The Waianae Mountains"To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. That is the reward the mountains give to effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love the mountains and go back to them again and again. The mountains reserve their choice gifts for those who stand upon their summits."-Sir Francis Younghusband
The Waianae mountains reside on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The range is quite small and only rises to 4,404 feet above sea level at the highest point, Mount Kaala. However, the Waianae will forever be my most cherished mountains, for they introduced me to the wonders of mountaineering.
It was a beautiful day in paradise, as was typicaly the case, as I drove up a pass in the mountains know as Kolekole. I had utilized this pass on many occasions traveling to the west coast beaches, but today I would fail to arrive at my planned destination. Unwittingly, I would end up at a far more profound destination, one that would fill my soul with passion, and alter the course of my life. As I neared a military access gate positioned atop the appogee of the pass, something caught my eye from the left.
I slowed my vehicle while examining a paltry dirt and gravel area, which was cast in a dim light by the canopy of lush green flora, charactaristic of rain forest environments. The dense foliage was broken where a well worn path entered the mountains. My curiosity compelled me to pull into the gravel and stop. If there was something in those mountains that necesitated slicing a trail through obviously diffucult terrain, I wanted to see it.
As I exited the car, I saw a sign partialy hidden by a growth of tall grass. It detailed the history of a bowl shaped rock, which resided farther up the trail. Apparently, some years ago the rock was used for sacrificial beheadings of defeated warrior chiefs. Intrigued, I began my ascent.
The dim, canopy induced lighting of the gravel area was also prevelant on the trail. The rough, rock covered slope quickly turned into a steep scramble, requiring the use of careful hand and foot placements to prevent sliding down the mountain over jagged stones. Eventualy I saw a warm glow filtering through a narrow opening far ahead. A light at the end of the tunnel. I was drenched in perspiration, but as I stepped out of the path's corridor, and onto a bright plateu, a merciful breeze cooled my skin.
I began to explore my surroundings, while being serenaded by a genle rustling as nature's cool breath circulated through the indigenous plant life. I was awe-struck by the sight of a grassy meadow with bantam trees and shrubs scattered about in patches. The atmosphere was luminescent with the most magnificent contrast of colors. The field before me seemed ideal for a romantic picnic on a spread blanket, but amazingly, this picnic site was nestled halfway up the side of a mountain. Behind me, on the northern end of the meadow, was the trail leading to Kolekole pass. On the southern end, I could see a steep butress that led to the mountain's summit ridge. To the east or west, were astounding panoramic views.
My attention focused on the western scenerey, and I walked toward the mountain's edge to obtain a better view. Upon arrival, I was faced with an ocean horizon as far as I could see, waves breaking on the beach below, and a sheer drop at my feet. The perspective was magical and surreal to say the least. I carefuly sat with my legs dangling in the open air and enjoyed the moment, feeling a tinge of morbid pleasure concerning my precarious position.
After recieving my fill of the vista, I rose, compeled to climb higher. However, my relatively comfortable trail had concluded, and the butress loomed menacingly above. I trekked along the wall of rock searching for a portion to scale. I chose a couloir, which was deceptively innocent in appearance.
Every time I began to make vertical progress, the couloir's unstable bed of burgundy, iron oxide ladden talus would give way to the pressure of my feet, sending me glissading back to the southernmost end of the meadow. There was no exposure to plummet from, and no rocks to skin myself on, but attempts to gain the ridge in this manner were becoming increasingly frustrating. The only other route I could fathom climbing was a rock face on the western perimeter of the couloir. Certainly, it would have been easier to ascend, but the mental image of my mangled corpse lying at its base disuaded me. Eventualy, I was able to sprint on my hands and feet up the couloir, barely gaining more ground than I was loosing due to talus displacement, but still managing to succeed and colapse in an exhausted heap on the ridge.
After recovering from the brutal manner in which I had taken the ridge by force, I reoriented myself. The new landscape, previously hidden from the meadow, rose sharply as it wound toward the mountain's summit. Continuing up the ridge, I stumbled upon a small couloir which could be described as a diminutive version of the talus filled chute I just ascended. It droped steeply away from where I stood and was bordered on either side by near vertical walls of rock. Overwhelmed by the impulse to see what lay beyond its mouth, I resolved to traverse the northernmost wall.
The hand and foot holds were copacious and numerous as I confidently crept farther from the safety of the ridge. Complacency set in as I climbed with increasing speed until a critical ledge snapped beneath me. My legs dropped away from thier perch and the momentum ripped my hands from the face.
I slammed onto my back in the couloir, and sped toward a drop which would only be safe were I wearing a parachute. I flipped onto my stomach and dug every portion of my body into the deep talus bed, which flowed down the chute and over the mountain's edge like a dusty, crimson waterfall. Shortly, I came to rest suspended on the slope, and breathed a sigh of relief as my heart rate and adrenaline production slowed.
At this point I didn't fully appreciate the seriousness of my situation. When I tried to move back up the couloir, the talus would shift and bring me closer to the drop below. This was the exact same issue I had in climbing the butress couloir, and I obviously needed to sprint to the top. However, this talus chute was far steeper, and more importantly, there was no meadow to land on if I failed. There was only the promise of death. I surrendered to the fact that I would not be able to perform a direct ascent, but pondered the notion of expeditiously making my way back to the wall of rock, hopefuly before toppeling over the edge. Luckily, I was able to reach the wall, and clung to its side while kicking steps into the talus, forming rudimentary stairs to ascend.
Once back to safety, I continued up to the nearest summit, discovering that an even higher peak lay ahead. I descended forward onto a saddle barely the width of my body, where the mountains funneled wind, accelerating it to an astounding velocity that assailed my ear drums. The frigid air sucked the warmth from my body, and threatened to push me from the small saddle. I collapsed to my knees, handicaped by vertigo that alarming drops to either side had instilled in me. The sun was receding, and my clothing was innapropriate for the climate in which I now found myself. I was still physicaly and emotionaly drained from my plight in the couloir as I began to shiver, and decided to return another day, perhaps better prepared for the riggors this mountain had to offer.
In describing my first journey into the Waianae mountains, I don't believe "fun" or "enjoyable" would be congruous to the experience. "Unnerving", "arduous", "challenging", or "grueling" would much more accurately portray the adventure. Nevertheless, my trip was an intrinsicaly rewarding affair. I had grown accustomed to a comfortable, predictable, and routine life. Every activity I normaly engaged in was was half-hearted, with the task at hand, past actions, and future plans, all competing for my attention.
The mountains were different. I had to focus my full concentration on every step, every movement of my body, and every acute descision. For my very life depended on it. To be absolutely in the moment, with all thoughts, worries, and regrets swept away in an instant, granted me a level of freedom and lucidity I had never before experienced. It was intoxicating in a way I cannot genuinely chronicle in mere words. Only the experience would suffice.