Disclaimer: This hike is illegal to do in Oahu. To reach the Stairway to Heaven you have to trespass on government property. While people still continue to climb the stairs, if you are caught there is a chance you will be fined. I, in no way condone this activity… However I thoroughly recommend it.
I watched the clock on my phone change from 2:54am to 2:55am and shut off the alarm before it even began buzzing. It was the first of three alarms I had set in fear that I would sleep through them. A useless precaution, I had barely slept a wink all night.
I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling, smiling to myself. What an odd predicament the three of us girls had gotten ourselves into. We were sleeping in a strange family’s living room on the east coast of Hawaii as they slept soundly just down the hall. When we were searching for an Airbnb place, we had thought a private room would mean a completely private room – with a door. Instead we were in the living room that opened into the kitchen and dining room. I wasn’t complaining; it was clean and quiet, unlike the previous nights at the hostel.
When I first mentioned the Stairway to Heaven to my travel buddies K and L, I had left out a fair bit of important information. Using the incredible photos from Instagram as ammo, I convinced them that we should do this climb whilst in Oahu. I failed to mention how difficult it is and the fact that it’s actually illegal. As soon as the girls saw the photos though, they were in. We got to planning the logistics, started talking to people and before we knew it we were buying headlamps and muesli bars and sourcing out the location of the entrance. In the back of my mind I thought that we’d never go through with it and that we’d just always talk about the time that we went to Hawaii and nearly climbed the Stairway to Heaven. As the other two girls stirred beside me, I realised that we were actually going through with this.
My next alarm buzzed and I was quick to switch it off.
“Already?” I heard my sister K whisper, “I swear I just laid down”
“At least you got some sleep, I’ve been tossing and turning all night” I retorted.
Sitting up, I rubbed my eyes. As a part of my preparation I was already in my hiking clothes, bar my uncomfortable sports bra. I got off the sofa and tiptoed to the bathroom, trying to be as quiet as possible so not to wake our hosts.
When I returned K and L had both gotten up and were quietly getting dressed.
“You know we could just go back to sleep and say we did it” K lamented.
“Not a chance” I said “We’re going”, I whispered back.
Suddenly the anxious anticipation I’d been feeling all night turned to adrenaline. There was no way I was backing out.
We slid out of the house barefoot, another part of our preparation. We didn’t want our clunky hiking boots to wake the family. Silently we got into our boots, put on our backpacks and started to walk up the street towards the entrance we discovered yesterday. It was dark, but the full moon illuminated the sky making it feel later than it actually was. The crisp, morning air was invigorating, better at waking me up than any alarm would. We passed a lone dog walker and he gave us a knowing smile.
“Be safe girls” he said, knowing exactly what we were up to.
Reaching the gate that we had sourced out yesterday, our first problem arose. Unlike yesterday where the gate was wide open, it was now padlocked shut and the big signs saying ‘NO TRESPASSERS ALLOWED’ that we hadn’t seen yesterday suddenly loomed in front of us. For a nanosecond I considered turning back. I think the girls were having the same thought. We stood in silence for a moment and then K said
“There’s a track on this contour bank, we must be able to climb around it”
Surprised but thankful at her bravery we clambered up the contour bank using the bamboo that was growing wild on it. Trying to be as quiet as possible we managed to get to the top of the contour bank and followed the path through the bamboo until we were on the other side of the gate. I went first and jumped down the contour bank, falling on my butt in the dirt. It wasn’t as graceful as I had anticipated, but I was through!
I was shaking with adrenaline. This is definitely the most badass thing I had done in a very long time. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to break the law. However, my optimism was cut short when we heard a car pull up and lights flash in the direction of the gate.
“Sh**!” I whispered, “It’s the cops!”
Panic rose through me and a lump started to build in my chest.
