Hiking the MoanaLua Valley trail to the Ha'Iku Stairs

A couple of days ago AJ and I were invited by some friends to hike the MoanaLua Valley trail to the Radio Array at the top of the Ha'Iku Stairs. Yesterday, as this difficult hike was on our bucket list while on the island, we gladly accepted the invite and challenge.

A little bit about the history first.

The Ha'Iku Stairs have been officially closed to the public since 1987. Originally constructed in 1942 (as a series of ladders) as a way for Sailors and Soldiers to reach the summit and access the once top secret radio array,

the stairs were closed as the maintenance costs and liability risks became more than the Board of Water Supply (the owner of the stairs at the time) was willing to accept. Recently the Ha'Iku stairs were transferred to the City of Honolulu and the mayor is currently looking for entities willing to take on the task of restoring and reopening the stairs in order to maintain this historic wonder. The history of the stairs is truly more fascinating than I was aware of. I legitimately just thought it was a set of stairs leading up a mountain for the views, damn was I wrong 🤣. Learn more about the Ha'Iku stairs by visiting the "Friends of Ha'Iku Stairs" website here.

As the stairs are closed, and heavy fines can be amassed from trespassing on the private property, the only legal way to get to the top is to undertake an arduous 10.7 mile out and back trek beginning at the MoanaLua Valley Park. The hike holds a total elevation gain of 5019 feet during the span. The park is nestled in the mouth of the absolutely breathtaking valley.

We dropped the kiddos off at 7 a.m. with our friends' parents who were gracious enough to watch four children while us parents went and played in the mud and climbed mountains all day. We got to the trail, took our "before" selfie, and embarked on the hike at roughly 8:30. The beginning of the hike, I'd say the first two miles or so, is mostly even terrain comprised of rocks, mud and grass trails which run adjacent to a river/stream flowing through the valley. There were so many spots along this trail which were absolutely beautiful, the overhanging trees created small coves in some parts which gave the feeling of being on the forest planet of Endor.

Our spirits and excitement levels were insanely high as we trekked to the base of where we would begin to climb. I made so many Lord of the rings references, I'm pretty sure AJ was ready to punch me. At about the two mile mark on the trail, there is a spot where you can go left to continue on the regular hike through the valley, or you can go right and begin ascending to the top. We chose our right turn, began our upward journey and shit started to get real. The first upward bit was mostly forested climbs up somewhat muddy yet easily negotiable slopes. There were plenty of trees around to grab for balance and stabilization.

We navigated through these easily, though we started accumulating mud at about this point. Once we were through the trees, we got our first amazing view of the valley, back to the parking lot from which we started and beyond to the west side of the island.

This was also about the point where the clouds started rolling in. We thought nothing of it, took a quick water break, and started traversing the many ridges we would cross as the hike progressed.

The ridges are vertigo inducing, three to ten foot wide sections of earth with barely any barriers on the sides to hold yourself if you decided to be careless and potentially take a fall, a fall which would most definitely plunge you to your death. While the views were spectacular,

this was the point we realized it was time to start paying way more attention to our techniques and safety measures. This sounds doomy and gloomy, but we were still having a fantastic time as we embraced our collective wild sides and tackled this daunting challenge. Continuing across the ridges, and gaining elevation the entire time, the clouds began to roll in. We were able to watch in real time as we approached the gray menacing floating blanket which would prove to be problematic on our way down.

Still undeterred by the clouds, and very determined to reach the tower, we continued on. Then came the ropes.

The ascents became so steep, we had to climb some ropes which had been installed god knows how long ago by only god knows who. Nonetheless, they were sturdy (as the people ahead of us proved) and we started to climb. AJ proved to be very adept at climbing with ropes and the panoramic views offered by our vantage point were very worth the struggle. We had a perfect view of both sides of the island.

It took us about 5 hours but we reached the top, damnit. Unfortunately, because of the cloud cover, our view was severely obscured. We got a great view of the top of the stairs leading down the mountain, but the rest of the sights were covered by an ominous gray sheet floating as far as the eye could see in every direction. We were IN the clouds. I thought it was pretty damn cool, if not a little spooky. We could hear sounds of the city from far below but could see absolutely nothing of it. AJ was disappointed because she schlepped her camera all the way up the mountain for seemingly no reason. We took the time to refuel with protein bars and jerky for AJ and I and MRE's for our friends. Still no idea why they brought MRE's but it worked for them. As we reached the tower, we got word from another hiker that some pretty gnarly weather was moving in and getting off the mountain should be a top priority. We took a second to snap some pictures. Someone had placed a yellow gummy bear on the railing around the tower so AJ and I both snapped selfies with it, we took a selfie of the both of us, cleaned up our lunch and started the trip home.

Here's the point where it got difficult. Shortly after beginning the downward, AJ slipped and fell. Her shoes (all of our shoes for that matter) were crazy caked in mud and the rain had done terrible things to the trail. She fell on her butt and was completely shook. As we were currently at roughly 2,500 feet with nothing really blocking us on either side from falling, her adrenaline kicked her sympathetic nervous system directly in its ass and she launched completely into the early stages of a panic attack. She slipped and fell a couple more times in direct succession and shit got real. We still had about four hours of arduous hiking ahead of us, the majority of which would be spent crossing ridges which her nerves were trying to convince her she would fall down. We crept down the slippery, muddy ropes at a snails pace as everyone in the group coped with what our current situation was.

She was able to focus on her shoes and the ground ahead of her, not looking off to either direction, as she continued walking between the peaks. We stopped for a brief second so she could attempt to regain some calm and composure. The rain continued to lightly fall on and off as the trails transformed into a complete slippy, sloppy mess. Nearly a quarter of the way down, as she was regaining her confidence, we saw a helicopter coming through the valley toward the mountain trail. It got fairly close as we watched it hover, then lower to the trail. We all sat and watched for a while as the helicopter extracted a hiker (at this point we didn't know what they were doing, we could only see them hovering). Once we got back to our vehicle, we found out that one of our fellow hikers died on the trail.

Once we were back on what I would consider solid ground, no more severe ledges on either side of us, the hike went fairly well. We found a couple of spots that were basically muddy slip and slides. We had some fun with that. AJ was not amused as she was, by now, terrified of falling. She had slipped so much she was almost being overcautious. As we rejoined the walking trail, we realized we were now going to be racing the sunset to complete this hike in the daylight. We stepped up the pace pretty significantly and made it back to the Jeep just as dark was falling.

All in all we had a fantastic time. AJ swears that she will never do anything like that again. The four of us, not avid hikers by any means, were soaked, muddy as all hell, physically exhausted, in pain and tired but having accomplished a feat of that magnitude was something we will all carry with us forever.

I wanted to close with a couple of things:

First of all, in one of the pictures you can see i'm carrying a plastic bag attached to my pack. The amount of trash we picked up on the trail was pretty stupid. It's so hard for me to understand why people would piss all over the majesty of these hikes by discarding trash along their way. We found quite a few masks as well.

Second, the hiking community is one of the most supportive and positive groups of people I think you will ever encounter. Everyone was so positive and encouraging both on the way up and back down.

Third, if you are uncomfortable with extreme elevation, are unfamiliar with proper safety measures or what gear should be brought along, or have never been hiking before, please do not attempt anything this crazy. We're still not sure what happened to the guy that died on the trail but it's a sobering reminder that anything could go wrong and, if you're not prepared, things could go pear shaped fairly quickly.

I'm so thankful that our friends invited us to conquer not only THE MOST DIFFICULT HIKE ON OAHU, but our fears as well. It was an amazing day and I'm so thankful we get to live here.

Kenny and AJ

29 December 2020

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