Piliwale Ridge - October 10th, 2009

It’s been a year and a half since I did my first hike, and I never knew it would become an addiction. Internet research has taken me on trails around the island that I never knew existed: some trails bad, some good, some boring, and some trails just plain stupid to attempt. Oahu has its wide variety of valley trails, gulch trails, stream trails, and ridge trails, but for some reason, it’s the ridge trails that intrigue me the most. When I’m on the edge of a two-foot wide ridge, with massive drops on both sides, and the wind howling through my sweat-soaked T-shirt, there is no other feeling like it in the world. The feeling was in full-force while attempting Piliwale Ridge yesterday, and it’s by far the gnarliest ridge I’ve ever done.

I’ll start off with a little history of Piliwale Ridge. Piliwale Ridge was pioneered by a man of 100% Hawaiian blood. His name was Silver Piliwale. He was a member of the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, and was known for his spectacular trek from the Pupukea Boy Scout Camp to Moanalua Valley. That trek, if I’m not mistaken, was done on his 70th birthday, and he did it alone. I think it took him five days to complete the long journey. The guy is truly an inspiration. Anyway, Piliwale Ridge is his ridge. It can be accessed off of the Pali Highway side of the Maunawili Demonstration Trail. Let me start off by saying that this ridge is ridiculously dangerous, and it should not be attempted without proper gear. It’s dangerous because it encompasses everything that you do not want on a trail: it’s razor-thin narrow, it’s mind-boggling steep, it’s overgrown to the max, there are no previously installed ropes (except for one – we broke it), there’s a massive beehive along an exposed portion of the ridge, the trail requires that you walk (we crawled) on crumbly, rotten rock, and there are death drops to the right and left. Include the fact that Piliwale Ridge climbs to the highest peak in the Ko’olau Range, Konahuanui, and that you gain about 2,510 feet in about a mile and a half, then you’ve got yourself one of the most dangerous trails on the island of Oahu.

I’ve had my sights set on Piliwale for a while. I scouted it back in May this year (2009), and my intent was to come back and try to summit with a couple friends. Lots of things didn’t go as I wanted it to when I did Piliwale yesterday. The weather was really shitty for the whole week prior to our Piliwale attempt: the humidity was unreal, the winds were light, and rains had drenched the eastern side of the island pretty bad the night before we tackled Piliwale. The ridge was moist, the ground was soft, and the odds of heavy rains were high. But it was my birthday, so I wanted to remember it, just like my memorable birthday last year. Check out that hike here.

It took us a while to reach what is known as “The Notch.” The Notch is a sharp drop in the ridge that gives a frightful vantage point of what lies ahead. Beyond the notch is where Piliwale Ridge gets down to business. Daniel, Matt, and I stood at a grassing clearing, debating our next move: to go or not to go? We decided to go, but first, we made some phone calls to our mothers, informing them of what we were going to do and that if anything happened … well, you get the idea.

Descending the notch was tricky. It was steep, and no discernable trail seemed to exist. Beyond the notch, we had to contour the ridge to the left to try and climb up to the ridge crest. This part was difficult because we encountered a vertical rock face with a tree growing on top of it. It was high to reach, but I found some hand and footholds to reach the base of the tree. This tree would be our primary hand hold to gain the ridge crest. I grabbed the base of the tree with my right hand and pulled myself up. Daniel and Matt followed suit. Now on top of the ridge, I knew how narrow it was. It was seriously about a foot wide, with tree branches in our way. I busted out my machete and hacked away. I did a pretty good job, but walking here on the moss-laden ridge would have been super sketchy. We all crawled instead, and I have never crawled on a ridge before, but on this ridge, crawling is the only way to feel safe.

We then reached a 12-foot cable which was attached to a really weak tree. The tree was good enough to withstand the weight of one person, but no way could it hold two people. This cable section was super tricky. There weren’t a lot of footholds along the ridge because this part seemed to be the steepest. I somehow found my way to the top of the cable (don’t ask me how) stood up, and belted out a scream of excitement and relief. I looked at the ridge beyond, and it looked so damn fun. Past the cable, the ridge was exposed, still steep, but rocky with lots of places to position your feet and hands. Daniel was below me and asking how the hell I got up there. He was now at the bottom of the cable and was negotiating his proper footing. I guided him the best I could while Matt waited far below the cable.

