~by Jim Bendis
I decided to run Kauai’s Napali Coast yesterday. This is one of the most brutal and scenic trails in the world. 22 miles round trip. Most people plan months and come from around the world and take 3 to 5 days to go back and forth, camping along the way. Some opt to go one way. I really didn’t want to get one of the few permits to camp. I really didn’t want to wear a big backpack either. Simple solution, run in and out in one day... so, I thought. Plan was to get up early, zip out and back in time to support and listen to my neighbor’s band play on Anini Beach.
Now, I am not stupid. I had run to the 6 mile point and back before. (Run is a very liberal word here. It is really more like run what I could, walk when brutally steep or too scary a cliff, or bounce over boulders trying to keep feet dry in the many muddy sections or crossing any of the many gorgeous stream crossings….) Oh, I am back to the part where I was saying that I am not stupid. I was prepared. Had my camelback as full as water as possible. Had jerky-type steak bits, nut bars, dried fruit, and 2 soft water bottles filled with concentrated chai tea. Oh, and my cell phone to take pics. Everything I need, right?? Wrong. I was missing the most important thing, “respect for the trail”.
Got a late start. Figured I could always miss the band, just as long as I made it back before dark. I don’t like starting late. I start rushing and trying to make up time. I almost waited a day but reality is that I couldn’t go on a Monday because too much work waited. Had to be Sunday. Forecast was cloudy, cool, and gusty winds. Oh well, gotta go.
The trail starts out familiar. Very difficult, but I had been there, done that. I’ve run marathons and ultra marathons. I was prepared for a very long, difficult day. After all, 22 miles on this trail was going to take me longer than a 50 mile ultra I had done before. I would just be careful, pace myself, and take my time. Thoughts going through my head are generally of the math type. OK, don’t look at the cellphone clock until the 6 mile point. Then multiply by 4, add an hour for lunch at the end point beach, and that’s how long it should take. Passed some guy around milepoint 2. He decided to catch up and jog and talk to me, only going for about another hour. Now, I am a social person, but this was my moving meditation time. A time for myself. So I picked up the pace and said, “enjoy”. 6 mile point time is 2:15 (I know, doesn’t sound like running. You try it!!). So, estimate 10 hours. Back by dark. You think you know where this story is going? You are probably as wrong as I was.
So, I am now in virgin territory. Raining, windy, and feels cool to me as I was hoping for upper 70s and sunny. Where are the people? Oh, maybe the rain and wind kept people away. OK, just keep up the pace to stay warm enough. Keepin’ the pulse around 140. Milepoint 7. I had no clue that my entire perspective of this outing, and life, would change just around the corner.
Boom, I round the corner, and the fertile green trail was gone. Everything was different. Looked like a volcano blew, and there was a slide of loose stone with a 500 foot drop off to the ocean. OMG, that’s putting it lightly. Ohhhhhh Myyyyyyy Godddddddd. Maybe the others in hiking boots and poles knew of this. Heart still pumping from the pace, but now adrenaline kicks in. OK, I think, gotta go. Other people do it. Suddenly I am frightened. Not just casually frightened but very, very, frightened. I never thought I was afraid of heights. I now realize that I am very, very scared. Slipping on the loose rocks, I don’t know what to do. It must get better around that corner I think. I was so, so, wrong. Traversing sideways on virtually all fours (not hands on the ground per se, more like hands digging into what is now a solid vertical lava rock wall). Oh, and 40 mph whipping winds. If I were to look up (too scared), I would see a 1000’ vertical lava cliff. If I were to look down (too scared), I would see a vertical 500 foot drop straight to the ocean. I realize I am now shuffling sideways on a 18 inch wide ledge with only thoughts of life and death. No passing anyone on this ledge. Too narrow. I know why the person I had seen moments earlier was simply whimpering. Was that a tear in my eye? Was I that scared? Must have been a raindrop.
