NORTH SHORE TESTED: Trekking 37 Perilous Miles Through The Ko'olau Range
In December 2021, the day after finishing the Pipe Pro, John Florence, cinematographer Erik Knutson, Brandon W and brothers Ivan and Nate set off with friend, climber and Florence Test Pilot Ryan Moss for a 37-mile march along the Ko'olau Range in less than ideal conditions.
Moss, an experienced climber – and a bit of a madman – had the most experience hiking through the range, and when you ask him about the 'trail', he doesn't mince words:
"The Ko‘olau Range is the erosion of remnants of a massive shield volcano, but estimates show evidence that it erupted approximately 2.5 million years ago. The Ko'olau Summit Trail was a collaborative effort between the US Army and Charles S Judd who served as the Territory of Hawaii's Forester. It was a series of trail systems that would eventually connect from Pupukea to Kipapa. Back in 2011 a local Oahu hiker/blogger wrote this about the KST:“At the time of it's construction the the entire summit from Kipapa to Pupukea could be done in one day. Now that feat would be impossible. The trail is notoriously muddy, often overgrown, and sometimes seems to vanish. The Ko'olau Summit is often cloudy making what is already a difficult to follow trail nearly impossible. Hiking at night on the KST would be extremely hazardous. The uneven ground and exposure in some sections to drop offs of more than a thousand feet mean this trail should only been done during daylight hours. There is little traffic on the trail and at least one person in the recent past has simply vanished without a trace.”
It has been nearly a decade since that blog post was written and the “trail” has gotten a lot worse for the most part. Uluhe ferns have overtaken what little that remains of the swath that was once there. Every step requires complete focus as the ferns pull and cut through exposed skin. The ground is hard to see, extremely uneven, slick and the chance of losing ones balance and falling are high. It’s a constant mental and physical chess match, that can wear even the most stubborn person down to the brink of defeat. The only glimmer of hope is that once the Laiea summit is reached, the uluhe ferns diminish and the path opens up a bit. Picking an optimal weather window is key, and can make all the difference between an enjoyable experience or a complete sufferfest.
However romantic this all may sound, there is still a lot of inherent risk that is involved. No, it is not Everest, nor does it have the obscene milage of a trail like the PCT. But, it is not to be underestimated or taken lightly. Every year hundreds of rescues are made pulling people off of state trails far more safe and groomed than that of the northern sections of the Ko’olau mountains. Throughout the years there also have been numerous deaths and near death experiences.
Despite all of the risk and hardships that may be incurred, there is something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you are looking for native plants or snails, a landscape photographer or simply a hiking masochist you will not be disappointed. More often than not it’s a “type 2” fun. The kind of fun that only can be fully enjoyed once you are safely down from the mountains, have enjoyed a warm shower, hot meal and tucked into bed. The experience can help form a bond between people that will never be broken, can make you realize how insignificant you are, and appreciate the remote beauty that often goes unnoticed by the masses."
"After a successful overnight trail recon and campout, John and the crew were ready to take off for the real thing – but there was an issue: the weather. The forecast doesn't really look great but off we went. Immediately, it was clear what we were getting into. The trail was probably the worst I've ever seen it – it's so easy to get lost if you don't have a map in your head of where to go. There are Uluhe ferns everywhere, and while they're beautiful they can also be a major source of your misery. 37 miles is a long way. It feels a lot longer when you're fighting for every step. I kept looking back to make sure everyone was cool. Suddenly I fell face forward into a mud pothole that was waist deep. John's laughing at me – payback for me making him and the boys go at this pace." Moss accounts.
Eventually, the crew reached the Norton LZ, soaked. There used to be a a shelter there, but now all that's left is some wooden and metal planks. It's a fine place to camp, but you're truly exposed to the elements. That night, the rain and wind picked up further. If you weren't in a sleeping bag, you'd be in a pool of water. Waking up, Moss knew the crew needed to get moving. The reward at the end of this day's efforts was an actual cabin – at least in that it features an actual roof. It was a slog, but they made it. "The group was taking longer than I had expected, and the sun was setting by time we got to the cabin" said Moss. With a reprieve from the elements, we cooked some supper and plotted the route home.
At this point, you may be asking if there's video from this entire endeavor. But with the weather the way it was and the pace of the hike, the camera wasn't out much. According to Moss – this was somewhat by design. "We wanted to get in nature and remove the element of getting lost in documentation – we couldn't be stopping to film every two minutes – we needed to cover ground."
According to Moss, "Life is much simpler in the mountains. You carry all of your necessities, move from point A to point B, and your only concerns are where you're going to sleep and what you're going to eat. The beauty of all of this is that it can be enjoyed by everyone. Whether they are enjoying a day hike, navigating their way through the PCT, climbing the Nose, or summiting a 8,000m peak these three rules apply."
Field Tested Gear:
Prototype Expedition Pant
Photos: Ryan Moss & Erik Knutson