Westways—Into Wet Air

Into Wet Air

March/April 2004
by Robert Earle Howells

Rising a mile high from the middle of Kaua’i into the heavens, aloof and untouched, Mount Wai’ale’ale is a palpable presence, its summit shrouded almost perpetually in clouds, living a secret life beneath a deluge of more than 35 feet of rain a year. Yet it’s so close — just five or so miles from the nearest road. It practically taunts anyone who’s inclined to be curious.

Like me. What would this wettest of places look like? I had a vision of supreme lushness, absurdly oversized ferns and orchids receiving constant wet kisses from a nonstop parade of clouds. Of course I wanted to climb it.

But expressing this desire brought some interesting reactions, none of them encouraging. Local guides told me it couldn’t be done. Adventure outfitters urged me to go kayaking instead. Concierges suggested golf. Tourism officials changed the subject. When pressed, they disputed my statistics, steering me to other very wet places.

In fact, it seems the winner of the Wettest Place on Earth title depends on the period you’re measuring. Over the past 85 years, Wai’ale’ale has averaged 430 inches of rain annually, versus 450 inches in Cherrapunji, India, over 74 years. But in one 32-year span, Wai’ale’ale averaged 460 inches. And Indian rain is monsoonal, concentrated in a five-month period. Wai’ale’ale’s is more consistent. Day by day, year by year, my money’s on Wai’ale’ale.

I was ready to make the summit. I just needed a sympathetic co-conspirator to help me get there.

A Torturous Hike
“It’s a long walk to see a cloud,” David Boynton told me when I asked him to guide me up the mountain. Boynton is a Kaua’i photographer and naturalist, and I’d tracked him down via a sequence of referrals. “Only a handful of people have made it to the top,” he said. I liked this guy, even if he was playing a bit coy. At least he wasn’t telling me no.

But one thing was confusing me. I know for a fact that several dozen people summit a certain 29,035-foot peak in the Himalayas every year, braving 50-below-zero temperatures. Was Boynton saying that almost no one reaches the top of 5,148-foot Wai’ale’ale, where it might dip below 70 on a bitter day?

He was. He explained that, despite the lower summit and more temperate conditions, the hike is torturous. You’ve got two choices. From the west side, it’s a long march across a high plateau covered by the Alaka’i Swamp. Four or so days negotiating dense thickets and mucky bogs. An utterly confusing maze of S-shaped streams and aimless paths created by feral pigs, all devoid of landmarks.

From the east side, the route of ancient Kauaians who built a heiau (temple) on the mountain, it’s a long slog up the Wailua River to a steep, narrow spine of a ridge dense with ferns and tangled shrubs. After 4,200 feet of extremely wet, slippery climbing, they reached the edge of the island’s central plateau, then trekked another half-mile through fog-shrouded bogs to the sacred altar at Wai’ale’ale. No one’s done it since the 19th century. A century-plus of ensuing erosion has probably made it impassible.

“By the way,” asked Boynton, “why do you want to go there?”

“Because it’s the wettest place on earth,” I responded.

“Nope,” he said. “It’s the rainiest. The Pacific Ocean is wetter. So’s a swimming pool.”

I stood corrected. Still, I was game for either approach. But Boynton, naturalist first and adventurer second, explained why it wasn’t just difficult, it was illegal: To get to the summit, you’d have to set up an illegal campsite along the way. Moreover, the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources strongly advises against climbing to the top. Rare native plants live on the high plateau, and they’re threatened by invasive nonnative species. The bogus plants could gain a toehold by way of hitchhiking seeds dropping from muddy boots and socks.

Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t summit. But Boynton had a plan: We’d approach the mountain from both sides without actually climbing it. We could hike the Alaka’i on legal trails and boardwalks and get a sense of the dense vegetation that guards the mountain. Then he’d pass me off to a friend who would show me part of the ancient route that begins near the Wailua River.

I agreed to the plan, then left to prepare for the hike. But one thing lingered in my mind: How did Boynton know it was so hard to get to the top of Wai’ale’ale?

First Approach: Alaka’i Side
For my west-side hike, Boynton and I stashed a car at the Kalalau Lookout, picked up Boynton’s friend Laura Arnold, and drove to the south end of the Alaka’i Swamp Trail.

