One Item off the Bucket List: Solo Hike on the Kalalau Trail

Sep 16, 2020

In case you hadn't noticed, it’s been quiet from me lately. There’s a good reason for it: With Covid-19 raging on the mainland, I’ve had the unique chance to spend a few months in Kauai, which unfortunately also required two weeks of strict don’t-leave-the-house quarantine with regular check-in visits from the National Guard and local police.

However, and more importantly, I’ve finally done it and checked off a major item from my bucket list: Hike the full 11+ miles of the Kalalau Trail, a world-famous, but treacherous, and very challenging hiking trail along the Napali Coast. (For the movie buffs: check out A Perfect Getaway.)

I had been dreaming about this hike for more than 10 years and a photo canvas at the bottom of my stairs at home had been reminding me every day that this trek was waiting for me.

I had been seriously planning and training for this hike for over a year. After several setbacks due to Covid, hurricanes, trail closures, etc., a short window of opportunity opened up for me to go on this adventure, right before my 50th birthday. One compromise I had to make for logistical reasons was that instead of having two hiking buddies with me, this had to be my first long solo hike, which added to my anxiety. Despite the mind-boggling scenery, this hike has very real dangers, and every year, some people die attempting this arduous journey, so doing this alone and without any backup had me even more on edge.

So on one August morning, I found myself alone at the trailhead in the early dawn at 6:30 AM. The clothes I wore and 30 lbs of minimalist gear and supplies in my backpack (I had worked very hard on keeping the weight down) were all I had to brave four days in the jungle and off the grid.

There was not a soul around me and I took several deep breaths as I peered up the dark trail. I had had plenty of opportunity to change my mind and back out and no one would’ve blamed me, but this was not about playing it safe and staying in my comfort zone. This was about both following my dreams and facing my fears all at the same time. This was about walking out into the unknown with only my wits and what I could carry on my back. Whatever happened and whichever situation I was faced with, I would have to figure things out on my own. (Thanks to the Garmin InReach Mini satellite device I was carrying, I would at least be able to let people know I was okay or send an SOS in case of a dire emergency.)

With a gnawing unease in my stomach, I took the first steps up the trail. I was going to do this!

 

Into the Unknown

As I ascended, anxiety slowly gave way to a growing excitement. After all these years of thinking and dreaming about it, I was now actually doing this. The air was cool and refreshing and I could smell the unique scent of the Hawaiian jungle all around me. Kalalau Trail - here I come!

The trail winds around the Haena and famous Napali coast, in an out of valleys, up and down. It’s approximately 11 miles long and I registered a cumulative elevation gain of close to 3,100 feet, even though the trail starts and ends at sea level. The terrain varies from thick overgrown and humid jungle with a number of river crossings to gravelly or sandy exposed sections with red dirt or volcanic rocks under one’s feet. One might find oneself fighting through muddy, slippery sections under low clouds or in the fog and rain as well as sweating in the sun in areas without any cover. The length, as well as trail and weather conditions, make this a challenge for both body and mind, one’s endurance and perseverance.

The first two miles lead to Hanakapiai beach, which is accessible to the public. From there, only those with permits can proceed further. I had done this first part of the trail numerous times and it served as somewhat of a warm-up before heading into the truly unknown.

One might think that the many hours hiking alone would make for a great opportunity to let the mind wander and think about all kinds of things, but that is not the case. Due to the difficult and ever-changing trail conditions, scanning the next three feet ahead and carefully placing hiking sticks and every step required continuous focus. Missteps could be costly and might result in ankle injuries, slipping, nasty falls, or worse. Simultaneously, the following questions kept circulating through my mind: What’s my mileage? When does the next major waypoint come up? What’s my time? How much water do I have left? When I should I hydrate next? When will I have the next chance to pump water to replenish my supplies? How does my body feel? Do I need to eat soon to refuel?

During this state of intense mental focus, I noticed something else, which is a little hard to describe: I melted into my gear, the trail, the surroundings, the repetitive activity of breathing, walking, and simply moving forward. All of this blended together. When I donned my pack earlier that day, it felt clumsy and heavy; now it had become part of me. When I entered the jungle, I was a visitor. But now I became one with my surroundings and vice versa. I wasn’t a foreign object any more within a new environment, I became part of it and it of me. The repetition of thoughts, stepping, moving, breathing became almost hypnotic. There was no past and no future. There was only moving in the now and the next few steps ahead.

Hanakoa is a small camp in a lush valley at about the halfway mark. My contingency plan had been to stay there for one night in case I was too exhausted to finish the full trail in one day. Fortunately, I felt pretty good and decided to keep going.

