HONOLULU — The Stairway to Heaven hike is a dangerous and illegal yet wildly popular attraction to many of Hawaii’s adventurous residents and visitors.
“Stairway to Heaven is just a thing that you do when you live here,” said Joshua Rodby-Tomas, a University of Hawaii student and several time conqueror of the Haʻikū Stair climb.
The official name of the staircase is the Haʻikū Stairs. It is named after the Haʻikū Valley, a natural amphitheater that faces Kaneohe to the east. The stairs scale the nearly vertical southern section of the razor sharp, horseshoe-shaped ridge surrounding the valley.
The staircase is made entirely from metal. Sections made of ship ladders roughly 8 feet long and about 18 inches wide are linked together and anchored into the side of the cliff. Steel-tube handrails guard the outside edges of the steps the entire way to the top.
An estimated 3,922 steps lead to the crest of the towering cliff, a 2,800 foot peak called Puʻukeahiakahoe. The peak is often shrouded by a veil of thick clouds and the image of the endless ladder disappearing into the mysterious mist has earned the fixture its nickname: “Stairway to Heaven.”
Adding to the mystery are ruins of old military installments. One crumbling concrete structure sits on the third of six flat landings on the hike. It houses cable winching equipment that has been frozen in time by rust. The other structure is a box-shaped building that rests on the peak. It wears two giant antenna dishes on its roof like a hat.
“The views are breathtaking from the top. Even if it is foggy, the hike is a beautiful experience,” said Rodby-Tomas. From the summit hikers can see much of Oahu’s southeast shoreline, the Koolau cliffs and the cities of Kaneohe, Kailua and Lanikai.
The sturdy galvanized steel Haʻikū Stairs came from primitive, wooden beginnings. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing Pacific Ocean battles of World War II, naval communication throughout the entire United States’ naval fleet was of the utmost importance.
“Radio engineers said the only way to achieve such extremes of communication was via a high-flung antenna network at least 2,000 feet above the ground,” David O. Woodbury wrote in his 1950 article for the Denver Post.
The U.S. Coast Guard assumed control of the radio antenna that crowns the Haʻikū Stairs after the War. They transformed the structure into an OMGEA station, a component of the low frequency radio system that provided the global navigation system preceding GPS.
While under the Coast Guard’s possession, the stair case was given a makeover. The rotting wooden steps were replaced with sturdier metal fixtures. The stairs were also opened to the public.
“At the peak of its popularity in 1982 an overwhelming 1,000 hikers a month swarmed the ladder,” claimed the Ko’olau Mountains Watershed Partnership Management Plan.
“The Coast Guard quickly limited to 75 the number of climbers allowed on the Stairs at one time,” according to the Friends of Haiku Stairs’ website. “Vandalism, trespassing, vegetation damage and littering have been some of the problems associated with the high visitor load.”
“By the 1980s, the metal steps were rusted, broken or missing. Large gaps in the stairway were replaced with makeshift ropes that allowed hikers to shimmy up the slippery mountainside,” wrote Dan Nakaso and Eloise Aguiar in an article for USA Today. In light of the extremely dangerous conditions and following a major act of vandalism, the stairs were officially closed by the city of Honolulu in 1987.
Then in 2003 the city spent $875,000 to repair or replace the rusted steps and missing sections. Despite the sudden splurge spent on the renovation, the stairs remained closed to public access, but the debate was reignited.
“The complexity of issues include everything from liability and risk to access and maintenance,” Jeff Coelho, director of Honolulu’s Customer Service Department, said in an e-mail to Nakaso and Eloise Aguiar.
“In the meantime, Honolulu officials spend nearly $50,000 annually for private security to guard the Haiku Stairs 12 hours a day, seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” Coelho continued.“The first few times we tried to hike it we were turned away by the guard,” said Rodby-Tomas. “We had to get there at like 3:00 in the morning to get past.”
Undeterred by the security measures, tourists and residents alike continue to trespass on government property to get a taste of the thrills the Stairway to Heaven has to offer. The volume of illegal hikers keeps the debate to open access relevant and polarized.
The most vocal opposition to the opening of the Haʻikū Stairs comes from the residents of the Hokulele subdivision—the neighborhood that lies nearest the southern cliffs of the Haʻikū Valley.
“I heard that the neighbors were fed up with people parking on their streets and making noise really early in the morning,” Rodby-Tomas said.
Residents even lobbied for the staircase to be condemned in summer of 2003 with a 150-signature petition. State Rep. Ken Ito responded by introducing a sequence of bills to the state legislature.
HB1748 called for condemnation and complete dismantlement of the stairs; it was denied by opposition in the House. HCR199 and SCR213 followed soon after. The bills blocked an attempt to sort the complicated access disputes through a land swap. Both bills passed and the city’s efforts to reopen the stairs were effectively stalled.
Supporters of the movement to open the stairs to the public present arguments to refute each of the concerns raised by their opponents.
First, they attack the resident’s complaints about the crowding of their streets. The neighborhood roads are public roads; residents have no right to control who uses them. In addition, there is already an access road that leads directly to the bottom of the stairs. At the end of the access road there is ample space for a small parking lot that will keep cars out of the neighborhood.
Second, many argue the government’s liability concerns are unfounded. John Goody—president of the Friends of Haiku Stairs organization, an ardent defender of the people’s right to access the ladder—says the danger associated with the climb is a non-issue.
“For 20 years, more than 200,000 people a year entered the Haiku Valley,” Goody told StarBulletin.com. “In all that time, with all those hikers, no serious injuries have occurred. It’s far safer than many of our beach parks or other hikes.”
Rodby-Tomas insists that careful steps and gloves to grip the wet handrails are all a hiker needs to stay safe.
Though the arguments in favor of opening the Haiku Stairs are strong and prevalent, legislation continues to be deadlocked. Though the law may be enough to deter adventurers with a weak resolve, the Stairway to Heaven hike remains a major attraction on the island of Oahu.
“It is an awesome feeling to reach the top and the views are amazing,” Rodby-Tomas said. “Nobody really cares about the trespassing thing.”
For more photos of the Stairway to Heaven click here!