Puu Kukui (Hawaii)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk


Early on in my long fascination with Maui I became intrigued with the idea of climbing 5;788' Puu Kukui (lit., "candlenut hill"), rising just east of Lahaina, the high point of the West Maul Mountains. Doing a little research, I found that this peak--because of its almost permanent cloud cap-is one of the wettest spots on earth. The mountain, in fact, has an average rainfall of 40 feet/year, and often competes with Kauai's Mt. Waialeale as the soggiest spot on the planet.

Further, I determined that the first step for any prospective climb of Puu Kukui was to gain permission from the Maul Land & Pineapple Co. to cross their sugar cane and pineapple fields, which block access to the western slopes of the peak. Maul Pine--as the company is called by the locals--is an old-line Hawaiian concern controlled by descendants of the Cameron's, a missionary family who in the mid-eighteen hundreds, came to the islands from Scotland, intent on converting the locals to Christianity.

In June 1977, on my first attempt of the peak, I discovered that the Maui Pine policy regarding- access to the slopes was somewhat autocratic. Because the company owned not only the fields below but the entire west side of the mountain as well, they were in a position to set regulations regarding climbs of the peak. Their policy was that keys would be provided for the two locked gates along the access road, providing that hikers agreed that they wouldn't climb beyond a rain gauge, located mid-way to the summit. The company held that the top of the mountain was ecologically fragile, and that it shouldn't be open to the public in general.

My three companions and I borrowed the keys, but we didn't promise not to attempt the summit. Our rationale was that wild mountains should be accessible to everyone, and, further, why should a company who exploited the natives and their lands wield such power? Unwillingly, however, we complied with company policy on that first attempt. Losing the trail in a bog just beyond the rain gauge, we got soaked to the skin before finally locating it again on the other side. Reluctantly, we turned back.

The following June we were back for another try--this time with plenty of rain gear. Applying once more at the Maul Pine office in Napili, we were again informed we could hike only to the rain gauge. Once again we kept our collective fingers crossed. Early the following morning, we drove our rented Toyota up through the cane and pineapple fields, passing through the two locked gates. The last section of road was so slippery, however, that try as we might, we couldn't maneuver the car up the final slope. We parked in a grove at about 2,000' and hiked a mile to Kaulalewelewe (lit., "red ridge"), where at 2,900' the road ends at an unoccupied company-owned house.

Just east of this California bungalow-style building begins the Kaulalewelewe summit trail, which in my opinion is the only practical route to climb Puu Kukui. East side approaches to the summit are blocked by the steep, crumbly walls of the Iao Valley while approaches from the north and south are cut off by miles of dense vegetation and/or sharp precipices.

After first descending a steep notch we were soon hiking upward at a not unpleasant angle. In my diary I noted, "Swe passed through a rain forest consisting of graceful moss-covered trees ferns, vines, tall grasses and low shrubs. All the plants were heavy laden with collected rain, all ready to give up their moisture at the slightest touch. As the trail continued along the ridge it became almost knife-sharp at points, with seemingly vertical drop-offs of densely vegetated slopes on either side. In areas where the ridge widened, the trail was a stream bed, with puddles collecting in the depressions formed by the many roots."

We reached the rain gauge about 9:30 a.m., where we stopped for a snack break. Because it had been raining since we left the trailhead, we were all wearing our wet-weather gear at this point. Starting off again, we entered the swamp that had defeated us the year before. On this attempt, however, because we knew where to locate the trail on the opposite side, we were able to ford the 200 foot long, knee-deep quagmire with no problem.

After leaving the bog and gaining a little elevation we found ourselves once again on the ridge, where, because the vegetation was lower, we were exposed to a chilling rain blown up from the gorge on our left. The updraft was especially uncomfortable as our raincoats were designed to protect from precipitation falling from above, not that being blown up from below. Approximately an hour out from the rain gauge we passed Violet Lake, which, though eloquently named, is merely a thirty-foot diameter pond in the midst of a small meadow. That morning it was almost lost in the rain and clouds.

We continued up the increasingly exposed slope, where the vegetation consisted primarily of tussock grasses and low lying plants, including the rare Greensword, a close relative of the famous Silversword. As the wind grew stronger and stronger, the evaporative cooling effect-even though the temperature was in the mid-fifties--was causing us all to chill.

Upward, ever upward we toiled on the increasingly indistinct trail; my son Bret first, Jim Scott next and me lagging a few minutes behind. About noon, after the disappointment of several fog-shrouded false summits, we finally reached the top. There we were surprised to find another rain gauge on the summit- that rusted sheet iron and other building materials were scattered about, leading us to believe that someone had once attempted to construct a small shelter there; and that a small grove of wind-dwarfed trees was tucked in the lee of the summit mound, quite unexpected after the long stretch of exposed mountainside below.

Because we were all shivering by that point, we lingered only long enough to take a few photos before turning back. On an otherwise straightforward descent, I managed to step in one pothole that was so deep I got muddy all the way to my wallet. Compared to the four hours it took us to climb the peak, the down-climb took only two and a half hours.

We reached our car about 3:00, drove down through the sunny canefields, returned the gate keys to Maul Pine, and headed for nearby Kapalua Beach. Parking the Toyota, which had become as muddy inside as out, we crossed the sand and strode into the surf fully clothed, drawing astonished glances from the beach crowd. Trailing a vermilion stain through the pristine waters, I swam out until the weight of my soggy clothing caused me to flounder, at which point I beat an inelegant retreat for the shore.

Still later that afternoon, back at the condo, we popped a few cans of Prime (no longer available) and inhaled a bag of Kitch'n Cook'd Potato Chips-the best in the world. A fine ending to a true adventure.

UPDATE: In November 1993, Maul Land & Pineapple ceded a large portion of the west side of Puu Kukui to the Nature :Conservancy.


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