“Did you wash those shoes off?” Arnold asked me as we attended to prehike formalities. I admitted that I generally washed my shoes after a hike, not before, and I was duly chided. Seeds hitchhike, remember? Arnold works for the Koke’e Resource Conservation Program, and she’s passionate about eradicating invasive plant species.

So I washed my shoes, then headed into one of the most remarkable trail networks I’ve ever seen. Because the swamp is so fragile, not to mention nearly impassible, long stretches of trail are boardwalk.

I saw immediately that Alaka’i was no standard-issue swamp. For one thing, much of it is above 3,000 feet, and only sections of it are boggy. We started our hike beneath a lovely grove of ‘olapa trees, their leaves dancing like aspen. Beneath them were the orange berries of pilo kea trees and the coffeelike kopiko, and the floor of the forest was covered with tree ferns and ‘a’ali’i shrubs dribbling bright red blossoms onto the boardwalk. This was primeval forest, not fetid swamp.

I had nearly forgotten about Wai’ale’ale’s summit, and I suspected that was Boynton’s intent. I still cast wistful glances toward the peak, though — basically just a bulge of the high plateau, hidden, of course, in the clouds.

I mused out loud at one point about what I thought the summit looked like. Surely it is the most fecund place on earth, I said. “Actually, it looks like a desert,” Boynton informed me. Turns out he once choppered to the summit with the rain-gauge readers. (His sense of the difficulty of an approach by land? “Friends,” he said obliquely, had done it.)

Wai’ale’ale a desert? No way. It’s the rainiest place on earth! “Well, actually, more like tundra,” Boynton said. “But it’s so saturated up there, and the clay soil is so acidic, that the plants that have adapted to survive grow only a few inches tall.”

After a brisk swim in a Kawaikoi Stream tributary, we proceeded to Kilohana lookout for a sweeping view clear to Hanalei. We then hiked back to the Pihea Trail, where we could look straight down into Kalalau Valley and the central section of the Na Pali cliffs. By that point, we were completely dry. Come to think of it, after the first hour, it didn’t rain all day.

Second Ascent: Wailua River
“You’re not going to give people detailed directions on how to get here, are you?” photographer/woodturner/’ukulele player Wayne Jacintho said to me. We were hiking several thousand feet below Wai’ale’ale, along the Wailua River, and Jacintho was mainly concerned for the safety of would-be hikers. Though it might be safe to wade toward the mountain in the morning, a big rainfall up top can cause the river to rise dramatically. No one should venture up without a knowledgeable guide.

Joined once again by the indomitable Laura Arnold, we started upriver, and soon, our goal was in sight. Clouds played across it, but they parted frequently to reveal the abrupt rise of Wai’ale’ale. It looked as if a giant bite had been taken from its east face, leaving a sheer, 2,000-foot jaw-shaped wall. Locals call this immense grotto the Blue Hole, and we were marching toward its deep-green heart. The face of the mountain was fluted with would-be waterfalls that were running that day as trickles, but it was easy to imagine the effect of a big rain: Wai’ale’ale would gush over its precipice in dozens of wild cascades.

By the time we got near the base of Wai’ale’ale and paused beside a 30-foot waterfall and an Olympic-size swimming hole, we were surrounded by the sound of roaring water. Jacintho led us around to a narrow chasm, which we slid through to emerge at the base of two waterfalls that tumbled over three tiers of black basalt. “Welcome to the lost world!” Jacintho said. Then he swam across the pool beneath the waterfalls, clambered up a rock face behind the cascade, and disappeared. A minute later we could see a hand gesturing to us to “come on up.” We swam over, picked our way up the back side of the waterfall, and joined Jacintho inside a shallow cave.

Arnold soon returned to the pool and Jacintho to taking pictures, but I couldn’t get enough of that cave. I sat inside it for ages. The summit of Wai’ale’ale had eluded me. But nestled inside this respirating cavity, I felt a sense of triumph anyway. I’d gained an understanding. There are some places, sacred places, where no one need go.

With that in mind, I slid into the wettest place on earth: the Blue Hole pool at the base of Mount Wai’ale’ale.