder than the Powerline route
  • It may be possible to avoid much of the uluhe by following drainages or patches of rainforest. However, even then, the climb up from the tunnel will likely be hell.

At this point, sitting in Arizona it's hard to say which route will work the best. But since I've never walked the Kaapoko Tunnel, perhaps I can take a dayhike through the tunnels and at least study the route close hand. It'll also be possible to study the eastern slope of Pohakupele with a spotter scope. But by one of these routes, one should at least be able to reach the lower slopes of Poha.

March 2006 Update

A recent recon has revealed the trail south from the Powerline Trail toward Poha only goes a few hundred yards before becoming a (even by Kauai standards) hideous bushwhack. Photos of the ridges suggests that the south ridge may in fact be easier than the north one. Careful study of an newspaper account of the 1874 climb also suggest that the conventional wisdom that the old trail went up the North Ridge(the one penetrated by the tunnel hike) may be another "Kauai Urban Legend."

On closer examination, while the average slope of the northern ridge is less, it is very jagged.
The southern ridge is more straight forward and may be easier to access.
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