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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Iao Needle -- by Pete Clines

Nathan's recent post about Iao Needle on Maui (http://hawaiianforest.com/exploring-iao-needle) got my interest up on this famous geological feature. I made a half-assed attempt to climb it a few years ago, but tried to go up from the backside to avoid being the included on all the home videos and photos being taken from down below. (This Needle gets a lot of onlookers during a day.) That attempt failed when I got to a point that became too vertical and I could not proceed.

Yesterday I found myself on Maui again with a few hours to kill in the afternoon. The weather in Iao Valley was cloudy (typical) but not rainy so I decided to go for it. By 1:00ish I was on the bridge looking up at my goal for the day. (SEE PHOTO) This point was ~1,000ft on my altimeter. I took the trail down to the stream, crossed at the pool by a mini waterfall, and began up the broad slope to the Needle.

This part had some faint trails that crisscrossed each other, but navigating was not hard as the Needle could be seen above me through the trees. (Just keep heading uphill.) This part also had some fat, juicy thimbleberries (tasty) but that also meant the scratchy thorns. Damaged a nice dry wick T on this stuff. In no time I popped out of the tall vegetation and was at the base of the rocky climb.

Knowing I would be on "center stage" I purposely wore grays and browns, and tucked away all bright colored gear in attempt to camouflage myself. In short time, I was way more focused on my safety than my visibility. The first part of this climb was awful: very steep, terrible rock, and stunted vegetation with barely any roots. I got stuck in certain spots for what seemed like forever as I used my fingers to dig out holes, remove loose rock and soil, and generally create hand/footholds. I was concerned that onlookers below might think I was stuck and call 911 since I was not progressing in either direction. Eventually, though, I would get a little higher, and find myself in a similiarly bad spot. At this point I began to have serious doubts about getting back down this section. Getting down is often harder on these spots as you can't see the more solid footholds that is took a while to find on the way up. I had 50ft of rope in my pack,
but there was not a single root or rock to hook up to on this entire stretch.

Good fortune (and a little skill) got me to a leveled off section where I could rest for a bit. This was ~1300ft by my altimeter. I was in for a nice surprise at this point - there was a gully on my left (the valley side of the Needle) that looked way easier to climb. Still steep, but with strong trees to hang onto. Yes! I would NOT have to descend that route I just climbed up. (I seriously doubted anyone else would want to go that way.)

After 1300ft the climbing was still steep and crumbly, but to a lesser extent. I was cautious of the lack of solid rock. As I got higher up, I reached a brief level spot with what appeared to be a cave in the Needle. Actually just a spot where erosion occurred faster and the missing pieces left a scar off to the left side of the Needle.

As you can see from the first photo, there are ironwoods that dot the ridge higher up. Although steep - and slippery from the carpet of pine needles - these trees made for solid handholds. They were spaced just far enough apart that a tall reach would get you to the next one. (Or a quick fall would land you by a lower one.)

From here up, false summits prevailed. My altimeter let me know I still had a ways left...but my eyes kept getting fooled. I remember a short/steep section bare of any vegetation - but the rock there was solid enough to be trusted. Occasional stunted guava trees were a thrill to find as they make solid handhold.

The going was still easier (for the most part) as I gained altitude. An uluhe wall slowed me up near the very top, though. Did not expect this, and I began the familiar task of wading over the spongy mass. Not dangerous, just tiring. The lack of a swath of any kind led me to believe that this peak has not been summitted recently.

Around 2:40 this ridge stopped climbing - I had summitted! 2100+ ft by my measurement. I had hoped for an open rocky summit, but instead had no panoramic views as I was in some vegetation. In fact, I had to hop up on a guava tree to get a view along the continuation of this ridge. THAT view was impressive (see two photos below).

Something most people will never see. The Needle ridge gets much worse...there is also a vertical waterfall chute to the right of it...and some beautifully inaccessible topography. I only wish the lighting was better for photos.

