Mount Haleakala (Maui)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Arriving at the Kahului, Haul airport just after noon on a pleasant day in June, we collected our packs and hailed a cab. "Where tot" asked the friendly driver "The top of Haleakala," I said. "And step on it." He turned to take another look at our threesome. "Where?" he said. And that was the beginning of my exploration of 10,023' Haleakala, the high point of Haul.

Out here, in the middle of the Pacific, a tectonic plate is sliding slowly over a hot spot in the Earth's mantle far below. During the past hundred million years or so molten rock has spewed from this hot spot , building a chain of volcanic islands, which, as the plate continued to move, drifted first to the north, then to the northwest.

The earliest islands formed were the Emperor Seamounts, now eroded down below sea level, Next, but not inclusively, came Midway, Laysan, French Frigate Shoals, Nihoa, Kauai, Oahur the Maui-nui complex consisting of Maul, Lanai and Molokai, and the big island of Hawaii. Even today, a new island is in the process of being formed on the sea floor, southeast of Hawaii.

These mid-Pacific volcanoes were not the composite cone type, such as Eujiama, Shasta and Vesuvius, but rather shield volcanoes, which, because of the great fluidity of the lava involved, generally tended to form massive mountains with gentle slopes and enormous bases.

Haleakala, for instance, is the world's largest dormant volcano. This fact is not readily apparent, however, as the peak's true base lies three miles below the sea, while only seven per cent of its total maps rises above water level. It's been estimated that the Hawaiian peak contains one hundred times as much material as Fuji.

The Haleakara Crater, which is almost large enough to swallow Manhattan Island, is not a true crater at all but, rather, the remnants of two erosional valleys, now partially re-filled with lava and cinder cones from more recent volcanic activity.

Our driver: let us out at the Visitor Center parking lot (9,745'), just below the actual Puu Ulaula (lit., "Red Hill") summit, and did not linger to look for another fare. We hoisted our packs and, with no further adieu, headed down the nearby Sliding Sands Trail, hiking toward the 7,270' Kapalaoa (lit., "Bread") Cabin, one of three cabins maintained within Haleakala National Park by the Park Service.

Because these cabins ate in such great demand, reservations are assigned by a lottery conducted by the Park Service two months in advance. For more information, contact Haleakala National Park, P.O. Box 368, Makawao, Haul, HI 96768.

Fortunately, we were the lucky winners of the mid "crater" Kapalaoa Cabin for one night and the eastside Paliku Cabin (6,400') for the next.

Arriving at our destination after a six-mile, mostly down-hill hike, we found a welcoming committee consisting of a pair of Nene Geese, the Hawaiian state bird, who apparently considered the cabin as their territorial imperative . After taking a few minutes to chase the pushy duo out of our lodgings, we started our dinner preparations using some of the precious water that is collected from the cabin roof and stored in a nearby tank. (Talk about micro climates: though the 300" of Haleakala rainfall per year-the valley floor, only a few miles distant, receives only 40".) Later, as dusk fell--around 7:30 p.m.--we laid out our sleeping bags on three of the twelve bunks provided, climbed in, and, because of the three hour time difference between Los Angeles, our starting point that morning, and Haul, fell asleep almost immediately.

The following morning we explored the geological curiosities of the crater floor, including the Bottomless Pit, the Bubble Cave and Pele's Pig Pen. We then climbed the long south ridge, site of the 8,201' peak, Haleakala (lit., "House of the Sun"), for which the entire mountain is named, leaking unsuccessfully fora heiau--an ancient Hawaiian ceremonial site--that was mentioned in our hiking guide. Returning to Kapalaoa, we fixed lunch, cleaned and locked the cabin, then set off on the four-mile hike eastward to the Paliku Cabin.

The sun was shining brightly that afternoon, and as we walked across fields of fractured as, the crossword puzzlers' favorite lava, we could feel, but not see, pinpricks of an icy mist drifting down from the clouds hanging along the steep pall to the north and east. It was magical.