Not far past Hanakoa, I reached the part of the trail I had heard and read much about, the section that caused me the most anxiety. It’s called Crawler’s Ledge and a ledge it is as the narrow trail winds around the side of steep cliff faces with sheer drop-offs to the ocean on one side. The descent to the beginning of the ledge was a ground slide waiting to happen and some consider sections before and after the ledge to be even more treacherous. As I carefully placed my foot, it felt like the whole ground under me, consisting of coarse red sand and dirt, was beginning to slide. When I placed my other foot, the same thing happened. Even my hiking sticks were of little help at this moment and I just had to push on and hope for the best. Fortunately, the ground stabilized after a few worrisome steps.

A cloud cover had gradually built up and as I was standing at the beginning of the roughly one foot-wide ledge, leaning against the cliff and peering ahead to assess the trail conditions, gusty winds and rain picked up. Not great timing, to say the least. After about 30 ft, the trail disappeared around the corner and I couldn’t see what lay ahead. After waiting out heavier gusts and rain, I decided to move forward since I didn’t know if more rain was going to make the rocks even more slippery.

Crawler’s Ledge turned out to be manageable. Despite the adrenaline, the ground turned out to be grippy and as long as I didn’t think too much about the fact that I was on the narrow edge of a cliff, I was fine. As it turned out, there are really several ledges - not just one. Some on rocky terrain, some on red dirt and compressed sand. Some of these other stretches were equally or sometimes more treacherous than the famed Crawler’s Ledge itself.

After passing this sketchy section of the hike, my destination - Kalalau Beach - came into view and I could see the famous Kalalau Valley as well. While my legs felt surprisingly good, my shoulders had been hurting for hours due to the weight of the pack, but the excitement of getting close to my destination made me push on. The lush valley and amazing colors of the breathtaking Napali coastline around an idyllic beach made it seem like I was descending into an oasis.

After a final river crossing, after about 9 1/2 exhausting hours, I found my way into camp, which was surprisingly spacious and stretched out with designated camping areas lining what must’ve been almost half a mile. Thanks to the good advice I had been given, I kept walking and scored a site on the sand right off the beach and close to the waterfall at the end of the camp, which would later serve as a natural shower as well as water source.

 

Camp

I set up my hammock and hung my backpack off a neighboring tree. The steady and forceful trade winds were welcome as they prevented too much heat build-up, but they turned out to be somewhat challenging for the hammock.

Life in camp was simple: stay hydrated, manage the water supply (get water from the waterfall if needed), and eat according to the sun: warm breakfast with instant coffee at sunrise, dry food for lunch at noon, and a warm dinner at sunset around 7 PM. In between, keep an eye on the gear, prevent too much sun exposure, apply sunscreen, and jump in the ocean, waves permitting.

Apart from the occasional Starbuck’s Via instant coffee, life out of a backpack has no luxuries: My belongings amounted to a hammock, two sets of clothes, a small towel, toothbrush, a spork, small gas stove, metal cup, dehydrated, packaged backpacking as well as dry meals, a knife, sunscreen, and that’s about it. And yet it felt as though I had everything I needed as a guest to this magical place. I didn’t miss my comfortable bed, a fridge full of food, restaurant meals, a warm shower, high-speed Internet, social media, … none of it! I was content just to be and soak up the spirit of this destination of a lifetime. For my warm meals, which were prepared by pouring hot water into a pouch and letting it soak for about 10 mins, I would take the food bag, walk out onto the sand, and sit down in the middle of the beach, so I could admire the sunset/sunrise and mountain range behind camp while I ate in awe of the scenery.

This seemed to be a common reaction, as I observed many people walk out of camp towards the ocean, then turn around and just stand there and stare at the spires of Napali for minutes on end. On most of my nights there, the moon rose behind the impressive coastline and bathed the beach in bright moonlight.

Nights in the hammock took some getting used to due to constant ambient noises, rustling of leaves, birds, fruits dropping from trees, and other sounds of nature like wind and waves crashing. On several occasions, I walked out onto the beach at 3 or 4 AM when the moon had disappeared and just gazed at the night sky that, with absolutely no ambient light, revealed an unbelievable amount of stars as well as the Milky Way. One night I decided to lay on my back in the sand, just staring at this spectacle in disbelief.

In the mornings, I could see the horizon and ocean light up gradually as the sun slowly rose. My soundtrack of choice was some of my favorite tracks from Michael Giacchino’s LOST soundtracks, which I listened to while still laying in my hammock at daybreak.

 

The Long Way Home

After two phenomenal and unforgettable days on the beach, I prepared for the long trek home hoping for favorable weather conditions. After a final breakfast on the beach, I left camp the next morning around 7 AM for an early start.

The Napali coastline was once again spectacular in the morning light with the sun still coming up. As I navigated the tricky sections before reaching Crawler’s Ledge, people in a tour Zodiac far below me yelled, waved at me, and unnecessarily cheered, “You can do this!”. Luckily, the conditions for this tricky part of the trail were perfect.

