On the shoulders of giants

I’m digging my fingers into the crevices of loose rocks glazed in oily dirt from a myriad of human hands that have gripped before mine. As I feel for the next hold, storm clouds blot out the sun and fat raindrops begin to fall, adding a slippery sheen. "Should we turn around?" my friend Jessica asks hesitantly, eyeing the clouds.

Olomana trail has become quite popular over the past few years. The first time I hiked here five years ago, I saw eight other people on the trail. Last time I hiked it, I counted fifty individuals in just a couple hours.

Its easy to see why Olomana has gained so much attention. A series of three dramatic peaks jutt up from the middle of a lush valley and are wrapped by the dramatic backdrop of the Ko’olau mountain range. 

But with the increased traffic, these dramatic views have also proven increasingly dangerous. Some blame the increased traffic for loosening holds. Others claim that's it's a simple matter of statistics. The more people, the greater chances somebody will fall. Whatever the reason, the fatalities are growing. Four people have fallen to their death on this trail over the last five years. Several other experienced hikers have had close brushes with death. 

Despite the dangers, this hike still continues to draw large crowds. And while the ridge merits a cautious approach, it offers some undeniably breathtaking views.

Olomana is named after a legendary 36-foot giant who used to rule the surrounding area. King 'Ahuapau, seeking to gain control of the land, sent his warrior Palila to take care of business. Palila flew in and landed on Olomana's shoulders. Irked by the intrusion, Olomana demanded to know who this conceited person was. "My shoulder has never been stepped on by anybody, and now you have gone and done it," he huffed indignantly. The warrior slashed through the giant's body, sending one half flying towards the ocean. Olomana's shoulders remained at the site of the battle, where they are now stepped on by hundreds of people seeking a giant's point of view.

I set off to stretch my legs on this hike with a few friends last week. We used to park along the road just before the guard entrance to the Royal Hawaiian Golf Course, but we heard they have been towing cars there, so we parked further down in the neighborhood just before the loop road. Cars secured, we walked briskly down the road and passed the guard entrance. In previous days, a friendly guard would call out to make sure we were familiar with the hike and it’s dangers. In older hiking accounts, I read that the guard used to ask for hikers to leave their names as a safety precaution. Today’s guard was un-fazed by the steady stream of traffic, and barely glanced up as we passed.

A few palm trees down from the guard entrance, we ducked through the bushes and into a well-worn path that cut through the undergrowth. 

Almost immediately, we began gaining elevation. After five minutes of heart-pumping cardio build-up, the trail leveled out to a more leisurely stroll through a shady bramble of ferns and strawberry guava. 

A few minutes further and we were wrapped in the whispering caress of Ironwood trees. It was the perfect place to rest and catch our breath.


Our rest was short-lived. No sooner had we left the Ironwoods than the trail steepened and we started gaining elevation. We grasped at mossy roots to pull ourselves up along the path. 

The elevation gain rewarded us with some of the first expansive views.

The flowering red Octopus trees provided a bright accent against the rippling ridges of the Ko'olaus. My friend informed me these are highly invasive trees, but I couldn't help but admire their beauty. 

Looking out towards Kaneohe Bay, we saw rain clouds skimming across the surface of the ocean and heading our way.

As we neared the summit of the first point, things started to get a little sketchier. A formidable rock formation loomed ahead, presenting no option but to climb straight up the jagged face. As if on cue, the brooding clouds above us broke open, halting our advance.

We were not the only ones reconsidering. A father took one look at the wet rock face, then down at his young daughter, and promptly turned around and led her back down the mountain. I was relieved, and somewhat surprised he had even brought his young daughter that far. Parts of this trail are not the most child-friendly.

At this point, we had to make our own judgement call to continue, or turn back. A greater majority of the accidents that have occurred here happened in rainy conditions. While it's easy to shrug off a few drops of rain, many people don't realize that moisture can completely change the consistency and support of crumbling volcanic ridges.

When I was reading up on the reviews for the trail, I stumbled across a chilling personal review on Trip Advisor posted in 2015:

"My Dad died here, today. I'm not posting to convince anyone not to do this, but be careful. Eight grandchildren, three children, the strongest wife ever, and a life full of friends are now hurting. Do not underestimate this mountain..."

We waited and carefully considered our options. After a few minutes, the rain let up, and Jessica made her way judiciously up the precipice, clutching the frayed fibers of a fat rope secured to a tree above.

Continuing on, the peak presented two routes. One, climb straight up and balance along a thin precipice. The second, stay low and make your way along a path hugging the narrow edge.

I chose the rocks above, my friends hugged the low path below. 

When we reached the summit of the first peak, we were enshrouded in a thick blanket of fog. The mist parted, teasing us with a momentary glance at the second peak, before swallowing it back up.

On a clear day, the views from this spot showcase the length of the Ko'olau mountain range, and the second and third peak below. I've never hiked beyond the second peak, and I had been hoping to touch the third today. 

Peaks two and three on a sunny day

Peaks two and three on a sunny day

Through the mist, I spotted a few specks making their way up the third peak. So close, yet so far away. But beyond this point, the terrain gets a lot sketchier. The majority of accidents occur along the second and third peak. The rest would have to wait for another day.

We retraced our steps back down the trail, using the ropes as needed. At this point, Jessica pulled out her microspikes for additional traction. While I try not to use mine unless I really need them, I always bring them along as a safety precaution. Today, I felt confident enough, so I handed mine to Amanda, who had never tried spikes before. She promptly decided she was going to buy herself a pair as soon as she got home. 

As we ambled back out along the path, we picked handfuls of ripe Strawberry Guava. We savored their sweet, yet tangy aftertaste as we ambled through the mottled light filtering through the branches.

One of these days, I'll make it to the third peak. But when the clouds are sitting on Olomana's shoulders, there's still plenty to enjoy from the first peak.

Aerial banner photo courtesy of Andrew Agcaoili