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Friday, August 31, 2001

Bear Claw Ridge -- Stan Yamada (2001)

We had planned on hiking somewhere today, but hadn't made any specific plans. Upon arising Adam, my son, felt energetic and suggested that we do one of the windward ridges I had been eyeing. We settled on Bear Claw Ridge in Waimanalo. It had been done in recent years without aids and so we would test ourselves as others had before us. In the back of my mind I felt that it would be just an exploratory hike with the real attempt coming later. We packed our supplies with climbing in mind. On the off chance we made it up, I had no intention of trying to go back down. In my haste, I forgot my gaiters, a mistake my legs are now regretting.

We drove around back roads Waimanalo looking for a trailhead. Spotted an overgrown road going up from a locked gate. The road beelined for the right side claw, our route of choice. We parked the bad luck car around the corner in front of some industrial place of business and walked from there to the trailhead. It's located just past the eastern end of the yellow hibiscus fence. At about 12:20 p.m. we squeezed through the fence and followed a thin trail up the hill. This wild area is located between two inhabited areas. No one bothered us or paid us any mind.

After about a hundred yards, we hit a forested area where we headed right toward the ridge. The terrain got steeper and we were soon crawling up a grassy face with intermittent trees for support. Way over to the right we found a faint trail up the ridge line. Basically from here we followed the ridge all the way up. On certain areas we contoured around rough spots. They were all obvious to the climber. This is no hike. It is a serious climb and should be done only by people who want to be there. This trail consists of one peak after another right on the ridgeline with death drops on both sides.

Technically, the climbing is not too difficult. The problem is the rotten rock. Large clumps will dislodge right in your hand. Each and every new hold on this rock must be tested. Depending on your experience, there could be anywhere from 2 to 8 very serious spots on this climb due to the bad rock. Cables would be the only way to go down in those spots with a margin of safety, in my opinion. Otherwise, you are just relying on luck.

In one section, I thought that I was in trouble for a minute. I was attempting to contour around a spur and my footing was weak on a thin mud base. Handholds were nil as the rock was large and featureless and I felt stymied. I asked Adam to come back down ahead of me so that I could grab him when I released my handholds. He appeared nervous about trying to climb down off this huge smooth rock with serious exposure. I told him never mind and closed my eyes to get one with the rock. Somehow I glued myself to the rock enough to allow me to make the transition. Nest time I think I'll just climb over the top of that one.

Once you get up to the point where the two claws meet, the dikes begin. Dike after dike to cross. About 18 - 24 inches across. Hundreds of feet of drop off on both sides. On several occasions my hand or foot hold would give. Fortunately, I had other holds which secured me. I never felt the need to get out the rope. We were enjoying the view as we got higher since it was a beautiful day. While crossing one dike section Adam looked back at me wide eyed and pointed behind me, "look Dad!" I turned in time to see a huge storm front coming at us at high speed. It hit us and all of a sudden we were being buffeted by thirty mile an hour winds and rain. I'm in the middle of this narrow dike clinging for dear life. I got safely across and we climbed a little higher to get to a spot that was sheltered. We waited the squall out for 20 minutes or so. By now we were beyond the point of no return in my mind. I had no idea what was still ahead of us.

While we rested I donned my rain pants and parka. I gave Adam one of those cheap porta parkas. It kept him warm anyway. He hadn't packed any rain gear and was shocked when I pulled a parka out of my pack. We were ready for a wet climb if that was what it took.

On we climbed. Vertical faces. One after the other. Up and up and up. The ridge next to ours was nearly vertical and yet here we were going up a similar face. One dike section was overgrown and we had to climb over the tangle in a swimming style. Be prepared to get poked. Ar one point I went over the side and pulled my way across the side of the tangle over a chasm below. Somehow, the presence of the tangle made it seem less treacherous.

We had to hole up in another covered spot when a second blast hit us. It was a great little grotto at the top of a rocky spur. I poked my head out the mauka side to see what was next and the sight nearly floored me. Just ahead, a high narrow dike, death drops on both sides and behind it, the first sight of the summit and the ungawdly steep ridge leading up to it. Mix this in with the storm clouds and buffeting winds and the stage is set.

We waited in the nest area for around 30 minutes as the storm raged around us. Turning back was not an option at this point. As it waned, we began our final assault. We were able to smear our way around the dyke, but the final summit attack was steep. We just worked our way steadily up. At some points I was basically pushing my way up the side of the mountain on my belly. Trying to spread my weight around to as wide an area as possible. The last part up I was pulling my way up on tufts of grass. Looking back down, it appears impossible to do. Somehow, we made it to the top at 4:00.

After a short rest, we crossed over to the top of the Kuliouou Ridge Trail and headed down. We reached the bottom at around 5:30 and caught the Bus back to Waimanalo. After a two mile walk back to the car, we settled in at 7:00. This was a great adventure. Only attempt this if you are confident climbing the rotten rock found in Hawaii.

--Stanley Yamada (stanboy50@HOTMAIL.COM)