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Photograph by Eric Leifer

Hidden Hawaii: Exploring Mana Creek

On October 20th 2012, at approximately 9:35 a.m., history in the realm of human exploration was made. There was no victory parade nor a welcoming party, no medals or badges awarded. You didn’t read about it in a magazine or see it on the interwebs, for this is a tale that has gone almost entirely untold. Maybe it has taken all this time to finally process the experience; or perhaps I have been far too terrified to relive it.

Peering out over that glossy horizon you can almost make out the golden coast of Mexico; it’s a straight shot from here and on such a dreamy day you might as well walk there. The waves crash and tumble on the beach as the sand begins to work its way between my toes, a welcome relief from the confines of my boots. Tyler and Matias are beside me in similar fashion, while Kyle is already halfway to Mexico.

Our target is one of the last remaining unexplored areas of the Hawaiian Islands and our tool of choice is technical canyoneering. With the advancement of technical equipment and backcountry navigation in the last 30 years, the sport of canyoneering now grants its users access to terrain that was previously deemed impossible to travel. This will be our team’s 9th first descent of the year and our packs are swollen with a vast array of rope, webbing, bolts, biners, drills, and dry bags necessary to complete such a venture.

Access to Mana Creek is nearly impossible, and it took us almost two months of fruitless searching to finally locate a suitable route into the canyon. As we near the edge of our drop in point, we find a spectacular show as it plunges over 400 feet to the confluence with our target. We go to work and slowly make our way down. Mana Creek finally shows herself as we touch terra firma after our 4th pitch, the iron rich waters flowing like blood through the island.

It begins like a dream. The creek immediately begins to carve its way through the bedrock, incising itself into volcanic flows as old as the island. The walls rise to insurmountable heights while narrowing to less than 20 feet wide; we cannot believe the magnitude and beauty of the gorge we are walking. The first few drops are rigged and worked a casual pace.  Yet unbeknown to us, the waters of Hawaii hide a dark secret. As we pull the rope and pack up beneath our third drop, a gorgeous 80-foot waterfall, an eerie feeling comes about us.  I suddenly begin to feel like Alice in Wonderland as I silently ponder just how deep this rabbit hole will really go. We continue to tumble. We had no idea.

No, not a dream; but a nightmare. The canyon begins to furiously drop, twisting and turning as each waterfall digs us deeper down the rabbit hole. In hopes of moving more efficiently we decide to split into two teams—Kyle and I placing anchors and rigging each drop as Tyler and Matias hold up the rear as the cleanup crew. For hours we work our way through some of the most daunting yet starkly beautiful terrain any of us have ever seen as the earth bends into impossible dimensions. We take a break at the edge of drop 9, nearly delirious from the dizzying terrain. None of us says a word. It is 3 p.m. and we are nowhere near our exit. In the world of canyoneering your only escape route is down. The clock continues to tick and tock as time is now our enemy.

No, not a nightmare; but a prison. The bolt kit, typically reserved as a last resort option, makes its first appearance and quickly becomes our savior as we enter a dark and featureless world. A collection of raging waterfalls, sketchy chutes, turbulent pools, and precarious ledges now define the chasm. Drops 9 through 12 come in immediate succession and with no remorse. The sound is deafening and we can hardly talk to one another, though we are still moving efficiently through an increasingly frightening environment. Drop 13 reveals a particularly alarming view; an immeasurable fall plummets into a void in the earth itself. I begin to wonder … have I gone mad?  The depths of the rabbit hole seems to have no bounds.

Our route drops 140 feet into the remnants of an ancient lava tube likely as old as the island. An overwhelming combination of sheer terror and an incredible sense of purpose takes over as I slowly descend into its depths, at this point realizing I am the first person to ever walk these waters. Words fail in every regard. Photography falters on every level. I have never been able to fully accept the existence of a higher power, but it is wonders such as these that can turn even the greatest heathen, the most skeptical of souls into a devout believer. Sometimes there is nothing to do in such a scenario but sit silently in awe. The rest of the crew makes their way down, each equally speechless.

With our daylight fading fast we find ourselves nowhere near our exit point, pushing hard through several more rappels in a frantic attempt to finish our route on time. As darkness falls upon us, a smart decision is made to accept our defeat and choose to bivouac within a small cave just above the waterline, pushing the remaining route at dawn. We take a quick inventory of our remaining gear, not down to 30 feet of webbing and three bolts. Our food supplies are nearing their end. We all squeeze into a six-by-eight-foot rectangle and huddle until first light. I don’t think I slept at all.

We rise with the sun and breathe a sigh of relief as two final falls are our only remaining obstacles. By 9:35 a.m., 51 hours later from our start time, we triumphantly emerge from our prison cell. We quickly scramble down the remaining route as the finish line is now in sight. Soon enough we find ourselves staring out at that endless expanse of ocean once more, still as dreamy as I remember. We resume our positions along that glorious beach as if nothing had ever happened, Kyle already halfway to Mexico.

Nearly a year has passed since that fateful day and much of the crew has gone its separate ways. The experience has now faded into little more than the preceding story and some photographs, along with a few blurred memories of those timeless hours in that impossible world. Would I do it again? Of course.

The world of exploration is a double-edged sword. Often you have no guarantee of success or survival, a complete lack of knowledge of the obstacles you will face, the problems that will arise, and certain peril may be near at any moment. Why do we do it then? What drives someone to make such a rash decision? Well, quite frankly, because it is there. What a terrible cliche to quote but it could not be more accurate. It is that unknown variable and the idea of unseen wonders that drives explorers, for curiosity is a very powerful drug. It is this potential payout that brings people up the mountains and back down the canyons, to the depths of the ocean and the ends of the earth to see, with our own eyes and feel, with our own hands, the absolute perfection that the natural world can attain without the grace of a human hand. Often such wandering souls are perceived as reckless and crazy, ludicrous anomalies to the rest of society and void of any sort of conventional reasoning. Surely out of their minds. Completely mad I suppose. But listen closely and I’ll tell you a secret: the best ones usually are.