The Paliku "lit,. vertical cliff") cabin, although a structural duplicate of the Kapalaoa Cabin, is located in a pleasant grove of trees, a much more inviting site than the barren setting of its counterpart. Reaching our destination about 4 p.m., we dropped our packs and set out up the unmaintained 2.3 mile Lauulu "lush") Trail, toward Kalapawili (lit., "twisting") Ridge to the north.

Less than an hour later we were on the ridge top enjoying the spectacular vistas. To the east stretched the splendid Hana Coast; to the south, the Kaupo Gap and the shining Pacific, and, looking west, the entire seven-mile length of the "crater." Directly below lay the Kipahulu "fetch from exhausted gardens") Valley, in which, 8,000' below, are located the misnamed Seven Sacred Peals. Although this valley looks inviting, it is a dense jungle and the National Park Service wisely prohibits hiking in its upper confines.

That evening, back at Paliku Cabin, we fixed dinner, enjoyed a dessert consisting of ripe akala, a Hawaiian raspberry, which were growing nearby, and crashed once again into our sleeping bags.

The following morning, a Sunday, we hiked down the 7.7 mile KgupoGap Trail, ending up at a small parking lot located in a sugar cane field, just above the tiny coastal village of Kaupo.

If you study a road map of Maul, you'll discover that there are major logistical problems involved with hiking from the top of the Sliding Sands Trail to the bottom of the Kaupo Gap Trail. To set ups shuttle between the two points--without outside help--requires two cars and almost one full day of driving. That's why we took the cab to the top, and that's why we planned to hike along the road from Kaupo to Hana, where we would catch a plane back to Kahului.

Things don't always work out as planned, however. Upon reaching Kaupo, one of our party complained that her boots were killing her and that no amount of moleskin was 1ikely to remedy the situation. Since her only other footwear was a pair of light sandals, we decided we'd better try to hire someone drive us into Hana.

Unfortunately, not one of the few locals we could find was interested in giving up the beautiful weekend day in order to make a few bucks. Listlessly then, one of us wearing sandals, we began to hike along the dirt road toward Hana, hoping to thumb a ride from one of the few cars passing in our direction. An hour and a half later, while we were still walking, it began to rain-and rain hard. At that point, our sandaled companion decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. She stood in the middle of the road and virtually commandeered the next car that came along to stop and pick us up. And thanks to her, we all enjoyed hot showers and clean sheets in a Hana metal that night.

This was a wonderful trip, one which I would highly recommend to anyone. After finishing it, however, I didn't feel satisfied. There was more to be learned about Haleakala and, additionally, I wanted--no, I needed--to climb its summit.

And so, on a June day two years later, I was back again at the Haleakala Observatory parking lot, this time with my own rental car and a set of different hiking companions. I left them, two mountaineers from Colorado, off at the Sliding Sands Trailhead, and I drove back dawn the winding summit road to the Halemauu Trailhead at the 8,000' level. Our plan was that the two of them would hike down to the car, while I, in the meantime, would hike to the summit, where they would pick me up. My expectations for the trip were: 1. I'd complete hiking all trails within the crater, 2. I'd see for myself the third cabin, the Holua, and the Silversword Loop, and 3. I'd climb to the volcano's summit from the crater floor.

The Halemauu (lit., "Grass Hut") Trail was built in the 1930'a by the Civil Conservation Crew, It begins at a parking lot north of Haleakala's high point, just off one of the sharp turns in the summit road, State Highway 377. Contouring first along an outer slope of the volcano, the trail then wends it's way along a crest overlooking the crater before steeply descending some 1,400' to the floor of the Koolau Gap below.

Although the weather had been threatening all morning, it wasn't until I'd reached the Holua Cabin, 3.9 miles from the trailhead, that it actually began to rain, The light precipitation didn't seem much of a threat at first, however, so I slipped on my Gortex jacket and trudged on another mile to the Silversword Loop.

The Silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense), although it looks very similar to a yucca, is actually a member of the sunflower family. Under the bright high-altitude sun, its stiff, stiletto-shaped leaves glow an iridescent silver (although that wet morning they looked gray). The plant is endemic only to the mountains of Maul and the big island of Hawaii, It normally lives between ten and twenty years, at which point, sometime between June and October, it sends up a single stalk of purple blossoms, one to nine feet high, After this flowery show the plant withers and dies, leaving its seeds scattered on the mountainside, The Silversword is arguably Haleakala's most renowned feature and, fortunately for non-hikers, a colony of the plants can be found near the Red Hill Observatory parking lot.

After passing the Silversword Loop and entering the main crater, the intensity of the rain began to increase. A few minutes later, as I spotted my friends coming down the trail, it began to pour. I thought briefly about slapping on a face mask and fins and continuing, but, after more rational consideration, I decided to turn around and return to the car with my companions. Summer, Still no ascent of the peak.

Fast forward another year and a half. The time is 9:45 a.m. on a fine Maul morning in late October. The site is the southwestern ridge of Haleakala, 6,200' above the Wailea/Makena beach resort area.

Two Southern California mountaineers and I stood at the Polipoli (lit., "mounds, bosom") trailhead, deep in a grove of redwood, Monterrey cypress, ash, sugi and cedar, ready to begin our nine mile, 3,800' elevation gain hike to the true Red Hill summit. Clouds of mist swirled about us and the fragrance of the wet forest quickened our pulses.

We climbed approximately a mile up the footpath, leaving the clouds behind, until we came to a well-graded dirt road, the Skyline Trail. After a short walk through a eucalyptus forest (most of the trees--all non-indigenous--an the western slopes of Haleakala were planted during a massive reforestation project in the late 1920's and early 1930's.), we crossed a saddle and began switchbacking up the prominent Southwest Rift. To our right lay the arid southern slopes of Haleakala, dropping at a 17-degree angle to the sea below. To our left were the fertile, six degree western slopes of the volcano, which incline to the isthmus between Haleakala and the West Maul Mountains, the geographic feature from which Maul derives its nickname--the Valley Isle.

As we hiked upward that sunny morning, the vegetation thinned and we grew increasingly aware of the line of small craters pock-marking the ridge to our right, leading in a remarkably straight line to the summit above. At the 8,200'1evel we came to a locked gate, beyond which point, and continuing all the way to the summit, all vehicular traffic is barred.

At 9,000', low-lying shrubs gave way to occasional tufts of grass, and, still higher, as the cluster of scientific equipment located near the summit came into view, the vegetation ceased entirely. At this point it seemed as if we were walking on the moon.

Jack London described this climb in his book, The Cruise of the Snark. He reported that the higher he climbed, the more of the earth's surface became visible, and that the effect on him was that the horizon began to seem uphill. Although I can't say I experienced this illusion, I can say the views from the ridge were breath-taking. Seventy-five miles to the south east, on the big island of Hawaii,stood the 13,000' summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, :To the west; lay uninhabited island of Kahoolawe; Lanai, the pineapple island, and the cloud-covered West Maul Mountains. In the valley below, fields of lush green sugar cane glistened under the mid-day sun.

We passed a sprinkling of antennae, microwave receivers and observatories just below the summit, and reached the 10,023' top of Maul at 1:10 p.m. In the summit observatory, looking out over the sea of clouds filling Haleakala's crater, I began to feel the warm glow of that comes after bagging an elusive peak. We started down at 1:30 p.m. and reached the car at Polipoli at 4:30 p.m.

Later that evening, while driving along the seaside road on our way back to Kaanapali, the sun slipped below the western horizon. As it did, the ocean's smooth surface turned a luminescent silver. Stands of graceful coconut palms stood silhouetted along the shoreline. Gentle waves lapped on the beach. The air was balmy and redolent of island flowers. It was enough to make you cry.

There is an old saying on this island, "Maul no ka Oil" It means, "Maul is the best. " You'll get no argument from this climber.

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