“Don’t move, don’t move” L whispered hastily as she crouched on the top of the contour bank
“Be a tree, be a tree”, I thought silently to myself. Lying against the contour bank with my face centimetres from the dirt I waited, not brave enough to move an inch. The car rumbled just metres away and the person inside flashed their torch through the window at us.
“Don’t move” K whispered slowly. She needn’t had said it, I wasn’t moving a muscle.
Suddenly the car drove off, giving up on catching a criminal. I let out my breath in a sigh of relief. We could still hear the car engine running, it sounded as though they parked it a bit further away.
“What do I do?” I whispered to the girls
“Get back up!” L replied and the both of them helped me up the contour bank just as a flashlight shone through the gate. Holding onto the girls, we waited with baited breath until the flashlight turned away and we heard the car drive off.
Looking at each other in the midst of the bamboo we heaved with silent giggles. What a close call! We jumped quickly down off the contour bank and walked swiftly up the hill not saying a word.
Reaching the gap in the bamboo forest that lined the road that we had found yesterday, we were now right out of sight from the street and the locked gate. Feeling brave enough to speak K asked
“Do you think that was actually the guard? Or just someone coming to try and climb the stairs?”
That hadn’t even crossed my mind, the only thought going through my head were if the jails in Hawaii were like they were on Orange is the New Black. Pondering this out loud I said, “I guess if it was the cops, why wouldn’t they come through the gate?”
Feeling more confident, we continued on the track through the bamboo until we came to a large opening where the track diverged three ways.
The instructions we had found on Google hadn’t mentioned the gap we had first went through, it had said to continue on the road until it forked off in two directions. Though yesterday afternoon I had raced up this track until this clearing, convinced that this was another way to get there. We hedged our bets and went with the track that led us in the direction of the huge motorway above us. With me in the lead with the most powerful torch, followed by L and then K, we trekked through the bushy track in silence, concentrating on not slipping over in the mud.
The track came to another opening and this time we were left with two options. One way had a big opening but after several steps the track disappeared, so we turned around and tried the other option. A low hanging branch covered this one, but the path was clear once we pushed through.
“Look!” L exclaimed, pointing to footprints in the mud, “People have been here!”
Feeling a sense of relief we walked on, only slowing to clamber through the bushes that hung low over the track.
After awhile we reached a steel fence with a large hole in it. There was a track that had been made along the fence but my gut said to go through the hole as it was in the direction of the motorway, and hopefully the Stairs.
“We doin’ this?” I asked the girls and their already sweaty faces looked back at me with an expression of doubt.
“Lets go” L said.
We climbed through the hole and within several metres we had reached a gravel road. Almost leaping with delight, we hastened our pace as we walked up the road. It was nearly 4am and if what the Internet said was true, the guard at the Stairs would be just arriving for his shift.
Walking up the road using the full moon as the torch, we reached another fork in the road. To our right were some buildings, which we assumed were a part of the school around here. To our left the road ascended, and we could only hope that it was the right path. There was no sign of where the guard might be, but I was aware he might pop out at any time.
“Is that a person?” I said startled. My already bad eyesight was playing tricks on me in the dark.
“ I think it’s just a tree, keep going” K hustled.
I stopped and let her take the lead, suddenly feeling like I needed my big sister to take over. She strode up the steps towards the dark shadow and L and I followed behind.
“Guys, there’s stairs… I think this could be it.” K said
We walked quickly, taking two steps at a time until we reached a steel fence that stood about five metres wide.
“What a useful fence” We giggled as we clambered around it, trying not to fall ass up in the mud.
I turned to keep walking when suddenly it dawned on me.
“I’ve seen these stairs before, and this handrail. It’s like the ones of Instagram. You guys… I think this is it!”
We squealed in excitement. It was like discovering the Holy Grail. Until now I had just thought we would keep walking around, only to discover the Stairway were an urban myth. But here they were! They were real!
We bounced up the first lot of stairs, ecstatic to actually be here. I took the lead with the strong flashlight guiding where my feet should go. The steel steps were mostly even, but slippery from the mud and wet grass. Within minutes the steps started to get steeper and steeper and it was starting to feel like we were climbing a ladder instead of stairs.
