My buddy Tim looked at me expectantly and said “3,922 stairs?” I took his cue and replied “3,922 stairs? That’s less than 3,923 stairs!” Tim and I had shared this exchange many times over the years before climbing to the top of various large, numbered stairways, but 3,922 dwarfed all of the numbers I’d so casually dismissed in the past. We stood at the base of the Haiku Steps (aka the Stairway to Heaven) on the island of Oahu. I thought about that extremely large number one more time and then took the first step up the side of the mountain.
The Haiku Stairs are set of metal steps that run straight up a lush, knife edge ridge to the top of Pu’ukeahiakahoe (say that five times fast). Although my first question was “Why the hell am I about to walk up 3,922 stairs?” it was soon followed by “Who the hell builds 3,922 stairs up the side of a mountain?
During times of war, people will accept crazy ideas much more readily. How else do you explain the bat bomb, the Davy Crockett, or George W. Bush? Our story begins in the depths of WWII in 1943, when the Navy decided to build a very low frequency transmitter on the top of Pu’ukeahiakahoe. That in itself was a grand idea. From the peak there is excellent line-of-sight to both east and west. Eventually the transmitter would communicate directly with US submarines in Tokyo Bay. Where did the steps come in? Apparently the path that led the operators and supplies to the communication outposts on the mountain was too slow, arduous, and generally too wet, muddy and treacherous to promote smooth operation of the transmitter. The obvious solution, of course, was to get a bunch of free labor, a lot of wooden steps, and anchor them straight to the side of the mountain. Piece of cake!
After the war ended, the Navy had less use for the transmitter and eventually ceded it over to the Coast Guard. The Guard refit the transmitter in 1950 to become part of OMEGA, an early navigation system (think OMEGA : GPS :: black and white : HDTV). The Coast Guard happily maintained the steps and eventually replaced them with metal ones. After the OMEGA station closed, they even let the public hike up the steps.
The Stairs next moment in the sun came in that illustrious year 1981. Public interest in climbing the steps surged after they had a guest appearance on what I hear was a thoroughly exciting episode of Magnum, P.I. If Tom Selleck climbed them, by golly, we should too. The number of hikers grew so large that the Guard slapped daily quotas on how many people could go up. Crowds, litter, and later vandalism eventually led the Coast Guard to give up on letting the public hike the steps, and in 1987 the Haiku Steps were closed to the public.
After several hundred steps up, I paused to take in the scenery and snap some photos. By this point, I’d come up even with the traffic on the highly elevated H3 highway. We’d started by hiking under the roadway, and then began to climb (step by step as it were). It’s actually quite surprising how much elevation you can gain in a short time walking up steps. Without all the traversing and switchbacks of a normal hike, a lot of vertical is covered for little horizontal. Of course, that means you’re working hat much harder on every step. Some of the sections are near vertical (although most are pretty comparable to the pitch of your average steps). The key to the steps is keeping a slow and steady pace. You can’t walk as fast as you normally would or you’ll burn out quickly.
With the Haiku Stairs, however, the hardest part isn’t always the climbing. Since the closure in 1987, the steps have not reopened to the public. Control of the steps has since passed from the Coast Guard to the state of Hawaii, but there is currently no legal access route to the base of the stairs. Despite this lack of access, the stairs are in great shape. In 2002 the state completed an $800,000 renovation of the trail and stairs with the hope that they would reopen soon. Sadly the state, landowners, and neighborhoods around the base of the step are locked in legal wrangling that has no foreseeable end. The neighborhoods (understandably) don’t want bunches of smelly hikers parking in their spots, and other access point are variously unsafe or unsuitable for some reason.
For our journey to the base of the steps, we chose the neighborhood route. I won’t give too many details, but basically it involves illegally parking in a neighborhood, skirting a fence next to some guy’s yard, hoping the security guard the neighborhood pays isn’t there on the day you are, climbing over another chain link fence, trespassing a little more, hopping over one last chain, and, boom!, you’re there. You gotta want it if you climb the steps. All that work makes the summit a little bit sweeter.
The Haiku Steps are not the longest stairways in the world by any means. That distinction belongs to the Niesenbahn funicular service stairway in Niesen, Switzerland. This closed-to-the-public stairway next to the funicular tracks weighs in at a whopping 11,674 steps. Other notable jaunts include the 6,293 stone steps to the mountain temple at Tai Shan in China, and the longest wooden case in the world, the 4,444 stairs to the top of the Flørli on Lysefjord in Norway. (For comparison, it’s only a measly 1576 to the top of the Empire State Building.)
The setting of the steps can’t be beat though. Climbing straight up the knife edge, surrounded by lush vegetation, sheer drops to either side; the uniqueness of the Haiku Stairs as a hike is something I will always remember. It’s hard work and, like everywhere on windward Oahu, the weather can switch from hot as hell to downpour and back in the blink of eye, but the experience is amazing.
Climbing high, high above the roadway, we reach the first terrace, a former gun placement. Like everywhere on this hike, the views are amazing. The sheer, yet lush, mountains sides peculiar to Hawaii make for dramatic vistas. From the first gun placement it only a few thousand more steps to the summit ridge, where we find long abandoned WWII buildings and detritus. And finally, less than 3,923 steps later, we reach the dish at the summit. The view is now 360 degrees, looking out over all of Oahu, and worth every trespass, fence climb, and stair step. Now, however, I look back with bittersweet thoughts: fond memories of our trip, but sadness that this unique hike and piece of American history is not accessible to most people.
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