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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Tragedy on Olomana

Ryan Suenaga -- Staradvertiser photo
This past weekend, Ryan Suenaga, 44 of Kaneohe, fell to his death on the approach ridge to Mount Olomana's third peak. A story about his life and his tragic end is in the Honolulu Staradvertiser. We are saddened that his life is ended and reminded how dangerous hiking in Oahu's mountains can be.

In 2004, perhaps at the same spot, Jacqueline Turner, also 44 at that time and also of Kaneohe, fell 150 feet but miraculously survived. Also on that day, another hiker, Mel Yoshioka, also fell while descending the backside of Olomana's second peak. He, too, survived. The details of that event are chronicled.
Mel Yoshioka and Jacqueline Turner, Olomana fall survivors
On the same day that Suenaga fell, another hiker, Giovanni Acosta, also fell. Like Turner and Yoshioka, he survived and filed the following report:


This morning I am fortunate to have awakened from my bed, even though I must say that it’s been an extremely sobering morning. Waking up today, more so than any other day, has made me realize that coming back from being asleep and returning to this shared reality is an immense gift of time and circumstance. Only yesterday, I had found myself in the most dangerous of situations that branched completely from my own fault. A few friends and I had organized a day in Kailua, and the first stop on the agenda was a hike up Olomana’s first peak. This was the first hike I did when I came to the island a year ago, and yesterday, it almost became the final hike of my life.


Giovanni Acosta

The Start of the Hike
The day was gorgeous with an occasional, refreshing breeze and a warm, inviting sun. The group of people I was hiking with consisted of four women and two men, with me being one of the men and my girlfriend being one of the women. Ascending this jutting trail would make it near my 45th hike on the island in the past year. Completing the first peak of Olomana, around 1000 feet in altitude, would be my fifth time.

After nearly two hours, because of frequent stops and slow hike speeds, we made it to the top. Right before the top of the peak, there is a series of rock inclines, which can be bouldered coming directly at them or climbed up using a smooth side wall further towards the center of the peak on the mauka side. As I bouldered up the western side of this portion of the peak, I was all smiles; thinking to myself that I needed the bouldering practice for future hikes planned that would have me at a much higher elevation and in much more precarious situations.

However, my close female friend was having trouble coming up the rock wall which I had avoided unlike most people. Her trouble was mostly from not using the thick rope of about sixty feet in length to come up to where I had bouldered up to. My girlfriend was up there guiding her vocally, encouraging my female friend to take the rope up, but my female friend was still hesitating. So with full confidence I decided to come down the rock wall, using the small juts to work my way down in a matter of seconds to where my friend was having trouble. When I showed her what to do to make use of the rope to get where I had just come from, she started to ascend up the wall, but in doing so, kicked back and knocked my phone clip from my shoulder strap loose without me realizing. A few moments after climbing back up to where now my girlfriend and female friend was, I heard something hit the rock below my feet and looked helplessly as my phone, in its case, tumbled down the rock wall and off into the unknown below us, past the side trail which hugged the rock wall.

At this point, we were right before the summit of the first peak, and hadn’t yet seen the top. I hesitated only a second before deciding I was going to go back down the rock wall to get a closer look to see if I could see my phone to retrieve it. My girlfriend immediately told me that the phone was gone and to not try to recover it. To just let it go. I was confident from prior hikes much more dangerous than what I imagined was just off trail below and said to her that I could easily grab my phone if I only I could see it. I told her that I was going to attempt to grab the phone and could use her help. When she insisted I not go after it, I told her that I was going to try with or without her help and that I would be careful.

My girlfriend then partially acquiesced and recommended that if I try, that I at least use the assistance of our other male friend in the group who was just 25 yards away at the summit. I agreed and decided to enjoy the summit before the attempt. When we made it to the top, everyone was happy and giving each other high fives. We had our snacks up there and enjoyed the beautiful views of Waimanalo, Windward Oahu, and Makapu’u. Even in the distant, views of Molokai, Maui, and Lanai far off over the south-eastern horizon delighted us. A few other groups summited while we were up there, some coming from where we came, others coming back from where the path continued onwards to the second and third peak of the trail.


