Story by Jesse Katz
The summit is invisible, lost in a halo of steel-wool clouds. The moon, even ablaze, is of little help, powerless to part the murk that clings to Kauai’s center. Somewhere out there, inland, upward, is the peak of Mount Waialeale, the one I saved for last. In the span of a week, I’ve made my way to the pinnacle of six Hawaiian islands—from the lunar dome of Mauna Kea to the pine forests of Lanai to the bomb-scarred knolls of Kahoolawe—to discover the opposite of what most visitors seek: the mysteries of the land farthest above the sea.
Five thousand feet below Waialeale’s summit, on the tarmac outside the shed that is both his hangar and home, Ken D’Attilio is sizing up the sky, reading the mountain. He’d risen in the dark, zipped himself into a jumpsuit and wrapped his head in a bandanna, then aimed his night-vision goggles at Waialeale, renowned as the wettest spot on the planet. Decades ago, US Geological Survey technicians would ride mules to the top to check the rain gauges, which collect an average of 460 inches a year. But now the only practical, or prudent, way up is by air. At dawn I am supposed to hitch a ride with Captain Ken, the founder of Inter-Island Helicopters, and, if all goes according to plan, scale my seventh summit in nine days. “You might get a window of opportunity,” he’d told me the night before. “Or it could sock in and never open up for a month.”
Do not take me for a peak bagger. My garage is full of Little League equipment, not crampons or trekking poles or even a CamelBak. I am a bit squirrelly about heights, truth be told, and my doctor has been on me to do something about my blood pressure. But when I was offered a chance to go to Hawaii’s mountaintops—when I stopped to consider that Hawaii had mountaintops—there was really not much to mull. I’d just spent a year and a half working on a book, chained to a computer in a dark, lonely office, and the chance to be transported to a frontier that I could barely conceive was more of a rescue, frankly, than an assignment.
I understood the pitfalls of reducing my expedition to notches on a belt. The summits of Hawaii are magnificent and subtle, largely untrammeled, often dangerous and frequently contested. Some require paperwork to ascend (permits, waivers), and most call for special transportation (boats, four-by-fours, a chopper on standby). I needed to pack for heat and rain, of course, but also for subfreezing winds and volcanic ash and bogs deep and squishy enough to swallow your leg with one wrong step. The lowest of the summits, at 1,477 feet, was barely a hill; the highest, at 13,796, was capable of shutting down bodily functions.
In Hawaiian a summit is a piko—a word that also signifies “bellybutton”—and it was from the pikos, the volcanic spires that rose from the ocean millions of years ago, that an archipelago was born. The summit of each island, in that regard, is not just the high point, but a lifeline, the source of both natural and spiritual power. If the communities that lined the coast were thought of as the wao kanaka, the realm of people, then the mountaintops could be deemed the wao akua, the realm of the gods.
“Most of the people who try going up there on their own, we end up rescuing,” my pilot Ken mentions with just a hint of bravado. “That’s the way the mountain is. It likes to keep its secrets.”
Elevation: 10,023 feet
Days earlier, in the wee hours of another inky pre-dawn, I feel my way up Highway 378, to the crown of Maui, the summit called Haleakala. The road is as steep as any I have ever traveled, rising from sea level to more than 10,000 feet in just thirty-seven miles. The switchbacks would be more dizzying if I could see beyond the shoulder, but there is only vast, empty blackness every time I peek. So I stay glued to the yellow lines on the asphalt, flicking my high beams wherever I can, until I have caught up to the queue ahead of me and joined an unbroken chain of rental cars snaking to the lip of the world’s largest dormant volcano.
Although it is a high-altitude wilderness, remote and hard on the lungs, Haleakala is the most accessible of Hawaii’s summits, preserved and promoted by a national park. I have to stop at a guard shack and hand over ten bucks—no complaints, but it does add to the impression that I am heading to a show. Haleakala means “House of the Sun,” a name derived from a feat of the trickster demigod Maui. When his mother complained of the sun’s hasty passage across the sky, leaving no time for her kapa cloth to dry, Maui climbed to the top of the great volcano and waited for the first rays of daylight. With a lasso, he snared the sun and held it captive, letting go only after the sun, chastened, agreed to linger over the island. A version of this continues: Sunrise at Haleakala is an institution, part spectacle and part prayer, at once the definitive photo op and an occasion for reflection and renewal.