This moment was the scariest moment of my life. Ok, there were a couple other stupid adventures in my life I must admit. How many people die here? This is stupid. I can’t believe that this trail is even open, especially in this wind. Why did I do this? What am I going to do now? Why didn’t I finish my will? Will they find my cellphone in my ziplock when they find my body? These thoughts weren’t funny as they were actually going through my mind.
I finally made it around the rock ledge. Now the brutal reality of the trail sunk in. What lies ahead? I can tell you now. A few more scary, scary points. Now, it is clear - I am not coming back this way. For the next hour and a half I devised the scenarios. Wind was terrible. That’s why I am not going back. I won’t make it back by dark. That’s why I am not going back. Some people go only one way. That’s why I am not going back. Pure reality was that why would I want to duplicate the scariest moment in my life? I was nauseous, knowing I needed to eat but too sick to my stomach. OK, when I get to the beach, I will hitchhike back, take a taxi back, I don’t care how I will get back, but I am not taking the trail back. How much would I be willing to pay? I know the taxi will be about $250. I would pay ten times that much. I am never, ever, ever, ever doing that trail again.
I finally reach the beach. 11 miles done. Fatigue has not really set in as life and death concerns are much more immediate. Sign reads 11 miles back, camping and beach ahead, and other trailhead 2 miles to the left. Oh no! I have to go 2 miles more to find out if I can get a ride? There’s no cell service does that mean no taxi? What if I go to trailhead and have no success? That means 22 miles is now 26 miles and I have to traverse the ledge possibly in the dark? Now, I am even more sick to my stomach. I walk down the beach to where I see a few people. “You know anybody getting a ride out from the trailhead today?”. No, I heard twice.
It was sinking in. I had to go back and do it again. I have to eat food. I have to respect the trail. I have to do it again. Looked at my clock. Only bright spot of the day. If I live, I will make it back by dark. Choked down a little food. So, for the next 90 minutes or so heading back, I devise a possible plan for survival. OK, this time, when I get to the 8 mile (and 14 mile) marker, I will stop, catch my breath, put all hand carry items in my Camelback, put my phone in zipper section, and have much more respect for the trail.
The only thing positive I could think of as I traversed the first ledges was, “I never have to do this one again”. It might be because I will never do the trail or it might because I might die on the really, really, really scary section up ahead. How do other people do this? Am I just not cut out for this? If the Kauai Gods don’t like me, I am about to find out. If I had a 50% chance of dying the first time, and I do it again, what are my odds now?
This time just before peeking around the most difficult windy ledge to make sure nobody is there, I hear a person repeating over and over to himself, “Hold onto the wall, hold onto the wall, hold onto the wall”. Seems like obvious good advice. My turn - “Hold onto the wall, hold onto the wall, hold onto the wall”. Rounded the corner to the sliding rock section - I made it through the worst but more to come. Made it through the sliding rock section.
Finally at a place I can drop to the ground, I do so. This time I know it isn’t raindrops in my eyes. I managed to take the pictures from a safe spot. (You still can’t see the death defying ledge around the corner. Maybe you can get the idea though.) The worst is over. Now, it is time for the normal things to happen. Rain, wind, slick rocks, normal scary ledges. Fatigue, future lost toenails, raw back from pounding of Camelback, and the time warp of having the next miles feel ten times longer than on the way in.
I can handle this type of pain. This type of fatigue. This type of time warp. These are things I have experienced before. But the fear, the fright, I have never had to deal with, especially twice. Made it back in a round trip time of 9 hours including stops, even made it for the last song of Stuart’s band at Anini Beach. Camelback was empty. Still had food. Brought back something I needed and didn’t start with. Respect for the trail. Will I ever do that trail again? No! Will I ever do that trail again if it is not windy, I respect the trail, go prepared, wear the right clothes, have the right hiking boots, poles, take my time, and camp? An unequivocal NOOOOOOOOOO.
Jim Bendis is a long time Bend tri geek and runner geek (over 100 tris and 300 running races), bouncing around between Bend, Palm Springs, CA and North Shore Kauai, when he's not distilling delicious libations at Bendistillery!