Surviving Stairway to Heaven

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Originally written for Untapped Cities.

Hawaii’s Stairway to Heaven hike, also known as Haiku Stairs: 3,922 steps crawling up Oahu’s Koolau Mountain Range, built in 1942 by the U.S. Navy as part of a radio communication initiative. The scenic voyage became an instant attraction, but because of disrepair, the trail was closed to the public in 1987. The city of Honolulu spent $875,000 repairing the stairs, predicting a safe trail ready to open in 2002. However, when repairs were complete, the city was hesitant about the planned opening. Residents of the neighboring property complained about the visitors and fought the reopening. During this time, hikers ignored the no-trespassing signs and the city eventually employed security guards to stand at the base of the stairs and prohibit entrance.

Five years ago, the city of Honolulu was still deciding the fate of the landmark. Should they reopen the famed hike to the public? Or keep it off-limits? Director of City Services at the time, Jeff Coelho, said, “The complexity of issues include everything from liability and risk to access and maintenance.”

Nothing has changed since that time; the city continues to pay for security and countless locals and tourists continue to show up in the middle of the night to avoid the guard and conquer Stairway to Heaven. The hike shows up on almost every “what to do in Hawaii” list and “virtual tourist” discussion I’ve seen, including popular travel sites, all of course stating that they are not condoning trespassing.

After I moved to Oahu, I heard rumors very early about people dying and being injured while climbing Stairway, and that’s why it was officially deemed forbidden. However, after vicious Googling, I cannot find any information on a death or injury. It’s clear that the illicit nature of the trek has created many tales—some true, some false. It is certainly dangerous though, and I was not going to take any chances! After all, you have to show up in the middle of the night, break into a gate, sneak quietly through the woods to the stairs, and climb up the 3,922 steps in complete darkness. One misstep or clumsy moment can literally mean falling down an entire mountain. I’d much rather spend my Saturday sleeping in and then soaking up some rays on the North Shore. Alas, my adventurous itch won the battle. I had to know what all the hype was about; I had to determine for myself whether this attraction should be banned to the public or not.

So at 2 AM, my friend Peter and I started our journey by making our way to the Windward Coast Kailua area, on empty Interstate H3. We followed a few Yelp directions very closely, parked in the nearby neighborhood, and tiptoed to the fence that warns trespassers. Our extreme paranoia kicked in when a red laser light appeared on the fence. It took our tired and nervous minds a few minutes to realize that a man was having a good laugh on his lanai behind us. We breathed sighs of relief, waved, and continued on. This part was sketchier than the actual stairs, in my opinion. You follow a winding path, taking a couple turns at forks, and eventually trekking through the eerie forest. Finally, after being a little startled by a group of fellow explorers, we reach the bottom of the stairs. It’s time to begin the steep (and seemingly treacherous) climb. The cool Hawaii night air and ocean breeze do nothing for us here; we are sweating within seconds, light jackets tied to our backpacks and flashlights steady on the steps in front of us.

Looking down is quite terrifying. H3 winds beneath us and random cars, seeing our flashlights, honk at us as if to say, “Keep on going!” However, we can’t see any of the mountain itself. It’s far too dark to see the work we’re actually doing. I stop often, until we are finally at the first landing, after what seems like hours. We take a break to eat an apple and I secretly want to curl up and nap. The air is getting cooler as we ascend and soon I realize that the steps themselves are not difficult. They are quite small, evenly spaced, and there is helpful railing the entire way up. I feel quite safe, actually. The tough part is the distance. We climb for hours, each step tricking us into thinking we’re closer to the last landing, but the darkness and the shape of the mountain make it impossible to tell. We can only guess. And finally, a group of people, huddled together with blankets and food, congratulate us. “Only this last stretch,” they say, pointing. Nope, we’re not there yet. They’re on the lower landing to pass time until sunrise, because the top is obviously the coldest and wettest, deep in the clouds.

We obey the pointing and haggardly head up the last, short (for once) flight of stairs. We’ve made it, we’ve conquered Stairway to Heaven. Oh wait, we still have to go all the way…back…down. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the sun rise since it was a particularly cloudy morning, so we carved our initials in the muddy shack and started descending as lightness began revealing what we’d accomplished. The misty clouds near the top dampen our hair and skin and I realize that the hike definitely has a fitting title. Made it to Heaven before I even died, oh man will my mother be proud.

Trekking down the stairs is less difficult physically but more difficult because it feels less stable. The railing is slippery and now, you can see where exactly you’d be falling, which is a little startling. Our seven hour process is finally over as we see the guard standing by his truck at the bottom, casually talking and joking with other hikers. We escape without even a warning. There have been people who were not so lucky, however. If you arrive while the guard is there, you can receive a citation. Also, some people have not been respectful of the neighboring residents, which has caused a lot of tension. These residents have complained of noise, trash, and limitation of neighborhood parking. We made sure to park on an open street, we were extremely quiet, very careful with trash, and of course, we were cautious with the hike itself! If the public follows these simple rules that we did, I do not see why the legendary expedition should be banned. Stairway to Heaven is hands down the best way to take in the magnificent ocean, mountains, beaches, clouds, and other surroundings. It is an absolutely perfect way to fully appreciate and experience (both physically and mentally) the beauty and power of the island.

As of today, the city has no plans to reopen the beloved hike.

Our journey ended with the only sane thing to do after a vicious workout: pancakes, French toast, and hashbrowns at local favorite, Cinammon’s Restaurant. Hawaii, you never seem to disappoint.

Maybe if the city lifts the ban, I’ll conquer Stairway like this next time.

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