All of a sudden I hear a bee buzzing in my ear. It was being extremely aggressive, and I thought, “It’s just one bee. It’ll leave me alone once I shoo it away.” I was wrong. What started as one bee attack came an attack from five bees stinging me from all angles. Daniel was almost to the top of the cable, and then I started panicking as I knew that at the top of this cable section, there was a massive beehive harboring thousands of angry bees. The bees kept dive-bombing to my face, neck, chest, and legs. I started to panic, franticly waving my towel around to get the bees off of me. But the bees were some of the most aggressive I’ve ever encountered. Sting after sting, Daniel and I tried to get off the narrow ridge as fast as we could. There was no way to bail out left or right: the drops on both sides were huge: the only way was to go down on top of the steep one-foot wide ridge. I somehow made it past Daniel, and I soon found myself at the end of the cable. With both our weight on the cable, the cable all of a sudden gave way. I began to fall. As I fell, I hit a tree, which repositioned my body to fall head first. I had some good hang time during the fall. Halfway into the fall, the thought of dying came into my mind.

“This is it,” I thought to myself during the freefall.

For those who don’t know, falling upside down for 50 feet is a long time, and a lot went through my head at that moment. I then hit the bottom hard with my head on either a root or a rock; I suspect it was a root; if it was a rock, my head injury would have been way worse or even fatal. I got up as fast as I could, well aware that I hit my head, but thinking it wasn’t that severe. I heard Daniel and Matt call out my name and ask if I was okay. Blood started to literally pour out from the top left corner of my forehead. I staggered on unstable dirt and fell again down slope as I headed back towards the notch. My adrenaline was pumping so hard at this point. I regained my footing and headed up to the top of the notch. Matt and Daniel soon joined me. I took out my Leatherman tool and Matt cut his shirt to use as a temporary bandage to stop the bleeding. We then debated on whether or not we should call rescue because of my condition.

“Do you hear that,” Matt asked.

“Sounds like a helicopter,” Daniel said.

We paused for a moment to make sense of what the sound was. The sound grew louder. We looked above us and saw a huge cloud of thousands of bees ambushing us. Again, I panicked, and quickly headed down the steep boulders from the notch downridge. I slid on my butt as far as I could downridge until I felt safe. Daniel and Matt were still far up the ridge. I waited on a level clearing under some trees, examining my injuries. My ribs felt as if they were broken. Sharp pains began to shoot from the front left of my ribs to my back. I took off the temporary gauze that Matt made from his shirt; it was very dirty and soaked with sweat. Daniel and Matt soon met me.

With my adrenaline waning, the pain was more excruciating. Matt offered to carry my pack to ease the weight off of my back. We got back down to the Maunawili Demo Trail in about 40 minutes – record time if you ask me. I didn’t know how severe my head wound was until I got to Matt’s car. There was a hole in my head, and I could see my hair folded into the gash. Daniel was complaining about pains in his lower right back. I found out after that he also fell off the same section as I did, but he didn’t fall as far. Fortunately, Castle Medical Center was right down the street, so we headed to its emergency room.

I got two MRI scans: one for my abdomen to check for internal bleeding and one for my head to see if blood was in my brain. I also got a chest X-ray to see if I fractured or broke a rib bone and/or punctured my lung. All results came out negative; although, I did get about 10 stitches and 5 staples to my head. I think Daniel also got an MRI to check the pain in his right lower back: that too, came out negative. Matt, aside from being stung multiple times and having minor scrapes, was just fine.

We got very lucky this day. If it wasn’t for the bees, we definitely would have made it to the summit of Konahuanui. If anyone tries to attempt it now (and I highly recommend you don't -- this trail is nuts!!!), you will need ropes or cables; this trail requires it. The reason why I fell was because the cable gave way on the weak tree it was attached to. Amongst all the panic and chaos, Daniel and I were both putting our weight on the cable, and that’s why it broke. Another good thing to have is pants and a sharp machete. We did some minor clearing well before and just before the notch; we also bushwhacked some vegetation on the first hundred feet or so past the notch, but the trail is still overgrown. And it’s going to sound ridiculous, but the top half of a bee suit would be worth bringing. There is a beehive right above where the cable was connected, and man, are they aggressive. I don’t know what triggered them to attack us, but they seriously did not want us there. I’m guessing they were protecting their queen or something. I’m going to take it easy for a while. My injuries have to heal, but when my wounds do heal, I’ll be back on the trails, guaranteed, and this time, I’m seriously going to go with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club to finally work on getting my membership. With five staples in my head and Piliwale Ridge being my seventieth hike in a year and half, I think I’ve paid my dues. And holy shit, what a way to celebrate my 26th birthday! Now where’s my damn percocets?

photo: D. Napoleon

photo: D. Napoleon

photo: D. Napoleon


photo: D. Napoleon


photo: M. Gambol

photo: M. Gambol

photo: M. Gambol