Distance Hiked: 1.2 Miles (incomplete)
Located on Oahu’s west side, Puu o Hulu (hill of feathers?) combines all the heat of Ka’ena Point with all the hill and stairs of Kammieland. I say “hill” singular, because that’s what it is, one big hill, and while the stairs aren’t proper stairs like they were at Kammieland the small boulders which litter the trail serve a very similar, albeit less uniform, purpose.
As was becoming something of a pattern, we got a later-than-planned start and this time had afternoon plans already on the books to further complicate matters. So, we decided a shorter hike closer to home would probably be the best course of action.
A quick flip through the “Nearby” feature on Alltrails pointed us toward Puu o Hulu, or “The Pink Pillbox” trail as it’s known locally. It was close by, only a little under two miles round trip, and the reviews were generally positive. Whichever sadist marked this trail as “Easy” though, has some serious explaining to do.
The trail head lifts off from an unmarked point along Kaukama Rd. in Waianae, but you can’t miss it. It’s smooth and partially paved with an aged cobblestone creation which only really persists for about the first hundred feet or so. After that, it’s a field of rocky stairs just itching to twist an ankle; so, you’ll want to watch your step.
As you rise higher and higher above the road below you’ll begin to note just how little shade there is to shield you from the blistering Waianae sun. Unlike the Ka’ena Point trail, which is also very exposed, Puu o Hulu doesn’t benefit from the ocean breeze and sea spray of the coastal trail.
Instead, the entire trek takes place on an exposed hillside with little to nothing to offer any manner of reprieve from the heat. Without exaggeration, I can say that there are exactly two places on this hillside where you can find shade, and they’re both among the spidery roots of tenacious little trees which have chosen to defy the odds and thrive in this burning hellscape.
I’m gonna level with you here, I didn’t finish this trail.
As part of our late start, and because of our afternoon plans, we tried to rush the hike. About halfway to the top I stopped so Matt could “take a selfie” and realized that I was getting pretty dizzy and I kinda felt like I wanted to puke. I chocked it up to eating too much food and too much caffeine before I left home, pounded some water and kept moving. Further on, I noted my heart was beating pretty hard, and I was really out of breath… but again, it’s a big hill and it was hot, and I was winded. So again, take a break, more water, keep moving.
It wasn’t until we were about three-fourths of the way to the summit that I realized I was shaking. No, not shaking; shivering. I felt cold, and with the mid-day sun beating down on me, I couldn’t rationalize that away as normal. It was only then that I started to put together what was happening.
Back in the day, I was a Boy Scout. Hiking and backpacking were things we did on a regular basis, and basic first aid was something we learned and relearned. But in the Pacific Northwest (back then at least) heat exhaustion and heat stroke were basically mythological creatures. Sure, if you tried really hard you could accomplish both, but they weren’t routine concerns. In fact, we spent way more time trying to avoid the opposite ends of that spectrum; hypothermia and frostbite. So it took me a bit to realize that I was definitely in the throes of heat exhaustion and bordering on heat stroke.
Once realized, though, it all came back. By this point I was a goodly distance above the car, so I had to find a way to cool down on the trail before heading back. Downhill and dizzy are a dangerous combination. So I found the thickest spindly-ass tree I could find and set up camp in its meager shade while I downed what remained of my water bottle (I carry two). And then I just rested for a while, took in the scenery and tried to calm myself down, as the realization that my situation had become fairly serious had started the old adrenal glands pumping, which was the last thing I needed.
A group of other hikers passed me by on their way down from the summit. I greeted them warmly, as they passed and, since I could feel myself bouncing back, opted not to ask for help getting down; pride and what not. They told me I was nearly at the top and I nodded and smiled and waved them on an then, once they were out of sight, I followed them down.
Sometimes in life circumstance forces us to accept certain hard truths. Puu o Hulu was, for me, one of those truths. I try to play at being impervious, to convince myself that discomfort or injury are just fine and that as long as it’s not bleeding or broken everything is okay. So it’s hard to admit that I was unable to complete a less-than-one-mile climb because of the sun. But I also have to accept that had I not swallowed my pride and admitted that something was wrong when I did, they could have been airlifting my unconscious ass off that Pink Pill Box (which I never saw).
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike this trail. In fact, I’d love to go back under different circumstances. It’s different, it keeps you on your toes, and even from halfway up it offers some phenomenal views of the Waianae caldera; yeah, Waianae is inside an old volcano, neat, right? But all of the factors listed in the opening paragraphs (“easy”-listing, short, close) present a very different mental picture from what you’ll actually encounter once you get there. Simply put, I was not prepared for this trail.
To read about other times I didn’t almost die, click here.