My new friend asks me “Have you ever hiked the Stairway to Heaven”?
On my final 24 hours of a weeks vacation snorkeling, surfing, writing, sunbathing and general beach business I found myself having lunch with a new friend in Oahu, Hawaii courtesy of an old friend “The California Real Estate Lady” in San Diego. We were eating a delicious traditional Dim Sum and trying new things like jelly fish (umm yeah, only if you like rubber). My new friend asks me “Have you ever hiked the Stairway to Heaven”? He then begins to explain it’s a hiking trail, and is one of the most beautiful hikes in Hawaii. He asks would I like to do it? “Sure I replied”! However I am then further informed there were a few catches to succeeding. We had to start the Hike at 3.30am…….Excuse me? 3.30am why on earth would you be starting a said “beautiful” hike (thus implying vision was needed) at 3.30am?
We had to start at 3.30am to miss the security guard that comes on at 4am (oh of course, most hikes have a security guard?? What?). He continued; the guard is there to deter hikers from climbing through a hole in the fence and trespassing across Government property, which is owned by the Board of Water Supply. But not to worry, I was told, because 1,000’s of people hike the trail every year! Then he asked me did I have a fear of heights as it was very steep and had massive drop offs along the trail? Yes I do have a fear of heights I replied and that is precisely why I want to do the hike. Attacking all forms of fear is the best way to work through it I say! Right, let’s hike it!!
So I went back to where I was staying with another friend and told them what we were planning for the morning of my last day in Hawaii, which I thought was a brilliant idea! A 4-5 hour hike would tire me out to sleep on the plane ride to New Zealand the next day. The friend I was staying with was aghast and warned me against it, telling me I was crazy and it was dangerous and a person had died! WHAT? A person died on the hike? People die every day from being hit by moving vehicles, getting cancer from food that is unbelievably ‘legal’ and freely available on our supermarket shelves but in fact should be listed as dangerous for human consumption! People die taking synthetic prescription drugs and having allergic reactions to the side effects, in fact 4,500 people on average die where they work every year in the USA alone and you’re telling me that I shouldn’t take a hike and see the scenery of a hike nicknamed the Stairway to Heaven? YOUR NUTS my friend! So far only one person has died (of a heart attack I later found out) hiking it?? Statistics say I am going hiking!
Because I don’t do or believe everything I am told (or read), I did some research before I went on my illegal early morning hike. I found that the accepted information about this hike is that the Stairway to Heaven, also known as The Haiku Stairs, were originally built out of wood in 1942 by the US Navy for signal transmitting purposes. In the Mid 1950s, the stairs were replaced with metal steps and ramps. The steps on average are about 18” wide with an average slope of 30 degrees and about 4,000 feet long and the most widely accepted number of total stairs is 3,922. (Who’s counting them at 3.30am?) In 1987 the station and trail were officially closed to the public, with fences and no trespassing signs being erected. This didn’t dismay many hikers; to this day people continue to hike the stairs. Interestingly enough, in 2003 repairs were done on these illegal stairs costing the city $875,000.00 to keep them safe. I found some video footage and plenty of blogs and comments all over the web from people who had experienced this hike.
So I was STOKED to do it after my research. This was going to be exhilarating, rapid heart beating stuff!! As mentioned before, I have a slight fear of heights. I am not the screamy melting I’m going to close my eyes type, it’s more an inside voice that says “Um hey, no, no, I am not so comfortable about this please put me back down on the ground, thank you”! With my outside voice is saying “Awesome view I like the workout”. We all live with dichotomies, no? Having been a girl guide in my youth I prepared my backpack and provisions for my Stairway to Heaven hike.
We were starting at 3.30am and it was a good 30-minute drive from where I was staying, so at 8.30pm I set my alarm for 2am and then I went to bed to get as much sleep as I could. However I woke up at 12am, 1.15am and 1.45am, as I was so excited I couldn’t sleep! So I got up and prepared to leave early. It was a good thing I left early because I hit heavy traffic at 2.30am because of road works. Even though I have a slight fear of heights, I was more afraid of getting there late and not getting through the fence before the security guard came on. I found my new friend so we parked our cars and quietly, to respect the neighbours, started our night walk towards the climb.
Even though it was 3am, remarkably, once my eyes adjusted I could see quite well and I was amazed at how many people were moving through the shadowy bush with us towards that hole in the fence. About 15 of us arrived at the fence hole at the same time and people were helping each other through with backpacks. There was an interesting sense of camaraderie amongst strangers. People were all chatting away in lowered voices, like we had all planned to meet at 3am. I was amazed at how many people were actually there by the time we reached the bottom of the first ladder; there must have been about 20-30 people and off we went together at a rocking pace, climbing our way into the misty the dark towards heaven. I noticed the stairs were wet and the foliage was closely packed around so I carefully placed each foot and made sure I had a good grip on the handrails. My heart was pounding loud in my ears there was no turning back now! We were closely climbing like leaf ants without the leaves. I was in the middle of a bunch of climbers going straight up and up and up a metal ladder on the side of a mountain. The higher we climbed the stronger the wind got and there were some serious drops off the side, even in the dark I could see them highlighted by the distant city lights.
