The Warrior Trek
Iao Valley to Olowalu Valley
Eight miles, three thousand feet of elevation gain and a dream since the 80’s. That’ll only take a day, right? Karl has wanted to retrace the path the ancient Mauians took over West Maui Mountain since the 1980s. As dreams sometimes do, they badger in the corners of the mind until they are released, the body, mind and spirit forced to follow.
In January we hiked up Haleakala on Maui: sea to summit, and back to sea, in one day. This journey was thirty-seven miles and 10,100 feet of elevation gain (and loss) round trip…in one day. While “relaxing” on Maui after the Haleakala adventure, the West Maui Mountain dream awoken and would not go back to sleep.
And so began months of planning. Researching the internet, maps, satellite imagery, and any other bits of information we could find. Turns out, there really wasn’t much information on this trek, just one limited trip report, a couple of mentions of the trek….and a whole lot of warnings not to attempt it, to which of course, Karl replied “BAH!”
We flew to Maui to do what Karl had been calling the “Warrior Trek” based on the historical Battle of Kepaniwai in 1790 where the Maui warriors retreated from Iao Valley over the pass to Olowalu Valley and Lahaina.
We knew it was going to be a hard adventure with navigation challenges, steep jungle terrain, loose eroding slopes, and the unknown. It turned out to be harder than we anticipated and we used nearly every skill in our skill set to complete it successfully and safely.
We were dropped off at the lower gate of Iao Valley State Park at 5:30am Saturday Morning. It was nice to have the park to ourselves. After navigating up Iao Stream and a tributary we started up a ridge towards the pass. The further up the ridge we got, we realized the ridge ended up at a nearly sheer cliff face and traversing across didn’t look like an option either. So we rappelled down the ridge and went a different way up to the pass. The pass was a vegetated knife-edge ridge. In places there were “vegetation cornices” where the plants grew in such a way over the edge it might seem solid, but we could see air when looking down through the leaves. Deb was terrified. We had to traverse the ridge to a small sub-ridge it looked we could descend. Karl went first. Deb could see the plants shaking underneath him at times. We got to the sub-ridge and looked at the time. It was time to bivy for the night. Our spot was not flat, so we left our harnesses on and tied ourselves and packs to the trees. Karl stretched out between two trees with his pack as support. Deb curled into a ball and used a root as a pillow. During the night we heard a bird flying around that sounded like a tarp flapping in the wind.
Day 1: 13.5 hours and 5 miles (long hard day)
Day two… 6:30am
Morning came with a delightful accompaniment of birds, though it wasn’t fully appreciated. We decided we’d continue down this small sub-ridge to the Olowalu drainage and stream. Over 5 hours, we dropped 700’ via 50’ rappels. The vegetation was of the sort it impeded forward movement, but when we relied on it for strength, it would break. We felt it was safest to rappel rather than deal with the vegetation and eroding hillside. Once we got down to the drainage we celebrated, re-filled our water and ate a snack. We figured we’d just be walking out the stream and started fantasizing about the food we’d eat in Lahaina that afternoon. WRONG!
As we continued down Olowalu Stream we encountered obstacle after obstacle. Around every corner was a new unknown challenge. As we descended into the canyon we were aware of the clouds (is it raining up above that could cause a flash flood?), could we leave the canyon if the next waterfall is longer than our rope? Can we find a way around this waterfall that has no trees to use as an anchor for our rope?
In the afternoon, we were on the hillside going around a tall waterfall when Deb was bitten on the hand by a yellow jacket. She said “huh, it just bit me.” Not realizing what that meant (though we should have, having encountered plenty of yellow jacket nests in the Western US), we continued to set up the rappel. Moments later we were swarmed by them. As they bit us, we slapped ourselves, trying to figure out what to do. We were on a steep slope, had just rappelled to where we were and were going to rappel down. We decided to just run tree to tree back up and across the slope out of their range. Once safe, Deb looked down her shirt and there were five clinging onto her chest biting. Karl looked back where we had been and saw them flying about. Fortunately, Karl had the wits to bring the rope with him when we retreated. We did abandon a chunk of webbing and a carabineer on the tree. No way we could get it back. We hope the mountain forgives us for leaving that.
We rappelled down to the stream and continued a little ways down…until we encountered yet another large waterfall. It was such a beautiful waterfall, and under normal circumstances we would have really appreciated how great it was. It was starting to get late, we knew we had to get out of the canyon and find a spot for the night, and a way around this waterfall. We started uphill, the only way we could see out. It was an 80’ vertical climb up loose rock and loose vegetation. Deb belayed Karl as he climbed up. He only had two pieces of webbing for protection along the way, but it worked and we both got up. Another 100’ up the slope was a really nice spot we could bivy. It was almost level!
After hanging up our wet clothes to dry, checking for a cell signal to relay the message we were safe (there was none) we settled in for the night. All day we were wearing gloves and hadn’t taken them off for a long time. When we did take them off we realized our hands were swollen from the yellow jackets bites. Neither of us is allergic, so we figured we’d be ok. We took some antihistamines anyway and hoped for the best.
Day two: 1.9 miles in 13-hours (brutal)
Day 3… 7:30am
Overnight we slept pretty good. It rained during the night, but not too much. We put on our dry clothes (thanks, wind!), put our harnesses into our packs optimistically, and headed down a small ridge to the stream. We continued down Olowalu Stream, coming across small waterfalls we could down-climb, deep pools we could go around, and the stream continued to appear to mellow and the vegetation became less thick. Not wanting to get our hopes up, we continued to be cautious just in case we encountered a new obstacle. After a couple of hours, we noticed some pink flagging on a tree. Normally, we hate garbage and left over signs of people in the wilderness, but this time we were really happy. If we were seeing this, what lies ahead of us must be easy. A little bit longer down the creek we saw some garbage, abandoned camps, and eventually a trail. Yay, a trail! Even Karl, who is usually sad to leave bush-thrashing for a trail, was happy. We made it out to the highway at about 2:00pm Monday afternoon.
Day3: 5.5 miles in 6.5 hours
Day one…hard and scary
Day two…all about survival
Day three…yay! Success!
This trek forced us to use all our skills except snow and ice: navigation, bush whacking/cross country, rock climbing, and canyoneering. It was mentally very hard, though physically not too bad. We do NOT recommend anyone to attempt this trek unless they are very well versed in climbing, canyoneering and navigation.
In regards to pictures…both Deb and I were more concerned with getting out alive than documenting the trek, therefore the pics aren’t spectacular…even though this is a spectacular place.