As I powered back into the jungle at Hanakoa, the conditions, however, changed on me and low clouds initiated several heavy rain showers, which got me pretty wet and turned the ground into a muddy mess. Even after the direct rain subsided, the dense plants covering the trail were so covered with water that they continued to keep me wet when I brushed through them as I pushed forward. On the positive side, this constant influx of cold water made it easy to not overheat during this strenuous hike. Emboldened from my experience thus far and feeling very comfortable in the jungle, I started picking guavas from trees and ate several fruits along the way.

After my final river crossing, I walked the final two miles on the public part of the trail while reflecting on my memorable adventure.

I reached the trailhead after about 8 1/2 hours, almost an hour faster, probably due to fewer picture stops and quicker river crossings. As I emerged from the jungle, wet, beat-up, and muddy but happy and elated, I convinced some folks standing around to take a few pictures of me.

 

Takeaways

I had done it! I had traversed the full Kalalau Trail twice, without death, injury, getting lost, or other mishaps. While my shoulders and collarbones were in pain, my body felt surprisingly good despite the very strenuous hike. And I did all this as my first long solo hike and before hitting my 50th birthday!

This hike had been on my mind for a very long time and it didn’t disappoint; as a matter of fact, it beat expectations. This truly was the adventure of a lifetime. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat!

Thinking back, there are several lessons to take away from this experience:

  1. Even as we get older, it’s never too late to do new and potentially difficult things and achieve ambitious goals as long as we prepare and plan.
  2. For endurance challenges like this, at some point, when your body is hurting, it comes down to your mental determination and how motivated you are. “Embrace the suck!”, as they say. Your body will tell you to stop, but your mind will keep pushing you forward.
  3. You will learn the most about yourself when you explore your physical and mental limits and do hard things.
  4. You live only once, so get out of your comfort zone, and do the bold and meaningful things that make life worth living, the key experience you want to have. The stars will never exactly align, so don’t wait around for the “perfect time”. Make it happen!
  5. Being immersed in nature is one of the best ways to “unplug” and instead reconnect with yourself and it.
  6. It is cathartic and intense to be fully responsible for yourself and have no safety net, psychological or physical backup; to know that any problems that come up - you have to deal with them. (That said, don’t be reckless. Have a plan A, B, and C. Ask: “What do I do if….” Adapt to unforeseen things and be agile.)
  7. We all have a lot of “stuff” and think we need most of it. The reality is that we don’t. Happiness doesn’t come from those things and often, they may even hold us back. It is freeing to be fully self-sufficient and be able to carry everything you need on you, even if minimalistic.

What’s on your bucket list? What do you want to achieve? Make a plan. If you’re not in the shape you want and need to be in, use this as your motivation. Everyone can improve. Make it happen. Life doesn’t wait for you.

 

For the Curious: Gear

For those interested in the gear I used on this adventure, first take a look at this post about hiking the Kukui trail to Kaluahaula Camp for the basics. I have since made several adjustments and optimized for weight. Here are the gear winners and losers:

 

The Winners

Garmin InReach Mini with companion iOS Earthmate app: an indispensable lifeline for both emergencies and to let your folks know what’s going on. With the iOS app, the InReach can basically serve as a relay for text messages.

Grayl Geopress for quick and easy water prep. I used it in combination with the SteriPen Adventure (an upgrade from my last adventure) to protect against Leptospirosis, which is very common in Hawaii.

Salomon X Ultra 3 Low GTX (wide) - Great shoes and my 3rd pair. However, I had problems with sizing and them rubbing against my ankle bones, so I had to upgrade them with Oboz insoles to get extra height for my foot.

Patagonia Capelene shirts - These were just great. Comfortable, soft, moisture-wicking, and odor-resistant.

Toaks Light Titanium pot (ultralight) - Not only is it very light, it comes with a lid and nice carrying net. It can store my little stove inside when disassembled.

Greenbelly dry meals - These bars are a meal in and of themselves! Great flavors, no water or heat needed, tasty, and surprisingly filling!

 

The Losers

Garmin Oregon 700 GPS - While useful, this GPS remains hard to use, slow, and the user interface is confusing. It’s easy to make mistakes and lose data. Battery life is poor with their rechargeable batteries and not great for Lithium batteries either. This is my 3rd Garmin handheld GPS and they’ve not gotten better over the years.

Olympus TG-5 tough camera - This is one of the better tough cameras. Still, while photos under ideal light conditions turned out okay, the pictures were often washed out, lacking color and detail. It couldn’t handle any kind of backlight very well. The display isn’t very good. Panorama shots take forever to process and have stitching issues half the time. Turns out that my iPhone Xs pictures were vastly superior. Disappointing.

 

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