Each time I subject myself to Koko Crater Stairs, I swear I won’t ever do it again. But the thrill of elevating myself 1,208 feet along 1,048 steps made of old railway ties (placed half a century ago to deliver supplies to the military lookout at the top) keeps me coming back. The only thing that’s changed over the years is the sheer number of people who share my masochistic addiction. I’ve got the drill down. Pull into the parking lot as early as possible to avoid the day’s heat and the crowds. Unlike many of Oahu’s shaded trails, this one is glaringly out in the open. In fact, look left at the great Koko Crater peak as you circle Kalanianaole past Hanauma Bay. A gash runs up the side of the mountain, dotted by a multitude of colorful specks. They’re the dozens of new and faithful climbers tackling a sure view-dazzler and knee-crusher.<
At the far end of the parking lot, I join the pilgrimage of exercise devotees eager to commune with glorious nature, austerity and all. We trail up a dirt path to an old dirt road that lands me right at the foot of the gauntlet. Actually, standing at the base, the hill looks doable ? like a quick, five-minute sprint straight up. I start zipping along and am instantly out of breath. Then, I catch up with the masses. There are folks playing loud music that just doesn’t fit the drum beat I’m jamming to. Smells accost me … cologne, shampoo, soap. Remaining focused amid these external impositions on my meditative foot-above-foot climb is perhaps more of a challenge than the physical effort itself.
Then I hit the infamous drop off. The earth falls out from under the railway ties halfway up the hill, forming a bridge with giant gaps where you can see the ground far below. The legs get shaky and any pause in my steady pace leaves me with a touch of vertigo. Others quickly bend down and begin to crawl, while some circumvent the bridge altogether by taking a side path to the right on steady ground.
Past the bridge, the earth rises at an almost vertical angle forcing me into a pattern: 15 steps, then a minute to catch my breath, then upward again. All about me, bodies are in various states of sitting, kneeling and otherwise panting by the wayside.
The final steps are sheer relief. Then, I spend 30 minutes exploring the various vantage points for catching glorious views of the inside of the crater and of the surrounding mountain ranges and pure blue ocean. Koko Crater rim is a mecca for fitness fanatics, and a bit of a circus too. Two ladies at the top are over-enthusiastically doing 100 squats, then 50 pushups and so forth. A camera crew, filming for a fitness reality show, surrounds another colorful and very buff character. Then there are folks who run up and down the behemoth every morning and the guy who does it four times in a row every weekend. Oahu’s famous “backward runner” Shadrack Anderson is there … running up backwards, of course. There’s a guy emerging at the top effortlessly. He’s carrying a five-gallon water bottle, and it’s full! Two young men, perhaps military, are running up with their large dogs, only the dogs aren’t doing any running – they’re perched on each man’s shoulders.
Yes, it’s a circus. What an entertaining way to usher in the weekend. But what goes up must come down, and that’s the doozy. The only way for me is to run it. I am down in a third the time it took me to go up, but my knees are so wobbly that I must keep my torso from tumbling to the ground as I move unsteadily back to my car. This time, instead of swearing never to do it again, I contemplate how much I’d love to make the Koko Crater climb every morning.