The Descent and Ill-fated Decision
Finally, it was time to start our descent back. I was focused on seeing if I could reach my phone. Before I continue with the recount of what happened, I’d like to say that I am more prepared in my supplies than many others I have hiked with. In my camelback, I carry first aid, flint to create emergency fire, tourniquets, a whistle and compass, and always a lot of water and food. I also have had rope with me since the day of my first hike. The rope is not climbing rope, but a rope tested up to 150lbs used for camping. In my mind, I carried it for emergencies that I would hope never to come across. Only once before, did I use the rope to secure a handhold for a friend who was in trouble in Ka’au Crater, so the rope had been cut from its original 50 feet length down to 35 feet, and remained in my bag since. Also, I carry two knives; one on the shoulder strap of my backpack, and the other larger knife usually at my waist or in my bag. When my girlfriend had started hiking, I bought her a smaller knife as well to keep on her bag’s shoulder strap.

So as we came back to the base of the rock wall, my girlfriend and female friend, who had struggled with the wall, remained up top; and, the two other females and the male were with me down at the rock wall’s parallel trail. The ladies started looking for the phone from their positions as I asked my male friend to call the phone to see if I could hear it. As it rang audibly, my girlfriend yelled out that she had seen it bounce too far. My male friend said he thought it sounded a ways away as well. One of the two females on the same level as I said she thought she saw it. I itched to have it back.

So I looked down past the trail and noticed a series of ledges that seemed stable and able to be stepped on. The ground looked covered in debris, but there were some trees and plants coming up from the floor that looked like they could be secure. The steeper decline into the unknown wilderness below didn’t appear to start for another 15ft past the ledges that I had decided would be safe enough to stand on. I told everyone I would just get to the part where I thought was still safe before giving up on the phone. I was challenged by the circumstance and wanted to recover the phone to bypass the inconvenience associated with losing it. However, as the events unfolded, I almost paid dearly for that choice. I took off my pack and pulled out the rope and handed it raveled up to the male with me and told him to have it just in case. But I left it raveled up in his hands! This was also his first major Hawaiian hike and the guy is not an outdoorsman. All these were some of the mistakes that were adding up unknowingly at the time.


The Fall and Miracle
I climbed down past the rock-wall’s side trail and then stood on the first ledge below the trail. There were no problems; I felt safe. I thought that this must be how the terrain would be ahead and in front of me to wherever it was my phone was as it sounded ahead in the audible distance. I stepped down to the second ledge and felt the leaves under my feet feel a bit unstable; but, I was propping and holding myself to the trees, the decline being only about 35 degrees at this point. Then I saw the third ledge, the point where I thought the phone might be within reach, and noticed that the black and blue thing that my female had seen just before was actual a lost hiking stick; one that a wiser hiker had decided to declare lost. It was not my phone. I turned my body to face towards the trail above me and went to step over to the third ledge when all of the sudden the ground under my feet slid.

The next second, I was belly down on the ground sliding downwards at high speed with my feet below me, hands above me, and face towards the rock wall. I felt rock and dirt and leaves whishing by my face and my arms were upwards over my head, palms down trying to grab a hold of something. I knew I was sliding some distance, and felt more embarrassment than any danger. Yet, I wasn’t sure. I felt I would stop by a sheer false sense of invincibility. So when I stopped a few seconds after the slip, I wasn’t surprised. But I didn’t stop because I was able to grip something with my hands; I was stopped because I hit something with the side of my left leg and thigh.

At this point, I looked around to see what my situation was and was immediately hit with the gravity of the seriousness of it. I was in fatal jeopardy. My left leg had caught onto a branch or tree of about three broomsticks in width that must have previously been snapped by wind and gone horizontal. The part of it that had fallen was under my left leg and thigh, clinging onto who-knows-what, and the other part at which it snapped, across past my right leg. My hands and chest and stomach stung and hugged earth under me, but my hands had difficulty finding anything to grip onto that didn’t pull free.

The worst was when I looked just over my shoulder behind and below me. Two feet under the branch that had stopped my fall was a sheer drop off. Where it dropped off to, I couldn’t see, but I was on a cliff edge and beyond it and in my vision was no more mountain, just hundreds of green, sun-covered tree tops hundreds of feet below. My life was momentarily saved by this branch which had stopped my fall, but it was unstable and already starting to crack with my weight of 165 lbs.