Something else that disappointed me about the summit: no log book or geocache. I figured I'd find something like that, but found only an old green bottle (empty). There was nothing else on this summit - or the climb up - to show that people visit. No ribbons, ropes, cut marks. And fortunately no trash. I thought about tucking my business card inside the bottle, but decided to leave the area as pristine as I found it. Almost packed out the bottle...

By 3:00ish I felt a couple rain drops and began to head down. Did not want to deal with crappy WET rock. I did take a final scan around the valley (SEE THREE PHOTOS BELOW) and try to figure where the Iao to Lahaina trail might be. Anyone's guess. I also took a final photo of the route back down (PHOTO) once I had an open line of sight and good footing.

Going down was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. At times I could swing to guava or ironwoods, at other times I just butt-slided on whatever provided some friction. Not once did I have to break out my rope. There was one section that made me pause while searching for grips, but not for nearly as long as I spent going up.

When I got back to 1300ft I was ready to try that "other" route to avoid the part I feared on the way up. I ducked off the ridgline into the gully and used a couple strong trees to get down a little ways. It got sheer for a moment, and I found a place to hang out while digging out my rope. I found a tree I liked for an anchor... but the next tree over had an easily missed old black rope on it already! Cool! This really must be the way to avoid the more perilous route I had initially climbed. The rope got me easily down to a lesser slope. This rope would be the only one I would encounter, and the only sign of man other than the aforementioned bottle.

Past the rope, I butt-slid down some loose soil...entered the trees...made my way downhill...and was soon at my mini waterfall where I had started. (SEE PHOTO BELOW) One hour or so to come down.

 One thing I really love about hiking in Iao Valley is that I can bathe in the stream before changing clothes and catching a flight home. Would never want to be denied a ride for being too stinky.

After cooling off in the falls pool for a bit, I headed the short stretch back to the paved path in the touristy area. A couple from Colorado was on the bridge admiring the Needle, and they offered to get a pic with me and my latest accomplishment.

Amusingly, while packing my stuff into the trunk of the rental car, a group of locals around my age asked if it was me that they saw climbing. (My camouflage had failed.) I replied in the affirmative, and they had questions about how long it took and how it was up there. I was happy to give them a brief trail report. Hope you all enjoy the longer version.



  1. Kudos, Great story! I was working for Maui Classic Charters on the Aikane and Lavengro out of Malaya Harbor. I took a day off to hike the Iao Valley, before I knew it I was free climbing the needle. I made it to the top, because I couldn't climb down the way I went due to rotten, loose rock and was so relieved to find the low brush on the narrow ridge to wrap myself in to rest for a bit. The false summits were a challenge and there were a couple of old Hemp looking ropes that looked like they had been there for decades. On the summit, I left a copy of Clan of the Cave Bear as my only marker. It seamed appropriate. To get down I climbed down the right side until I came to the slides that led down to the creek at the base of the needle. I free fell between 10 to 15 feet at a time, targeting outcroppings of sparse brush to arrest my fall. The creek was a welcome bath to get replace the mud I borrowed from the needles shoot on the way down. I have looked for 28 years to find someone who has even attempted to climb this majestic peak. When ever I think of my closest face to face with death, it was the day I free climbed the Iao Needle. I would love to share stories with you.

  2. Hi it's me again. I was going to mention that my free climb was in the winter of 1986/87 when I was 28 years old. The weather was beautiful, one of the only days it didn't rain in the valley. It started to sprinkle just as I found the bottom. Thanks for letting me share my story. It was an amazing week. I also got to swim with two humpback whales near enough to touch (but we didn't) for over an hour and they left and returned to our boat for six visits. Thanks again for retrieving my memories for me.

  3. Where are the photos? the PHOTO posts are not links, and i dont see the photos anywhere

  4. Very interested in the Olowalu to Iao valley hike.
    Topo maps indicate that the climb from the Olowalu 'meadow' is only 800' and a 33-degree grade. Surely do-able.
    Several have given bad juju from unsourceable rumours.
    Has anyone done this hike? It's pretty easy to get to the Olowalu 'meadow'--although I'm told the trailhead is closed and private property.

    Mahalos for your thoughts :)