Ascent of Kamakou on 2017-06-25
|Other People:||Solo Ascent|
|Date:||Sunday, June 25, 2017|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
| Motorized Transport to Trailhead:||4x4 Vehicle|
| Elevation:||4961 ft / 1512 m|
Ascent Trip ReportUseful Info:
Getting to the summit of Kamakou is a very challenging endeavor. You need to be in top physical condition and ideally have good experience with rugged bushwhacking, routefinding in brush, and using GPS to navigate. You also need a rented 4x4 to get to the trailhead, a very early start, and clothing you don’t care about if it gets soaked, muddy, and torn up. If you include the side trip to Puu Ali’i, count on a minimum of 10 hours total if you are super fit, and possibly much more.
You should rent a Jeep Wrangler from Alamo at the Molokai airport. From Route 460 a few miles north of Kaunakakai, turn east (right if coming from town) on the road signed “Homalani Cemetery” and drive about 10 miles up the dirt road to the Wailoku Lookout, where there is a dirt parking lot and a shelter for camping. Some normal cars might make it this far. If you have a Wrangler, you can continue 2.5 more miles to a small grassy parking area at the end of the road, the Pepeopae trailhead.
The maintained trail is a boardwalk with a metal grate on top for traction. Hike this for 0.85 miles to where a pig fence is visible on the right. You want to follow this fence, on its right side, up and away from the boardwalk.
The fence gives out shortly but a route of sorts that continues for about 3 miles to Kamakou. There is occasional faint footway and it is mostly flagged with ribbons, but the route is easily lost and there are many obstacles—downed trees, dense thickets, mudholes, steep ups and downs, and general ruggedness. You will be lucky to average 1 mph through this terrain. The summit is the last of a series of discouraging knobs that you have to climb over, and has no distinguishing features. Use of a GPS is essential, and be sure you have spare batteries.
If it is raining you will get soaked and muddy. If not, just muddy. Your clothing will get torn up. Bring lots of water, especially if it is a warm and non-rainy day. It is best to be at the Pepeopae trailhead at first light, either driving up pre-dawn or camping at the Wailoku Lookout.
Laura and I left the Hotel Molokai at about 4:30 AM in our rented Wrangler and drove up the road past the Wailoku Lookout straight to the Pepeopae trailhead. The last 2.5 miles clearly required low range 4x4. I got ready and hit the trail at 5:45 AM. Laura had already done Kamakou in 2013 and was only doing Puu Ali’i today at a leisurely pace and would wait for me—I told her my goal was to be back before 8 PM, a bit after darkness fell.
I cruised up the boardwalk and was so pleased with my easy progress that I blew right past the fenceline that signaled the start of the Kamakou bushwhack—when I reached the grassy viewpoint at the end of the boardwalk I checked my map, realized my error, and retraced my steps for an eighth of a mile. This cost me about 20 minutes.
At the fenceline, I stepped off the boardwalk and with my very first footfall I went in to my ankle in deep, sucking mud--welcome to Kamakou. I soon learned to wary of flat, moist black areas. The route was not too bad a first, but it soon left the fenceline and started downhill a bit. From here on out, there was a very intermittent and faint footway through the rainforest, flagged with ribbons, mostly blue but sometimes pink. But it was very easy to lose the route and my preloaded GPS track was invaluable for nudging me back on course. And the vegetation was so dense that I was pretty much bushwhacking the entire time despite following a route.
The section of the route to Kaunuohua and its perpendicular pig fence was not terrible and I was optimistic about reaching Kamakou by 9 or 10 AM. It was a dry and sunny day, which meant only my feet and lower legs were getting wet. However, the closer I got to the summit, the worse the brush and terrain got. This peak really sucks you in, and by the time your investment makes you not want to turn around, it keeps getting harder. The last mile, over the humps of Puu O Wahaula and Uapa, is brutal, featuring about half-a-dozen knobs that must be crossed. Near the top are scrubby, sharp-twigged head-high trees, followed by a steep, brushy, indistinct downhill, then crossing a swampy area, then a steep, mossy, muddy ascent up the next knob. Repeat over and over. On the summit of each you hope the next knob is the summit, but your progress will be very slow.
The main obstacles were downed trees that require crawling to get under, dense thickets with no ribbon ahead in sight, and mud holes that would suck my water sandals right off my feet. I essentially gave myself to the forest and got down and dirty with the mud and logs. At least I had a sunny day, with awesome views from the scrubby knob-tops down to the ocean, and sometimes a cooling breeze.
I finally reached the Kamakou summit at 11:15 AM, after 5.5 hours of hiking. I only knew this was the highest knob due to my GPS map. There was no marker, benchmark, or register, just claustrophobic dense forest. I tried my best to thrash to the highest knobs, featuring nice views down to the north, and went ahead to make sure that the terrain went down, and then called it good and took a short rest.
Going back should have been easier but somehow it was just as hard, perhaps due to my fatigue. I knew I broke away many branches on the flagged route while hiking in, but I doubt that helped at all. All was good when I could see ribbons ahead, and when I recalled various log obstacles, but as soon as the faint footway vanished and the ribbons were not visible, it was more miserable thrashing to make any forward progress. My legs were getting beaten up from all the impacts with thorn bushes, branches, and logs.
For footwear, I wore Keen closed-toe water sandals over neoprene socks, and that worked pretty well, minimizing the sloshing of normal boots and allowing for quick cleanup when done. The only downside was that the sandals came off somewhat easily in mudholes, a most annoying occurrence. I also wore ratty old medium-weight long johns to protect my arms and legs—I still got some good bruises but at least I had some protection.
Another big issue was that I was running out of water on this hot, sunny day (I brought 3 liters, not enough), and was also hungry but did not want to take time to have a big meal. I was happy the terrain got better after Kaunuohua but it then got worse as the path climbed up to Pepeopae. Finally I hit the fenceline and I was jubilant to be arriving at the boardwalk at 5:15 PM. I could have simply walked out an easy 30 minutes to the car.
However, there was the matter of Puu Ali’i, the Kalawao County highpoint, located just north. After some hemming and hawing I decided to go for that while I was here. See this trip report.
After Puu Ali’i I hustled down the boardwalk as darkness fell, and I arrived back at the Wrangler and a very patient Laura at 7:45 PM after a 15-hour day, just barely avoiding use of my headlamp. I made about an hour’s worth of navigational errors (mostly on Puu Ali’i) and should have brought more food and water, so I estimate that my ideal times for this hike would be 11.5 hours for Kamakou only, and 13.5 for both peaks. The late June daylight was a big help to me this day. I know of competent parties that took 10.25 hours for both peaks (Burd) and 16-17 hours for just Kamakou including double road walks (Woodall & co).
Laura, having done Puu Ali’i only in about three hours total in the morning, waited for me by binge-watching TV on her iPad—she was happy to see me, and I was very grateful for her support and patience. Knowing that someone nearby knew my plans made me much less worried while deep in the jungle all alone.
We drove down the 12 miles of dirt road and then the short stretch of pavement to Kaunakakai and our hotel, where we unpacked, showered, and ran some laundry before a well-deserved rest.
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