Eventually after about an hour there were little areas where you could move to the side and let faster hikers pass and you, and thank heavens you could stop for a rest by gingerly placing a leg over the railing so they could pass. It took us about 2 hours to get to a landing area about 2/3rds of the way up where we stopped with about 15 other hikers to watch the sun rise. We stopped there because it was out of the foggy mist the higher you went you hit a foggy mist and couldn’t see the sunrise. We were surrounded by elements, it was windy and misty and it was really humid. Between the hiking and the humidity I was sweating up a storm. But as my heart rate settled it began to get cold and out came the warm and wet weather gear for the foggy mist climb ahead of us up to the top of Puu Keahiakahoe Mountain.
We chatted with everyone who had arrived in wait of the sunrise, with some hikers passing us and continuing on up into the pitch-black fog to reach the summit. Someone even had a radio and a little dancing and singing was afoot as we settled in for the birth of the new day. By the time sunrise hit I had about six new Facebook friends and had almost forgotten I was approximately 2,000 feet up on the side of a vast mountain. The wait was worth it and when it finally decided to lift the skirt on the blanket of night, the sunrise was breathtaking. As the view slowly lit up and the sun crept in through the clouds, it showed off the vast view before us!
The friend I was with had his heart set on selfie videos as he was sending them to his friends. The smart phone signal up there was strong and he was making good use of it! I decided to attempt the next part of the climb solo, lets just push that fear a little more I say, so off I started and for the next 15-20 minutes in the fog I was pretty much alone climbing that steep steel staircase, nobody caught up with me, passed or was headed back down. The power of positive thoughts got me through my moments of ‘was this a good idea’?’
Just before the top you reach an old building covered in graffiti, with some machinery put out to pasture. The top of the climb is a little bit of a let down as it is pretty much covered in fog and the buildings are covered in grit, plastic trash and it looked like people had once camped up there. The views were lost to the fog and everything had a cold, eerie feel to it.
So I had enough of being alone at that point and found my new friend to descend with. Some bloggers said that the descent was easier than the climb but I beg to differ; my legs were kind of tired at this point and the stairs were slippery and wet so I had to tread carefully as I went down. I used more muscles and energy to gingery head back down on the steeper and more precarious parts and I certainly had shaking leg muscles towards the end.
We were almost at the bottom where a small group was gathering, not wishing to proceed and finish the hike. There was a guard, accompanied by a police officer and he appeared to be writing tickets to a bunch gathered around his car. About 12 of us discussed what were we going to do. Stay? Go? Walk around? How difficult was it to go off the track? Options were looking bleak at this stage and after about 20 minutes of discussion, I looked at my watch and said “Well I have a plane to catch so I guess I am going down to test my luck”. I decided the ‘I have no idea what is going on approach’ was the best. As I walked past, the officer said “Mam, Maaam can I see your drivers licence”? I handed him my New Zealand licence as it was all I had on me at the time. He then proceeded to rant and rave about the fact that he could ticket me, in fact he could have arrested me but instead he was going to let me off and asked me to let everyone know the following “YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO CLIMB THE HAIKU STAIRS” (even though thousands do every year.) He was in fact handing out tickets but he let me go and I texted my friend I was clear. I later found out that he came down with the others and pretended to be my ‘Australian” husband looking for his New Zealand wife. The cop waved him on too; little did he know my friend’s ‘Australian accent’ was dreadful he couldn’t pass for an Auzzie if his life depended on it.
So if you decide, next time you are in Oahu, Hawaii, that you’d like to climb the Stairway to Heaven, please remember that depending on who you talk to and what you read, the fines range between $50 and $500.00 for trespassing and they DO hand out tickets/citations for you to pay or appear in court, depending on who you come across and where you are from. All websites will say that the hike is closed and the most recent reason was part of the stairs were destroyed in a storm on Valentines Day, 2015. However, many bloggers and social media comments say people have hiked the stairs as recently as this article was posted on this website.
So if you are attempting the hike, do your homework as there are a few ways to get in and get to the stairs and I have included a couple of good videos created by hikers at the bottom. Take out what you take in, don’t leave trash and maybe take a plastic bag and pick up other rubbish that you see. Pack gloves as they stop rubbing on your hands and potential blistering from wet rails as you climb. Go with friends, take warm light clothes for the top and get loads of pictures and be blessed with gratitude for seeing one of the most beautiful views in Hawaii, The Stairway to Heaven!!
by Stephanie Paul
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