Hiking to Heaven

In 2016, I learned that if something scared the absolute living daylights out of me, it was worth my time to pursue it with all my might. It’s hard to change your way of thinking about fear. Every fibre of your being is screaming at you to turn back, your heart is beating at a million miles an hour and the adrenaline takes over your body. Your mind is telling you that you’re probably going to die, your heart is telling you to keep going and your mum is worried that you’re going to get a fine from the government, or worse, be put in jail.

But in the end, I figured it all comes down to one simple philosophy – I like to call this the Fuck It Philosophy.

Don’t want to take yourself out to dinner because you’re anxious that you might look lonely? Fuck it, you deserve it.

Feel nervous about jumping out of a plane twelve thousand metres above the earth? Fuck it, it’s a good life experience.

Worried about going to a new country because you don’t now the local language? Fuck it, you’ll pick it up eventually.

It’s a pretty solid philosophy if you ask me.

In June last year, I had not quite fully embraced this philosophy, so when my hostel roommates extended an invitation to hike the infamous Stairway to Heaven in Hawaii, I had to politely decline because I "didn’t want to risk the fine". In truth, I was just really fucking scared.

The Stairway to Heaven is an illegal hike. You trespass not only on private property but government property. You start the hike in the wee hours of the morning and weave your way through a labyrinth of suburban homes, hoping that no one catches you slinking around in the night looking for one of the entry points to the stairway. You run past guard dog after guard dog. The barks could wake up the whole neighbourhood and your heart starts pumping anxiety through every inch of your body. A sweet feeling of relief washes over you as you discover the entrance point, only to be caught off guard by a local who has absolutely nothing better to do with their time at 3am on a Sunday morning than yell, ‘GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE,’ in the most menacing tone to people attempting the hike.

Once you successfully pass through an access point, you’re probably going to get lost in the jungle for a good while, unless you’re walking with someone who has done the hike before. You can vaguely see the lights of the highway you need to pass under through the dense bush. However, paths that you thought were well worn can suddenly turn into a dead end, and the next minute, you’re standing ankle deep in mud at the bottom of a creek with eerie tree roots hovering above your head.

Even when you do make your way through the maze of bamboo and tropical plants, you then get to encounter a security guard standing at the beginning of the trail. It seems that almost everyone on O’ahu has completed the hike, and they always give you two stories about encountering the guard. Some say he will chase you and restrain you until the police arrive, others say that he was relaxed and friendly. You’re not quite sure what to believe, but you don't want to take the chance that he will call the police on you. You send out a scout to poke their head out of the bamboo forest and tip toe across the secret government road you have to cross. You run back and forth a couple of times, running away from what you think is the security guard, or when a car that drives past. When the time comes for you to cross the road, you desperately run for what feels like your life, desperately trying to keep the group together whilst following the trail tags friendly hikers have left behind as a guide. You slip and slide your way up the mud-covered mountain until you finally spot the stairs through the trees – which I can tell you, is almost a sweeter feeling than reaching the summit of the hike.

Illegality aside, the Stairway to Heaven isn’t for the faint-hearted. At points, you are literally climbing a narrow ladder on the side of a cliff with 500-meter drops on either side of you. The rails are covered in mud and your hands slip and slide up the railings. One bad step or malfunction in the infrastructure and you could be seriously injured, or worse. Previous mud slides have rendered small parts of the stairs unusable and you must precariously step over the railings and balance your way up to the next section of the path.

But none of this really phases you once you take that first look back behind you. You see the next ridge over, curving around a valley to meet the one you’re about to ascend, the tallest peaks veiled by a thin layer of fog. The horizontal lines of volcanic ridges drive straight up the face of the mountain, something that seems to define the Hawaiian landscape. You look down on the cars putting along the freeway, now hundreds of metres below you, before they disappear into a tunnel. Lush green plants surround you, the wind sweeps your hair across your face and you remember why you risked everything to experience this. 

Very cheesy grins with very cool people.

This hike was life-changing in so many ways. It taught me to be resourceful, patient and to communicate despite language barriers. It taught me to appreciate the sheer beauty of Mother Nature as well as the ingenuity of humans. Seriously, I'm so in awe of the fact that these stairs even exist. If my love for hiking wasn't solidified before this experience, it most definitely is now. There's nothing quite like the adrenaline rush associated with doing something illegal whilst you're eyes are treated to a visual feast of luscious volcanic landscapes.

Like any life-changing experience, the people you share that experience with will always hold a very special place in your heart. So I want to give a huge shoutout to my OG crew for being the most amazing bunch of people to experience the Stairway with, Lisa, Julia, John, Dave, Riccarda and Konstantin. We were prepared to have to turn back and attempt the hike another day, but we weren’t prepared for the beauty we were about to encounter as we ascended.

Carolyn West