From shock of the situation to the immediate understanding of the jeopardy, I went into survival mode. Mind you, only 10 seconds or so had passed since I slipped from above, and I knew that the rest of my entire group had just witnessed or heard me slip. I yelled out, “I’m okay! But I’m in a very bad situation and need help.” I could see my male friend’s face staring down at me wide-eyed, about 50 feet above me, the incline of the area I was at now was about 45 degrees.

My other female friend, who had hiked Olomana before and was the one who thought she had seen my phone, looked towards the area which I was in with a puzzled frown and a hint of determination in her eyes. My hands moved around carefully trying to grip anything; but most was dead debris or dirt or leaves. I dared not move my butt or legs in fear that the broken branch under me would give. I dared not look back towards the fall that would end my life. The one thing I was able to grip was found, a nub-of-a-plant growing out of the dead leaves to my left, about long as a palm-of-a-hand and as thick as a golf ball. It was the only thing I could manage to wrap my hand around to secure, and I dared not tug hard on it.

I called out to my male friend to try to unravel the rope and toss it to me. I could see other plants coming out of the ground near me, but too far beyond my reach. I thought, if only I had rope on me, I could lasso one of the plants to help me get off the branch below my legs that was unstably supporting me from dying. My male friend tossed the white rope which I had given him; its thin width and length not able to get to me at all from his position on the trail. I yelled out, “Please, I’m in a very serious spot. I think if this branch gives, I will fall off the cliff. I need a rope immediately!” My friends now yelled back they were trying. My girlfriend, farther above yelled out “Be strong! Hold on! Don’t you let go of anything!” But I couldn’t grip much. Everything I touched with my right hand came away from the earth. I was worried I would pull something out that would cause the earth over my head to shift downwards and in fatal consequence. So I decided to start digging with my free right hand. In honor of Bear Claw, I quickly made a hole in the dirt above and to the right of my head with my right hand. Once I felt it was deep enough, I stuck my free hand into that new slot hoping that it would work as some new way for me to hold onto the mountain face.

I told the male and female friends who were closest to me, both looking down at me from the trail, to try to step on the ledges which I first stepped on so they could then be able to try to toss the rope to me again. I could feel the branch under my leg starting to wiggle. They yelled back they were trying and deciding who could come down on the ledge. While they decided, I tried to stay calm. Thoughts flew through my mind. Would I die today? Is this my end? I thought it was sickly ironic because on this same Easter Sunday, my sister had given birth to her third child just hours before. I found it idiotic that I would die for a cell phone. I thought it stupid that my slip originated from my ill choice and stubbornness. The thoughts crossed my mind and I focused on the desire not to give my new nephew an awful birthday present and not to die with a Darwin award.

I knew any movement would not help me and might be my last. I again wondered if I should accept the fact I was going to die. Immediately, I pushed away the thought, and mentally told myself: survive. So I hugged the earth under my body and breathed in and out calmly, trying to mentally settle down. Oddly, I looked at a stick in front of my face that had a clear, white aphid bug crawling on it. It felt like it looked at me when I noticed it. It’s tiny face appearing to recognize me as I did it. Strangely, this brought me a moment of calm for a few seconds. I had come to this creature’s home, and it was safe… so maybe I could be. I mentally transported myself somewhere else, where I was not about to die.

When I looked up again just seconds later, my female friend was trying to make it down to the ledges I had thought wrongly just moments before that would be safe. It was the only place they could toss the rope from that might better reach me. As she moved, I told her “Please hurry… I’m very much in trouble.” She responded she was trying and didn’t want to cause a landslide of dirt to come down to me. A few steps later from her, and pebbles and rock started falling. She moved a few more feet before deciding that she just couldn’t do it without jeopardizing herself or risking dropping a rock down towards my face. I wasn’t frustrated. I was grateful that she tried. I yelled out “Thank you for trying. Maybe you can get a longer rope! I have a knife in my bag! Cut the thick rope that leads up the rock wall! We could use it to get to me!”


The Final Hero
At this point, my girlfriend who had been yelling out “I love you!” every few minutes and encouraging words throughout the last few moments yelled out “Hang in there! I have called 911!” At that moment, I felt the branch under my left leg and thigh starting to give. If it came away free from whatever it latched onto, or snapped completely from the base it had cracked from, I would be falling to my death. This was the exact and only moment I was given to move, so I moved without knowing what would happen.


