story by Julia Steele
Mount Kaala, the highest peak here on the Gathering Place, is our very own Everest. It’s a true mountain of the tropics, topped not by snow drifts and abandoned oxygen canisters but by a misty bog filled with rare native plants and happy-faced spiders. The top is 4,000 feet up, a steep ascent through dense jungle, a straight slog broken only by tightrope ridges flanked by sheer drops.
photos by Rae Huo/Sanford Mock
To get up Kaala, to hoist yourself into the swamp, you use the mountain’s mat of life, the branches and roots that coat everything and morph accommodatingly into hand- and footholds. I’ve pulled myself to the top three times, always arriving exhausted, high on endorphins and ready for the island’s best view. Twice clouds made it to the top before I did, but once—the last glorious time I got to the summit—it was clear, and I was able to look straight down into the moku of Waialua. It was spread out beneath the slopes of the mountain, field after field, a palette of all shades of growth. I could see from the dry cliffs of Kaena to the houses of Haleiwa, the white stripes of sand at the shore befriending the ocean, and beyond, the ocean itself, a magic carpet fading to sky at the horizon. Waialua is stunning from any vantage point, but from the top of Kaala, you see it for more than its beauty, you see it for what it means to us: It’s our oasis of country on ever-more urbanized Oahu, an island of green within an island going gray, and looking down, I decided it was time to make a pilgrimage there.