Step by step, I pulled myself higher and higher. I don’t know whether it was my few weeks of preparation on the Stairmaster back home at the gym, or the fact that I was too terrified to be puffed, but I breathed evenly as I ascended up the stairs.
After awhile the stairs flattened back out and we took a quick breather. The motorway that had loomed above our heads was now looking more like a small path. We were getting high! Continuing on, the stairs went steeper again until a vertical ladder stood before me. I stopped and turned to face the girls. They were a few steps below me and had yet to see to the vertical ascent that was to come. I took a deep breath and started climbing – if I kept going, they might just follow.
Trying not to think of the fact that I was climbing a mountain face, with just a slippery handrail to hold me, I pulled myself higher and higher.
“Are you f***ing kidding me!?” I heard L mutter as she reached the steep ascent. I had to laugh – what we were doing was absolutely ridiculous.
After what felt like an eternity, I reached the top of the ladder and the steps got less steep. Pausing for breath and a look around, I was in awe of how high we were. It was probably a good thing we had left so early, there was no way I’d climb this in the daylight!
We climbed further until our torches flashed upon a mess of steel poles and mud. This must be the infamous part of the track that had been destroyed in a landslide last year. About four metres long, the handrails were knocked over, covering the stairs meaning we would have to climb over this to continue the hike. I kept looking at it until K and L reached me.
“What should we do?” K asked. “Is this the worst part do you think?”
We discussed what we should do and came to an agreement to just sit down and wait until it starts to get lighter so we could properly see what we have to deal with.
Making ourselves as comfy as we could on cold, hard steps we nestled in and waiting for the rising sun. I tried to catch some Z’s, my lack of sleep from the previous night was suddenly catching up on me and I felt tired and worn out.
L, having drunk a Redbull at the start of the stairs chattered away with K for a while, until we all sat in silence playing the waiting game. It felt like an eternity had passed
“Ah, there’s someone there!” L exclaimed
My mind quickly raced to the police scare we had earlier, had they followed us up the stairs?
“Oh hey!” a male voice said with surprise “Ah, what are you doing?”
We laughed and told him our story. He introduced himself as Bear and said he had done this climb before and was taking his friend up for fun.
“This is the worst part, the stairs go back to normal after this. Want to follow us?”
Still half asleep and slightly in shock, from meeting someone else on the stairs we got up quickly and let Bear and his friend past. We dutifully followed them as they climbed over the broken staircase with ease.
“Well that wasn’t that hard” I said laughing
“You girls right?” Bear asked, “We’ll keep going ahead”
Saying goodbye to Bear we slowly kept climbing the stairs. I had given up on my torch, just letting the light of the full moon guide me. One by one the stairs disappeared and my body felt like an automated machine. Step, grab rail, pull up, step, grab rail, pull up. The staircase was like a wave, some parts were quite horizontal and easy to climb whereas others we were past the point of vertical and if I braved looking down I would be standing directly on top of K.
After an eternity of stairs, we reached a viewing platform where Bear and his friend greeted us again. Elated to be somewhere near the top, we whooped loudly. We were actually here on the Stairway to Heaven! Unbelievable!
Swapping stories with Bear and his friend, we chatted while fuelling up with bananas and Hershey’s Kisses. They told us how they got to the stairs, how they walked straight past the guard without saying a word and were in disbelief when we shared our adventure.
“I have no idea what way you girls went” Bear laughed “You’re so lucky you found it”
We laughed in agreement; honestly we couldn’t believe it either.
“Ready for the final bit?” Bear asked
“There’s more?” replied L with a look of dread
He smiled at us “Not much further, the view is totally worth it!”
Deciding to rest for a bit longer we said good bye to Bear and his friend once more and sat down on the platform, reeling in what we have achieved.