My left hand dare not put any further weight on the little nub that it held; my right hand pushes deep into the hole’s ledge I had just dug; my body shifting upwards with the force of my right hand pressing into the hole; my left thigh just coming off the branch as the branch gives away and falls; my left foot swinging upwards to kick into whatever nook the branch had just been latched into; at the same time my right hand pushing away from the hole to allow my right knee to come up and dig into that same hole.

Now, I was up closer, away from the cliff ledge by about half a body. I couldn’t see where my left foot had stepped into but it was secure enough for the moment. My hands and arms pressed against the earth, now unable to grab anything, but were able to provide more stability to my body with their new positions. My right knee felt deep enough into the hole I had just dug to take off the strain from odd muscles which were being used before while I was on the branch that was now nowhere to be seen.

I yelled out “I’m in a safer position but not sure for how long! Please, see if someone can use the larger rope to toss it down!” A response from above was “We are working on that!” My girlfriend continued to yell out to be strong and hold on. I could see people now coming up from the left side of the trail, coming up to ascend to the top of the summit, and one of them, a total stranger, looked down at me and then to my friends and said he could help. “Thank you,” I yelled, “Please hurry, I’m in a safer position but don’t know how long I can hold it!” At this point, I was still about 45 feet away from them and about five feet above the cliff edge.

“They are sending a helicopter,” yelled out my girlfriend, still beyond sight. “Hold on! Be strong! I love you!” I returned the words of love and looked at this stranger now starting to lower himself onto the ledges just under the trail. He moved slowly and cautiously. At this point, I must have been on that ledge for about fifteen minutes, and the self-induced calmness was starting to wear off. Was I going to die just as it looked like I might get the help of rescue? I wasn’t sure. The ledges I had slipped from weren’t far but I didn’t know if it was too far for rope to reach or not. My mind started racing, my heart started speeding up, my knees started to shake. “Please hurry! I’m starting to panic!” I yelled. The stranger, calm and moving cautiously, voiced back “You’re okay! If you are in a secure spot, you can stay there if you don’t move. No need to panic.” I wanted to believe him in his calming assurances, but I knew I was standing with one foot on whatever had caught the fallen branch and dared not move my foot a millimeter. My right knee shook from a fear of death and overwhelming sense of uncertainty in the hole in which I just had made. I wanted to believe the stranger, but somewhere inside, I knew regardless if I moved or not, these holds my foot and knee were in would cave.

“I only need rope. If it can’t reach just throw me it down!” I yelled. I planned for how if I had rope in hand, I would use it to throw around a plant that was growing just up and towards my right above reach. I could lasso myself from one plant to the next until reaching the safer area where the decline wasn’t as steep and further away from the fall. The stranger now was on the ledge and telling me he would get the rope to me. He had my thin, white rope in hand and was now attempting to toss it down towards me from the closer ledge. I hoped its 35feet length would now be enough. The first toss got caught in tree limbs which branched from trees to the left and right of the lane from which I had slipped. He stayed calm, as I flustered at the failed attempt. I didn’t want this to be my last sight ever… a man I didn’t know almost saving me.

He tossed the rope again, but it fell just in front of the ledges, about 25 feet too far away. He pulled it back and someone handed him a rock to which he tied the rope’s end to. He tossed it again and this time it sailed past the branches towards my location. It hit above my position, just five feet or so away. He was about to pull it back, when I yelled out “If you give it some slack it might reach me!” He heard me and let go some of the grip on his end and the rope’s end near me, with its rock attached, thankfully had the weight to slide down the dirt some and into my extended right hand. In its full extension, the end of the rope had just barely reached my hand.


Rescued
I hike with rubber-palmed gloves and wear them throughout the trails regardless of their elevation. It feels better for me to have my hands touch rock or branch with the gloves on. I was fortunate to have had them on when my white rope reached my hand. The rope was very thin and it helped knowing that the gloves were on my hands. I used the rope to pull myself up with my free hand after the stranger who had saved me said he had tied it off near where he was above. Wrapping the rope around my forearm and wrist, I came up from the edge of the cliff and up the incline that I had slid down, almost to my death. I was able to reach the place where my phone must have fallen because I could hear it beeping near my feet, but I didn’t see it nor did I want to press my luck further by shuffling around for it. Even if I retrieved it, there would be no sense of victory or accomplishment that would be worth the cost of what I had just experienced. I knew the moment was a traumatic experience not only for me but for the people who witnessed it un-fold.

