Hiker Mike Bowen’s survival skills were tested to the limit — he drank rainwater and sweat wrung from his clothes — when poor weather and visibility turned a five-day hike into seven on the Koolau Summit Trail.
"Conditions were so harsh, I was not sleeping nights for the most part," said the 30-year-old Kalihi man. "Dealing with the heavy winds and the cold made things very hard. Each night just wore on me."
Carrying a 100-pound backpack, Bowen and his little dog, Marley, set out on the Laie Falls Trail at 7 a.m. March 13 and planned to return Sunday, but low clouds, torrential rain, 50 mph winds, knee-deep mud and the loss of his tent posed challenges, including getting lost when he couldn’t find an exit trail at the Kualoa end.
Bowen kept in contact with friend Scott Wong by texting on his cellphone, providing his location and asking for help navigating, but by day seven, Wong knew his friend was weak with little water and food, so he called the Honolulu Fire Department, although Bowen wanted to make it out on his own.
A fire helicopter responded at 8 a.m. Tuesday and brought Bowen and Marley down.
"My hiking motto has always been that if you pack yourself in, you should pack yourself out," he said. "I’ve hurt my leg before but packed myself out."
So when the helicopter arrived, he asked rescue personnel to point him to a ridge to go down, and he’d hike out.
"I promised my friends I was going to come out alive; that was my determination," he said. "I was getting pretty weak, cloudy-headed and a little bit out of it. I was totally exhausted, and Marley and I were having a hard time, nonstop shivering, my feet and hands were trashed."
He’s grateful to Wong and the fire personnel who persuaded him to fly out.
Bowen, who’s been hiking in Hawaii since 2001, said the Koolau Summit Trail is a sanctioned trail in Stuart Ball’s "The Backpackers Guide to Hawaii," unlike the Bear Claw trail in Waimanalo, from which Leslie Merrell fell and died Sunday.
Though the trail is ranked "expert," Bowen says it’s not extreme, although it has some narrow sections and 1,000-foot cliffs but nothing "crazy" like Bear Claw.
But the trail was so overgrown, he often lost his way. Sometimes he would follow Marley, only to discover she was on a pig trail. And ribbons marking trees were often the same color as those used to mark the trail.
Bowen expended a tremendous amount of energy hiking far more than the 20-mile trail, crisscrossing back and forth looking for an exit trail, going down into a valley on the Waianae side only to come to a waterfall and going back up.
After that he remained on the summit trail, not wanting to venture into valleys that were like "no man’s land."
Visibility was only about 50 feet at times, so he could not see any landmarks to determine his location. His rain-soaked pack was twice as heavy. Walking through the mud slowed him and caused him to slip and "face-plant," chipping his tooth. He fell twice, almost falling off the cliff.
He finally decided to return to his starting point, and was two-thirds of the way there when he was rescued.
Bowen checked the weather forecast for the first few days, and knew to expect a little rain and cold, but wasn’t prepared for constant winds up to 50 mph, temperatures in the 50s, and to get soaked and "socked in with no visibility,"
He had planned the trip well in advance with a friend, but the friend had a family emergency the night before, and Bowen didn’t want to squander his vacation time and went forward with his plans. But instead of splitting the load, Bowen had to carry everything.
Bowen, who hikes two to three times a week on tough trails, thought he was prepared with enough food and water.
But by day six he rationed food to three small handfuls of trail mix, muddy water or "sweat water" he boiled. He did find some water in a 5-gallon jug left open.
A videographer, Bowen carried some video and camera gear as well, but had to put them away during the rain.
Bowen failed to take any rain gear, opting instead for quick-drying clothes.
His clothes, however, never dried.
Bowen used a citronella candle to dry his clothes inside his tent because of the constant winds outside. On the fourth night, with everything wet, he poured a little fire starter into the candle to get it started. He heard the fire intensifying.
"Three panels on top of the tent was gone in a second," he said.
He slept under a palm tree, draping the remnants of the tent over it. Other times along the trail, he slept on the side of a muddy hill.
"Marley, she’s a good little trouper," he said. "She went through some rough stuff up there," adding it was tough for the Chihuahua-miniature pinscher to hike the muddy trails.
Bowen said he should have mapped out the trail better, and will likely bring a poncho next time.
Fire Capt. Gary Lum advises going with a buddy and taking a cellphone, which can provide the caller’s location.
"We don’t hear too much about someone going for five days," Lum said. He advises taking enough food and water, staying on official, marked trails, and advises against high-risk trails.
"We get these missions almost every weekend," he said, adding that on Feb. 20 there were 10 hikers rescued in six incidents. "It’s better to call us early rather than waiting and waiting and you’re in a worse situation."