Lifestyles in military retirement: Haleakala Crater

My friend Jay asked me to post this before we go to Maui.  He either wants to check our morale or get our final thoughts on record…

A year ago we got a call from a good friend. He grew up on Maui and had hiked Haleakala Crater for over 50 years. He and his spouse had formed a 12-person group for their next trip but two had just dropped out. Could we fill in? Sure, we thought. A four-day hike with sleeping cabins? No problem!

Spouse and I hadn’t been hiking for a while, but we know what to expect at altitude. We no longer had hiking shoes or gear but we’re both in good shape, and we are extraordinarily stubborn persistent. We’ve endured plenty of environmental misery during our Navy years and we were confident that we could do this. We knew that the National Park Service severely restricts access to Haleakala’s fragile environment, and joining such an experienced group is the chance of a lifetime. The challenge was that we had just five days to prepare. Above all, we didn’t want to miss out and spend years wondering “What if?” So we scrambled to the military base to rent backpacks & sleeping bags, stocked up on food & ibuprofen, and found our most comfy sneakers. No chance to buy, let alone break in, proper hiking shoes.

We survived, but it wasn’t pretty. I haven’t been so physically challenged since my taekwondo black belt test. Four days of Haleakala felt like three weeks of Army Airborne parachute training or Navy diver school, although I’m a bit older since those days.  Spouse felt hammered down into pain levels somewhere between “plebe summer” and “giving birth”. Our critical asset was obstinacy perseverance, and it’s not hard to find when the alternative is dying of exposure. If you sprain an ankle in the crater it may literally take a day to get you out. There’s no cell-phone service, no cabin phones or electricity, and no standby rescue helicopter. If the weather closes in then the rangers use pack horses.

Summit view

Haleakala’s altitude is from 6500-10,000 feet.  It’s mostly desert and lava fields with some alpine meadows. The night before we hiked in, a cold front passed through with gusts over 75 mph. Summit winds are 20-30 mph and temperatures are 40-70 degrees even without the wind chill. The sun is intense and the altitude inhibits conversation, let alone exertion. The trails are unpredictably treacherous– ankle-deep sand, slippery rocks, sharp lava, narrow deep-cut trails, and crumbly switchbacks.  The Apollo astronauts used the crater for lunar environmental training.

Field of silverswords

NPS is fighting a conservation battle. They’ve closed off nearly 40% of the terrain for research but the land is so dry and the vegetation so fragile that it can take decades to recover. Ancient Hawaiians have left clear trails from the 1700s and traffic has risen steadily since the 1930s. Silverswords put out surface roots that can be killed by walking too close. Invasive species (rats, mongoose, goats, pigs) have cut back the bird population while reducing plant seeding & pollination. Some of the trails are worn 18″ deep and have to be re-routed when it rains. The silverswords are much reduced even in the last 50 years– we saw groups but none of them were as big as the 19th-century photos. Even 40 people staying overnight (plus hundreds of day hikers) can overwhelm the area.

In the crater's lava fields

The first day we hiked nearly 10 miles east from the Visitor’s Center to Paliku, the crater’s “best” cabin. The first five miles slogged off the summit through Sliding Sands trail, raising clouds of lava dust with every step. Our sneakers filled with cinders. Our rental gear chafed, our sleeping bags flopped around, and spouse’s pack was too big for her torso. We started with 30 mph winds (gusting to 50) and 50 degrees but the wind soon died and the sun began to bake. The terrain descended over 3000 feet in a few miles through switchbacks into sun-blasted & eroded landscape punctured by occasional thousand-foot cinder cones and sporadic groups of silverswords. We saw no critters above 7000 feet– they’re not stupid.

Paliku Cabin, established 1930

The cabins are 20’x40′, built by the CCC. The main room flows into a two-person kitchen next to a small firewood closet that doubles as a changing room. 12 bunks are stacked three high around a large table with benches. Water flows from the catchment tank and the pit toilet is behind the cabin. NPS provides firewood, toilet paper, kitchen gear, and bedpads. No open fires, we boiled our drinking water, and we had to burn or pack out our trash (including food waste). Evenings were spent boiling water for the next day’s drinking. Hygiene was solar shower bags or baby wipes.

Proud nene parents

The Paliku cabin was favored by a nene family putting in regular photo appearances. We also saw partridges & pheasants and heard lots of smaller birds. Clouds & mist rose up from below us at sundown but cleared by 9 PM to an absolutely stunning starscape– the first time I’ve seen the Milky Way in Hawaii. We were all exhausted that night, so most of us saw it only during a midwatch trip to the lua.

The second day we rested at Paliku with local hikes and worked on our gear. Morning was misty and rainy but by afternoon the clouds had cleared away for a ridge hike, just enough to work out the kinks. The eastern edge of the crater is eroded away to offer stunning views down to Kipahulu & Hana, lots of coastline/ocean and the Big Island’s peaks of Mauna Kea & Mauna Loa.

Even the experienced hikers rated our third day the worst ever. The windy rain started at 2 AM and continued steadily until dinner. We hiked 6.3 miles uphill/northwest to the Holua cabin, wearing rain ponchos that merely divided the soaking between rainfall & sweat. The first mile of the trail was ankle-deep in rainwater and the entire day exercised our survival skills. Of course the rain stopped as soon as the last hiker made the cabin. Holua cabin is by a quarter-mile lava tube, and a cave in the surrounding hills was the first Haleakala shelter for the ancient Hawaiians. But we spent most of that evening drying our gear and warming up, not necessarily in that order.

The path back out of the crater

The final day we hiked out a 3.9-mile trail cut into the side of the crater. I lost count of the switchbacks and the ridgelines. We gained 1600 feet of altitude at two hiking speeds– “slow” and “stop”– and everyone’s legs/feet were sore. The trail ended at a parking lot where we’d stashed a car to ferry us the final 2000 feet back up to the summit. We showered at one of the local hiker’s homes, lunched in Makawao, and shopped or hung out for a few hours before the group split up. Spouse and I bookended our stay with nights at the rustic Kula Lodge.

Out of the crater at a local hiker's house

We’re glad that we tested our limits in this crucible, but the decision was irrevocable. A change of heart didn’t mean “quit and go home”– it meant “hang on and don’t die of exposure”.

Everyone kept asking spouse “Will you go again next year?”  Her answer: “Ask me again in six months.”

Well, we got the phone call again– and we’re goin’ back in.

We may be slow learners, but this time we’re ready. We’ve been working out. During a Mainland trip we spent a couple of hours in an REI store.  Our new packs are sized to our frames and we have featherweight compact warm-weather sleeping bags. We’ve broken in our hiking shoes and spouse has trekking poles. We’ve even replaced our water bottles with CamelBaks.

It still won’t be easy, but it’ll be a lot more fun. I think we’ll be smiling more in the pictures, too.

The blog posts will continue on schedule while we’re hiking, but if you haven’t made a comment before then yours will be held in a moderation queue until I’m back. If your timing is bad then it could be as long as six days. This post shows you how to make a comment now so that I can approve it within 24 hours and you won’t have to wait for moderation anymore.

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About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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