Then, the stranger was able to throw me the thicker, longer rope that was cut from the rock-wall when I came closer to him, about 25 feet away. He tied it to the tree near him and that allowed me to climb up back over dead earth, rock, and garbage to where he was. While I made the last efforts to get back to safety, a yellow helicopter arrived over our heads. I heard it but I refused to look up as I climbed hand over hand on the thicker rope back towards the rock-wall’s trail. That was the place I needed to be. The stranger shuffled up from the ledges to the trail before I did, and I only looked back once to see my white rope tangled and tied around a tree below. It would have to be left. With people all around watching, the stranger offered me his hand and I pulled myself up back onto the trail and back into safety. That’s when the shock of safety hit me. It actually happened: I was rescued.

As the helicopter’s blades and propellers spun loudly above us, the pilot stuck his face and body out from the side of the helicopter to get a better view of us below. Many people and I threw up multiple thumbs up at the helicopter so the pilot could see I was alright and saved. I then turned around and found my girlfriend in front of me tearful-eyed and smiling. “I’m so happy you are alive! I love you so much!”. “I love you, too” I replied as we exchanged the best embrace we’ve ever shared. I felt awful and wonderful. I felt ashamed and thankful. “I’m sorry” I whispered in her ear.

I looked down at my legs and arms and noticed there was blood all over them. For the first time, I felt the scrapping, nicks, and cuts that had rasped me as I had fallen. Thankfully, I wasn’t injured worse in my slip and fall down the edge, for if I had been, I don’t know if I would have been able to have held on by the edge.

My other friends embraced me each in turn. No unkind words were said. People were just happy I was okay. Strangers looked at me from the left of the rock-wall and from the top of it; and as I apologized for the inconvenience of it all, they also said the same: “It’s okay!” “Glad you are alright!” “You were lucky!” Finally, I looked at the stranger who had come to my rescue; a young man with fair skin, curly brown hair, clear eyes, and a calm demeanor. He watched me from the side of the wall and I walked to him and shook his hand. “Thank you. You seriously just saved my life,” I said. He replied, “It was no problem. I’m glad you are alright.”


Epilogue
When we had been climbing up to the top peak, we were passed by another hiker who is a friend of mine and someone that I’ve hiked with a few times before. He likes to take rock climbing classes around the island and is knowledgeable of rope. He was enjoying his Sunday hiking all three peaks by himself. Later, when I was hanging for my life on the edge of the first peak, someone above had called him and asked him if he could come back from the third peak to help me. When someone had yelled down to me that they had called him, I didn’t think he could make it in time. I removed him from my mind as a chance of rescue as my life was in jeopardy.

The friend on the third peak; however, did turn around to try to make it back to offer help. On his way down from the third peak, he saw someone in trouble. Someone else was in danger and our friend with his rope-skills, who had been coming back to help me, ended up being able to rescue this other hiker. Curiously, as we were coming down the trail to the first peak, we noticed the helicopter continuing to circle around all the Three Peaks. We thought the helicopter rescue team was just taking the opportunity to run drills since I had already been saved. However, when we reached the bottom, my friend pointed out to me that the helicopter was flying away with a gurney.

It is with my extreme sadness that I write now that there was a third hiker who slipped and fell. It happened around the same time the other hiker, who my friend saved, and I were rescued. No one saw the third hiker fall, but some said they heard the fall. I only heard about the fatality later in the night; and, unquestionably, my mind has had a difficult time in its comprehension. I can only hope my life, a gift more than ever on this morning following that eventful day, honors both the heroes of the rescued and the fallen that were not rescued.

My heart and prayers go out to the family, friends, and people who knew the man who died yesterday. All I can say from being there just inches from sharing the same fate is that I know the last moments of his life he thought of you and was thankful for your love and friendship. Let’s all honor him by being safer, better aware of our limits, and becoming better prepared for times of emergencies.

Mahalo for reading this and to all those who played a part in allowing me to write it.

3 comments:

  1. I'm pretty guilty of not following the best safety practices I could be. It's so easy to get complacent and forget that any trail could be your last!

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  2. What a strange day, for three hikers in the same spot to be in peril.

    ReplyDelete