“Things we don’t understand we create a lot of stories for,” says Jordan Jokiel, program manager for the East Maui Watershed Partnership, which protects 100,000 acres of native forest on Haleakala’s windward slopes. “Wherever there’s a peak, there’s always myths and lore—yeah?—the ghosts, the spirits. These are humbling, humbling places.” He is standing at the rim of the crater, which is still submerged in night, watching as plumes of tangerine and lavender ripple across the horizon. A carpet of clouds unfurls below us, covering the ocean in wall-to-wall meringue. A few more minutes and a curtain of blue starts to rise. Then, at 6:57 a.m., the first blinding glint of sun. It is astoundingly gorgeous and yet less than serene. A hundred people, most of them huddled in blankets and towels lifted from hotel rooms, are oohing and aahing and blinding us with flashbulbs. “Maybe there’s something selfish, too, about being at the top,” adds Jokiel with a snort. “There’s a bravado. Like, ‘I was there, man.’ King of the hill. There’s no getting around that.”
Elevation: 3,366 feet
Down at sea level, at Lahaina’s harbor, I catch the ferry to Lanai, a nine-mile crossing. The channel is calm and the sensation of being sheltered by islands on all sides comforting. I am met by Waynette Ho-Kwon of the Lanai Visitors Bureau; or rather, she is the Lanai Visitors Bureau, a one-woman shop dedicated to refashioning the former Dole plantation isle, home to just 3,000 residents, into an exclusive vacation spot centered on a pair of Four Seasons resorts. We head for the summit in a Dodge Ram 2500 Heavy Duty Crewcab driven by Ho-Kwon’s husband, Derwin, a game warden.
From Highway 440 we swing onto a nameless dirt road, cutting through abandoned pineapple fields. When Dole faltered in the 1990s, large swaths of the company town were left fallow, and its holdings were assumed by patrician investor David Murdock, who controls ninety-eight percent of Lanai. As I try to wrap my mind around the notion that a seemingly public space—an entire Hawaiian island!—can be privately owned, we head for Lanai’s middle, toward the spine that rises like the armored back of a stegosaurus. Our plantation road meets up with the Munro Trail, a single-lane, red-earth path, and we bounce and swerve through a corridor of ferns, their tendrils growing damper the higher we climb. It was along this ridge, in the early days of Dole, that cowboys were sent on horseback to scatter pine seeds—to trap clouds over Lanai, creating a fog drip that would feed the island’s watershed. The pines are nearly a century old now and close to a hundred feet tall, a very un-tropical-feeling rain forest.
“So this is it,” says Ho-Kwon. She points to a break in the foliage, a narrow, unmarked driveway that dead-ends a few steps away, on the leeward side of the ridge. “Just this little pull-off spot.” Her husband does not actually pull off, leaving the truck where it is, in the middle of the Munro Trail. The chances of anyone passing are slim: Lanai is not Maui, and its summit, Lanaihale, has to be just about the most unassuming mountaintop I will see. It is more of a lover’s lane, the site of weddings, a favorite backdrop for graduation pictures. “There used to be a picnic table here,” says Ho-Kwon, breaking out an assortment of chips she’s rounded up for the occasion. “But I think somebody took it home.”
Elevation: 1,477 feet
Back on Maui, I head for a different harbor, the Kihei boat ramp, my gateway to a summit that was once nearly bombarded out of existence. For half the twentieth century, Kahoolawe was pounded and strafed with every projectile in the US Navy’s arsenal. The island would glow at night under a toxic veil of gas and smoke. “This island is our baby, a very special child,” says Atwood Makanani, a founding member of Protect Kahoolawe Ohana, the grass-roots coalition that waged an oft-quixotic, decades-long battle to reclaim the island, ultimately compelling the Pentagon to relinquish control in 2003. Known to all as Uncle Maka, he speaks in rhyme and metaphor, dispensing axioms that range from the hip-hop to the biblical. “The baby is of age now,” he says. “It never died. It survived to remind us that we’re human, not perfect. When it hurts, we hurt. This is a child that reflects the world.”
We have finagled our way onto a flat-bottomed cargo boat, property of the Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission, the state agency created to oversee the island’s transition from bombing range to cultural sanctuary. Access is strictly regulated (though not as strictly as it is on cloistered Niihau, the one island I am forced to skip), and those fortunate enough to gain clearance are expected to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. “When you get there, you’ll know you’re there,” says Maka, who began making unauthorized trips to the island in 1977, forays that were widely dismissed at the time as radical showboating and that are now considered a milestone in the rebirth of Hawaiian practices and pride. “It’s called a dream. Live it. Unconditionally. No regrets.”
Our landing craft hits the beach at Honokanaia Bay—there are, intentionally, no docks on Kahoolawe—and I am given a government-mandated safety briefing. Although the military spent ten years and $400 million removing ordnance, much of the cleanup was superficial, and the risk of stumbling across some half-buried shrapnel or even an unexploded shell remains considerable. Not that I had planned to be using my cell phone, but I am instructed to power down, lest its wireless frequencies detonate a long-lost radio-controlled device.
