Tropical Mountaineering to the Summit of the Ko'olaus
Last summer, my friend and coworker JP Olson and I, met up with Test Pilot, Ryan Moss to hike to the top of the Ko'olau Mountain Range, Kōnāhuanui summit via the Pali Notches.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The only “research” and knowledge I had was Ryan Moss is notorious for sandbagging. I didn’t see any climbing or sketchy trekking along a knife’s edge. I thought it was going to be more physically taxing than actually dangerous. I just told myself I’d go at my own pace. I had no idea what we were getting into.
Just hours after landing on Oahu, JP and I geared up at Ryan Moss’ house and packed our bags. Deciding what camera gear and products to shoot were top of mind for me. Luckily JP is an experienced hiker/backpacker and had not only a full second Southwest 55L backpack but also a spare sleeping bag, pad and all the goodies (caffeine gummy bears, which I never knew existed).
JP also had a spare set of trekking poles. Moss saw the poles and laughed at us. He said “you don’t need those, there’s no room anywhere to use them”. It wasn’t until later that I realized what he meant. We were hiking on a knife’s edge of mud with 1000 foot cliffs on each side and just enough room to go one foot in front of the other.
We ubered 45 minutes from Moss’ house to the base of our path. As we arrived and started up the mountain, JP realized that we needed those trekking poles we just left behind to set up his ULTAMID 2 tent. Again, I had no idea what he meant. Turns out the poles are literally the only thing that holds up his tent. We toiled with a few options but ultimately JP headed back in an Uber to get the poles, putting us 1.5 hours behind schedule.
As we went to ascend through the first portion we had a rain squall pass through just to make sure that everything that was wet and chossy prior was EXTRA wet and chossy. The chimney we climbed up and over was the beginning of the sketchiness. Combine a 30lb pack (learned later I way overpacked), 30mph winds, intermittent rain, slippery, wet and muddy holds and hundred foot cliffs and it makes the easiest climbing pretty scary. Thankfully this year I’ve started climbing frequently so I at least felt comfortable in my climbing ability. It was all the other variables that made it super sketchy for me. Moss said it was only a 5.7X. I knew 5.7 wasn’t hard as I’ve climbed higher than that in my few times on rope (I typically Boulder). I foolishly asked Moss what the X meant. Death.
Moss was encouraging and told me to set my pack down and we’ll jam through it and take some photos while we waited for JP to grab the poles. After making it through some gnarly ascents and descents to get through the first portion, I was afraid of going through that all again, then grabbing my pack and doing it all again with a 30lb pack. Thankfully Moss in his nonchalant manner was like “no worries, I’ll grab it for you”. In this photo he’s carrying my overstuffed pack as I sit and wait in “safety”.
From there it was a long, long hike along the knife’s edge. Every step was important which is draining mentally more than physically. The 1.5 hour delay made it so it got dark as we were climbing to the summit where we’d spend the night. We climbed with headlamps while JP’s shoes completely exploded making it so he was pretty much hiking a knife’s edge in the dark with flip flops. JP had such a positive and dedicated attitude though it kept me going. Especially since Moss had disappeared hundreds of feet in front of us into the fog of night. We’d occasionally turn off our headlamps to see a little light glowing way up ahead. More to go. Because of the spiny topography of the Ko'olau range it made for a never-ending series of false summits. If we can just get there, we’re at the top. Nope. We just kept going and going. After about 5-6 hours of hiking we made it to the spot to camp. A 15 x 20 foot pad of wet leaves to set up our tent and get out of our gear for the night.
It was a long night of no sleep inside the wind-blasted tent. We woke up to a glowing white fog completely socked in. As Jimmy Chin says, it was "like being inside a ping pong ball". Thankfully I had my camera out and was trying to take photos when the sky opened up for about 20 seconds and was able to snag this pano. Moss called it, the view made the trek worth it. He popped his head out of the tent to enjoy the view, cracking his third Red Bull of the trip. I think he had 4 Red Bulls in total along with 2 bags of M&Ms, an aggressive diet but perfectly fitting for his pedal to the metal attitude.
We packed up our gear and headed out. The way home was unknown. We went down what felt like a Willy Wonka chocolate slide of mud down another knife’s edge. The descent was long and engaging but much more tolerable emotionally than the day prior. After a few hours of hiking and 6 miles later we got spit out onto a random road. We stripped down to the cleanest clothes we had, which for me, was my wet underwear and called an Uber back home. I finally know what Ryan meant Type 2 fun.
I learned a lot from this hike with one of the most important being that in certain situations having an ultralight pack can be the difference between life and death.