Intrigued, I wanted to go further up. L was adamant she was staying put so K and I put our backpacks back on and approached the ladder once more. We climbed and climbed for another 15 minutes or so. It was just as steep as before, except now we didn’t have bushes protecting us from the wind. The staircase clung to the edge of the mountain, with not a tree in sight. We were so exposed to the elements that one strong wind would probably knock us off the edge.
Every time I thought I was near the top, another set of steps appeared. It felt like we were actually going to keep walking to Heaven! A heavy fog had settled in at the top, but we could faintly see where we had to keep going.
“This is crazy, I don’t think I can go any higher, we still have to get down this damn thing”, K said “Plus the sun is about to come up.”
I had to agree, it was scary enough climbing up the stairs, I hadn’t even thought about how I would climb down them. We were almost at the top and I knew I would regret stopping so close to the top, but my legs were shaking in protest at the thought of going higher.
We climbed a bit further until the steps flattened out once more. Within minutes the world around us turned to light and the city below us started to come alive. It was an incredible feeling, being this high up. Amazed by the view, we just stood and watched. I can’t even comprehend how to explain the view, it’s just one you have to experience for yourself. It also made our hike to Diamond Head the other day look like a stroll in the park.
Staying for a while, I took as many videos and photos as I could, sad that I would never capture this incredible view in a way to give it any justice.
K and I headed back down the stairs to L and I was surprised how easy to it was get down. The sun had fully risen by now and we could see for miles. I can’t believe our luck with the weather, you couldn’t have picked a clearer day. We took more photos and hung out of the platform some more, soaking in this incredible feeling.
Reluctantly we started the descent down. K took the lead and flew down the stairs, I followed alternating between climbing down facing the stairs and facing the world, pending on how steep the stairs were. L took the rear, slowly making her way down facing the steps.
We reached the broken part of the stairs and climbed over it like it was nothing. What we had read on Google had made it sound so hard to get around, but compared to other parts of the climb, it was a breeze. My arms were started to tire from my constant clenching of the handrails and my calves were shaking from the climb but there was no wiping the smile off my face. We kept climbing down until we reached the steel fence that had greeted us just a few hours earlier.
“Ah is that a car?” K asked, as we climbed past the very obvious ‘NO TRESPASSING SIGN’.
“Sh**’, I think it is” I replied and like guilty children we walked slowly down to the gravel road.
The navy blue four-wheel drive stood waiting for us and a stern looking lady sat in the drivers seat with steam coming from her ears. We quickly power-walked past her with our heads down, pretending we didn’t exist.
“Do you think she will report us?” I wondered, my inner goody-two shoes getting worried.
“I think she’s just more mad that she didn’t catch us on the way up” L laughed.
We headed back down the gravel road, eager to get away from the Stairway and from any trouble. We were meet by a different steel gate lined with barbed wire this time and realising we took a wrong turn somewhere we either had to turn back and walk past the pissed off guard, or continue to break the law and jump the massive fence. Opting for the latter, my inner ninja came alive and within two seconds I was over the fence. Using the neighbour’s brick wall for stability I hoped for the best and for once in my life, my coordination was on my side!
We quickly walked the streets, thankful for K’s GPS on her phone so we could find our street. Somehow we had come out several blocks away from where we had started, which had totally disorientated us. We walked with our heads down, trying to avoid the glares from locals driving by. They didn’t like people trespassing to climb the Stairs, and with good reason but I didn’t regret it for a second.
After the longest walk of my life, we finally reached out apartment block. Stopping at the Jeep to pull off my muddy hiking boots, I could have almost laid out on the bitumen right there. We dawdled up the stairs to the door and languished in the empty house. Never in my life had a shower felt so good.
While we didn’t quite reach the top of the Stairway to Heaven, I was still so impressed with our efforts. It’s an experience I will never forget, and honestly I wasn’t quite ready to walk all the way to Heaven yet. I still wanted more time on this Earth 😛