Rescued Wai‘ale‘ale hiker shares tale, lessons learned

Avid hiker Lauren Denton has spent her life on Kaua‘i, but her familiarity with the island and its trails did not prevent her from making mistakes more often committed by novice visitors. The 22-year-old ‘Oma‘o resident and friend John Moritz, 25, of Koloa, started a hike toward the “Blue Hole” area of Wai‘ale‘ale Crater from the end of Kapa‘a’s Kuamo‘o Road on the morning of July 25. Their plan was to proceed only if the river was not too deep, and return before sundown.

“You’re going up this river, and the whole backdrop is just incredible waterfalls against Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, and I just had this drive and I really wanted to go back and see what’s back there,” Denton said told The Garden Island Friday.

“We were just so set on getting to the end — that was where we were stupid. We just charged, and we weren’t cautious and we weren’t careful and we weren’t thinking ‘How do we get out of here?’”

She also didn’t heed the advice of neighbor Steve Perlman, a plant collector for the National Tropical Botanical Garden who spends time in the area. Perlman had discouraged Denton from undertaking the hike due to rainy weather conditions, leaving a simple phone message of “don’t go.”

Still, Denton and Moritz plunged ahead, executing multiple river crossings, following narrow trails and climbing around short waterfalls.

At one point, the hikers opted to take a “very narrow, almost vertical, crumbly” goat or pig trail to circumvent a deep pool and waterfall and gain access to a heavily vegetated plateau.

That’s where things got complicated, she recalled.

“The funny thing is, when we turned around, we were instantly lost. We went in every angle. We went to the left. We went to the right. We went straight ahead. We repeated that at least twice, and we couldn’t figure out how we got there.”

After spending a few hours wandering around in the bush trying to retrace their steps, Moritz found a clearing and used his cell phone to call emergency dispatch and provide descriptions of their location.

Four Kaua‘i Fire Department rescue specialists with the Lihu‘e-based Rescue 3 truck responded unsuccessfully that day before sundown with an audible search using bullhorns.

“I did not want to spend the night because I wasn’t prepared. I was about ready to jump off the trail into the river and swim down the waterfalls,” Denton said. “I just started crying really, really hard. (Moritz) was calm and trying to reassure me, but I didn’t want to stay there.”

Denton’s main concern was not food or water, but being cold. She had spent much of the day in the river, and was wearing only shorts, a bathing suit, a hat and a long-sleeve rashguard for clothing.

“Of course it started raining, because we were in the wettest spot on earth,” said Denton, who covered herself with her backpack and occasionally went into a “fern cave” for cover from the elements.

“We didn’t sleep at all. (Moritz) said that he heard me snoring once, and I heard him snoring once, but it was maybe for a few minutes. My teeth were chattering almost all night, and I was shaking. I had never been that cold in my entire life, and I’ve felt negative-10-degree weather on the East Coast.”

In the morning, Denton dried off and warmed up in the sun, and Moritz placed another call to emergency dispatch. He was told to call back in 20 minutes so his signal location could be tracked, but the cell phone’s battery died.

“We saw all these tour helicopters coming up. So we’re waving every single one of them down with our hats, probably like 30 helicopters, and none of them seemed like they saw us,” Denton said. “I could tell that they weren’t looking for hikers.”

Denton was beginning to lose faith in the rescue, believing that a hiking search would not find them before sundown the second day, so she suggested the two try to find their way down. Moritz, however, insisted they stay in their elevated, visible clearing.

“At about noon, we’re both ready to start pursuing the bushes. I turned around, and I saw a helicopter coming up the bushes, very low, lower than any of the other tour helicopters,” Denton said. “Instantly, I was just super excited because I could tell that they were not a tour helicopter.”

Air-1, piloted by Inter-Island Helicopters owner Ken D’Attilio, dropped off a Lihu‘e-based KFD rescue specialist, who led Denton and Moritz to a clearing, where the chopper landed and picked them up.

After downing Gatorade, energy bars and water and declining further medical assistance, the two hikers were dropped off at their car.

“The most important thing to me … is a huge thank you to the Lihu‘e Fire Department and their four-person team who rescued us,” said Denton in an e-mail to The Garden Island.

Recreational Equipment Inc., which sells outdoor supplies, recommends the following 10 categories as essential for day hikes: navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire, repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter.

Before heading out, hikers are advised to provide a friend or family member with a detailed plan, including a map of the area, street names, fellow hikers and their contact numbers, and an estimated start and return time.

Denton says she plans on hiking into the area again, but next time she’ll be better prepared.

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