Hawai’i Hike of Death: Olomana

You know you’ve hit upon a great group of friends when they say, “What should we do on our second day in Oahu,” and you respond, “I’ve found a really dangerous trail where lots of people fall to their deaths,” and then they say, “When can we go?”

Yesterday, I’d successfully planned our day through Punchbowl National Cemetary, Diamond Head, and around the western tip of Oahu. My friends had every reason to trust my planning abilities. I was the Rick Steves of Hawai’i and ready to tackle the second day of our trip. Was it their blind faith or my infectious exuberance at the prospect of a crazy-technical hike up a volcanic slope that led us to the foot of the Olomana Trail? Perhaps we’ll never know. What we do know is that our second morning in Oahu, we found ourselves parked outside the Royal Hawai’ian Golf Club on Kamehameha Highway.

“Park outside the gates,” the instructions to the trailhead read. “Walk past the guard on duty for the golf course. Continue for a half mile up the road and then look left for a sign marking the start.” The security guard barely glanced at us as our intrepid foursome trudged past her. I like to imagine that she stared at our retreating backs and thought silently to herself, “There they go again. Crazy hikers.” Or maybe she thought, “Four. Four is good. I hope four of them come back.” Or possibly, “Maybe I should stop them. The weather is touchy today . . .”

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Walking into the Royal Hawai’ian Golf Club in search of the trailhead

No matter what she thought, she didn’t let on. Her stoic visage through the glass of the security booth gave nothing away and we marched past her with no words exchanged. As we continued up the wide sweeping road, we recounted to each other what we had learned about the trail on the drive from the hotel to the trailhead. My friend Ben found the most ominous review on TripAdvisor. It started, “My father died here . . .today.” “Glorious vistas and sheer drop-offs” is the gist of another. “Don’t hike this trail in the rain,” one TripAdvisor report warns. The list goes on, but the take away is this trail is difficult, sheer, and dangerous, but also beautiful, rewarding, and not full of swarming tourists.

The trailhead is innocuous enough. A dirty white sign where Olomana Trail has had a graffiti addition to become the YOLOmana trail. The impenetrable Hawai’ian jungle opens ever so slightly onto a rutted, red-mud path. And the rain began to fall.

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Olomana Trail with graffiti results in YOLOmana Trail

Just a pitter at first. Then a pitter patter. But the drops soon add up to turn the already slippery trail into a slowly oozing creek of mud. Kraig and myself were in hiking boots which kept our feet dry most the day. Ben and Rob, in tennis shoes, lost the battle of dryness to Hawai’i nearly immediately. Despite this, we all pushed on together. Up the first steep ascent and through to the second. The ridgeline offered a welcome respite from the upward slog; the red mud was covered in a dense carpet of pine needles and the rain was held at bay by the same pines that had dropped them. Soon though, the pines gave way to jungle again. Our path was a mere ten centimeters wide and the plants encroached bravely, without thought of or worry for the human intruders passing through.

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That dark bit in the middle – that’s the trail.

As slick and treacherous as the red mud was,  it wasn’t the only thing that made this particular trail so unforgiving.  Adding to our worries (and exhilaration) were steep rock wall ascents and sheer drop-offs as the ridgeline met the volcanic peak. Some of the rocks walls had ropes anchored to them, rendering the climbs less perilous if no less nerve-wracking. Others required some bouldering and creative hand/foot coordination. I freely admit to scooching up and down some of the rougher places with five points of contact on the ground. No shame.

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Rob (at a lanky 6’6″ or so) and Ben (who rides his bike hundreds of miles in a month) quickly outpaced Kraig and me. I am firm and happy believer in HYOH though and found I didn’t mind. The jungle was quiet – the sounds from Waikiki of traffic and tourists had been left far behind and instead we spent the time listening to the rain in the leaves and the scurry of small feet running away from our clumsy boots. As we climbed, we met a charming Californian named Greg. Greg was moving from a job in Cali to a new position in New York and figured as long as he was uprooting his entire life, he might as well take a trip to Hawai’i in the middle of it. I’m not sure Greg was immediately happy when the four of us crashed his solo hike. However, three quarters of the way up that mountain, he seemed pretty ok hiking with our merry band and joined willingly in the group effort to make sure no one went sliding down any rock faces.

After four hours of ascending, we reached the base of the final rock wall. Twenty feet vertical, with a heavy rope hanging from the top, it was the only thing that stood between us and the summit. Greg put his hands out on the ledge. “Ow,” he cried and pulled his left hand back as if someone had burned it. “Something stung me!” Even as he said it, I saw the dead bee on the rock where his hand had been.

“Are you allergic?” I asked. Thoughts of trying to get a grown man down the mountain we had just climbed, of trying to get emergency aid up to us, of none of us being currently CPR certified, of all manner of terrible outcomes rushed through my mind. “I don’t know,” he said.  “I don’t know.” My head nearly exploded. “I don’t know,” rang in my ears as we waited and watched him carefully. Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. I finally started to breath. Greg finally started to breath. We all took a moment for our hearts to calm down.

Reassured that we were hale and hearty again, I clambered up the rope after Rob. I wish I could say the summit was glorious. That it was the most beautiful vista in Hawai’i. But it wasn’t. It was raining. The flies were biting. The clouds were heavy around us. Sometimes the hike isn’t about the summit – sometimes the hike is about the whole damn hike. This was one of those times. Clouds and flies aside, we crashed on the summit to take a few pictures, rest, eat, and rehydrate before turning around and sliding back to the trailhead.

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Kraig

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Ben (Rob to right, Greg to left)

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Greg

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Rob

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Me!

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During our seven hours on Olomana, we actually only completed 1/3 of the trail. The whole trail is a three peak hike. We learned from some Marines along the way that the majority of deaths occur as hikers descend from the second peak and head to the third peak. While reassuring to some extent, I was still happy to have feet at sea level and four (yes, my crew plus Greg) functioning companions down with me.

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Descent!

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As a moderately experienced hiker, I was (and am) quite proud of our performance on Olomana. We provided some trail magic (Greg told us he wouldn’t have perservered if we had not adopted him), we tackled and completed a technically advanced and challenging piece of trail, I hiked my own hike and didn’t mind my (rather slower) pace, and we all successfully summited the first Olomana Peak. All in all, a wonderful (partial) trail which I would recommend to any experienced hiker in Hawai’i.

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