We pile into a battered pickup, Maka at the wheel and Kim Kuulei Birnie, the Ohana’s access coordinator, acting as copilot. At forty-five square miles, Kahoolawe is the smallest of the eight major Hawaiian islands; without the elevation to hold clouds in place, it is also the driest and most desolate. As we jangle up the main road, a rutted aisle of hardpan, it becomes clear why the Ohana focuses so much of its efforts on re-vegetation: Whatever napalm failed to destroy, erosion has scoured and cleaved. Of Kahoolawe’s two summits, one fifty feet higher than the other, it is the lower peak, Puu Moaulaiki, that most appears to rise above the island. From it, nearly all of Kahoolawe’s shoreline is visible, and in ancient times young seafarers would ascend for their first training in the ways of the water and sky. Pulling up to its base, Birnie suggests that we approach barefoot, as would be customary in a makahiki ceremony, to signal the season of the god Lono. We are in city clothes, with a crackling walkie-talkie and a hissing old Ford, but we remove our shoes and socks, standing silent while Maka—a moolono, or priest of Lono—blows a conch shell.
Elevation: 4,970 feet
Once more back on Maui, I head this time to the airport, to catch a twin-prop puddle-jumper to Molokai. I find myself wondering if there can be any surprises left, if each ascent can possibly be as distinct, as exceptional, as the last. I feel like I am getting a history lesson at every stop. As the plane lands, I recall for a moment my unfinished book—I had expected to be obsessing about it, and the fact that I am not has left me alternately worried and relieved—but then I am on my way back up to nearly 4,000 feet and marching into the Pepeopae Bog, a sump of primordial moss and ooze. I’m greeted by Dan Bennett, a Nature Conservancy docent, and asked to sign a release, swearing not to sue him or his organization if I should vanish in the muck. “It’s easy to get lost and easy to disappear,” Bennett says. “And people do, from time to time.”
The tallest peak on Molokai is Mount Kamakou, another thousand feet above us, but there is no trail to the summit and because of its fragile state, the Nature Conservancy actively discourages anyone from poking around. The next best thing is the bog, part of the larger Kamakou Preserve, which sustains more than 250 native plants, some ninety percent of which are found nowhere else in the world. To get me there, Bennett pulls off Highway 460 at the Homelani Cemetery sign and onto Forest Road, a baked dirt alley that fast turns into a muddy gulch. The higher we climb, the more we swim from side to side, careening off the dense hedge of herbs and roots and fungi lining our route. “The nice thing about this,” says Bennett, a retired high school math teacher and part-time potter, “is you can’t slide very far off the road.”
Elevation: 4,025 feet
Even on an island that does boast night life, the summit is still a refuge, a step back in time. One moment I am in Honolulu, a metropolis of a million people, and the next I am driving up the side of Mount Kaala, on the road that climbs all the way to the roof of Oahu. Kaala is a flat-topped mountain, and its summit is home to two things that couldn’t be more at odds: a bog much like the Pepeopae, filled with native plants and traversed by a boardwalk; and a military installation, which is officially under the command of the FAA or possibly the Air Force, but home to “a lot of other three-letter agencies, the ‘we-could-tell-you-but-we’d-have-to-kill-you’ kind,” says Betsy Gagné. Gagné, who is accompanying me up the mountain, is a biologist and the executive secretary of the state’s Natural Area Reserves System commission; NARS oversees nineteen sanctuaries on five islands, encompassing 109,000 acres.
While the top-secret post at the top may be more focused on defense than ecosystems, it does provide a bulwark for Kaala’s bog, keeping out the vacationing throngs below. “Having limited access—that’s been the saving grace,” says Gagné, who likes to quote from The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ environmental fable: “I speak for the trees.” She has led me out Farrington Highway, past Waialua High School, then up an unmarked road and through three padlocked gates, all with warnings: No trespassing. No hiking. No bicycling. No skateboarding. No rollerblading. No hunting. And for good measure: Beware of dog. Gagné and I arrive at the summit to thick cloud cover—visibility is only about twenty feet, and we can’t even see the military instillation in the clouds, though we know we’re right next to it. We step off the road, and Gagné leads me into the bog.
Elevation: 13,796 feet
Towering over all other Hawaiian summits, in every respect, is Mauna Kea, the lid of the Big Island. Just the idea that a peak on par with the Rockies could exist in the tropics, that a summit nearly 14,000 feet above sea level might actually be in the sea, is almost unfathomable. Even more so, if you consider that Mauna Kea, measured from its base at the floor of the Pacific, is 33,476 feet: the tallest mountain in the world.
Its name has been said to mean “white mountain,” a literal translation, but Hawaiian scholars also know it as Mauna a Wakea—the mountain of Wakea, the Sky Father—and in creation lore, the Big Island is Wakea’s firstborn child. The top of Mauna Kea, as such, is not just another piko, but the navel of that progeny and so both genealogical and sacred. For ages, Hawaiians have scaled Mauna Kea to deposit the umbilical cords of their newborns at Lake Waiau near the summit and to draw upon that cosmic energy. “Mauna Kea is not a trivial place,” says Paul Coleman, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy who is the only Native Hawaiian with a doctorate in the field. “When we get up there, you’re going to realize it. You won’t feel good. You’ll understand this is not a place for man to be.”
As exalted as Mauna Kea is for its mystical forces, it is equally revered as a high-tech perch for the study of space. With its exceptionally dry weather and infinitely dark skies, the mountaintop is the best place on earth from which to aim a telescope at the heavens. Thirteen of the most sophisticated observatories in the world are stationed on the summit, a multibillion-dollar celestial city that stirs to life every night. When the first telescope was installed more than thirty years ago, no voice was raised in protest. As the compound has expanded, though, so too has the renaissance in Hawaiian identity, and there are some now who assail the gleaming, metallic spheres as a desecration.
“I understand all that sacred stuff, but astronomy is so much a part of being Hawaiian that it’s kind of silly to deny it,” says Coleman as we drive up Saddle Road from Hilo, the long, sloping grade of the mountain deceptively gradual. “The first Hawaiians came here on canoes, 2,000 miles through open ocean. How do you think they did that? If you’re Hawaiian, you owe your existence to an astronomer.”
We climb from Saddle Road, through parched grasslands and gnarled koa, the soil eventually giving way to an iron moonscape. Just bucking along in Coleman’s four-by-four, I am starting to feel breathless, which I attribute more to anxiety than the gain in elevation. A visitor’s center sits at the 9,200-foot mark, and we stop there in hope of warding off a bout of the ol’ hypobaropathy. Although it is recommended that everyone spend at least half an hour getting acclimated, I am surprised to find that access to Mauna Kea is essentially unregulated: no checkpoints, no fees, no permits. A mountain of such gravitas, a mountain that can kill you if you treat it cavalierly—and you can pretty much hop in a car and zip to the top.
The summit of Mauna Kea is otherworldly, the only place that has ever made me feel like I was standing on a different planet. Or maybe it is the only place I have ever stood that has made Earth feel so much like a planet, cold, barren, silent, curvaceous, a rock hurtling through space and time. My head throbs, my feet seem to be floating. We have an invitation, at sunset, to tour the Gemini Observatory, to witness its eye swing open and the massive, silver-coated, 26-foot sheet of glass at the heart of its telescope peer out at the unknown. But first Coleman leads me to the side of the road, where we climb over a guardrail and slog across the cinders, half a step at a time, to Puu Wekiu, the true geological summit.
Elevation: 5,066 feet
Flying to Kauai, the final leg, my lone shot at Waialeale, I am struck by how little time I have spent anywhere near a beach. For a place so associated with water, with sand and surf, it is the land that defines Hawaii’s spirit. Maybe that is too obvious to even mention: If you are surrounded by ocean, the ground is what allows for life. Beaches attract us because they are the fringe, an end and a beginning, the intersection of water and land, and yet summits are not so different. They are at the edge, too, the convergence of land and sky.
When I get to Ken D’Attilio’s hangar, near Port Allen, he shakes his head. There are perhaps fifty days in a whole year that the clouds part long enough to allow his helicopter in, and it should come as no surprise, he tells me, that this is not one of them. I was to be accompanied on my ascent by a research botanist named Ken Wood, a gentle, empathetic soul with a graying beard and a backwards Red Stripe cap. Since we can’t get up the mountain, instead we head for breakfast. Over coffee Wood tells me that Waialeale is for him a place beyond human intellect and devising. It is a place even beyond beauty, beyond pictures and poetry. “I don’t know the language for it—maybe that-ness or such-ness or is-ness, God, the divine, whatever—a place where somebody can see that all things are connected,” he says. “Anything you can conceive is small compared to what is. That gives me solace.”
I had been feeling disappointed about missing my chance and falling one summit short, but in an instant that worry vanished. If I understood the lesson, maybe I didn’t need to get to the top of every peak. Maybe nobody does. Maybe just having them there is enough.