Mike is real. Mike is also real good at getting up to heaven. He should be. He’s done it 763 times.
But who’s counting, right?
I’ve got a few pictures of Mike, who was kind enough to pose for me at the top of the Haiku Stairs on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The stairs, also aptly named “Stairway to Heaven,” are an ass-kicking ascent in every sense of the word: physically, emotionally and spiritually. They’re also an illegal hike — have been since the late ‘80s as lawyers and jurisdictional beefs have convened to put the clamps on this revelatory climb into the clouds.
So I won’t be posting any pictures of Mike, just to be safe. He’s got a lot more climbs in him and I don’t want to do anything to impede what has got to be an ongoing record for ascents up the Haiku Stairs.
Having followed Mike up the seemingly endless ladder steps, I can tell you — Mike’s a machine. He’s also at least 65 years old. My guess is he’s probably closer to 70. He’s also friendly, wise and helpful. He beat me to the top, naturally.
The Haiku Steps consist of 3922 steps on a series of interconnected metal ladders. Originally, the ladders were constructed of wood. In a few spots you can see their discarded, rotting remnants. It makes you grateful for the sturdiness of the metal steps and handles — only a few of which bounce around when you step on them. The rest are firmly bolted into the hillside.
Shortly after I began my ascent, I came face to face with three very happy young guys coming down. I learned why they were so happy later. The first young climber happily offered me some perspective about what I was facing.
“The only really hairy part is that steep climb before the first platform. Then you’re good to go.” He was lying, but I was grateful for the encouragement. I continued up.
I soon spotted Mike ahead of me. After a little more climbing, I noticed I was gaining on him. The competitive side of me decided, “I’m passing this dude.” Eventually, I came up upon him. He heard me coming and climbed over the outside of the rails to let me by.
I have to admit I was a little shocked at how old he was. He’s my father’s age. There is no way my dad is making this climb (sorry, dad). No matter. I took this opportunity to pause and get a little info about what was ahead. We were a bit short of the first platform. He advised that the first platform is about halfway, effort-wise. I made it to the first platform and stopped to look for my missing lungs. My thighs thanked me for stopping the punishment. Mike arrived. He didn’t stay long. He kept going. I decided to make use of my time by playing photographer:
After concluding my charade as a photographer, not as an in-over-his-head panting, heaving fool, I began chasing Mike again. My thighs rebelled.
I never caught him.
At the top, I met up with Mike again, who was milling about the top platform area, keeping his legs moving so as to not stiffen up, I presume. Unfortunately, there was no visibility, which added to the surrealness of the experience. Additionally, the wind whipped relentlessly.
There isn’t much room up in heaven, so he was forced to chat with me. I had questions. He was happy to oblige. My jaw dropped when he informed me this was his 763rd trip up the Haiku Stairs. He said he started keeping count after he did it seven times. That was about six years ago. He’s on a pattern of climbing the steps about two times a week. I’m sure he’s done it a few more times since our trip last week.
There is a guard posted at the base of the stairs to keep people out. Being a veteran climber, Mike knows when the guard is there and isn’t. I won’t broadcast that info here, but if you want to know the guard’s schedule, I can discreetly share his experiential wisdom. You can also learn a lot about the particulars of the climb by Googling it. Several climbers have documented their ascents up the Haiku Stairs with Go-Pro cameras on YouTube, naturally.
While I knew the climb up would kick my butt, my greater concern was getting back down. You can avoid fixating on the sheer drops (often on both sides of the ladders) on the way up. While climbing, you are face first and fixated on the steps and the handles. It takes determined focus to push, pull and grab with both legs and hands. It’s a full body workout. Days later, my arms and shoulders are more sore than my thighs.
Going down, reluctantly
Going down is a different story. Your return trip is where you take in the view, though your focus must remain on every grip and every step. Like this view, just a few steps from the top:
Mike advised me to go slow on the way down. Sage advice, indeed. He noted that it can be hard on the knees. He would know. He departed for the descent before I did. I stayed up in heaven for a few more minutes, hoping the cloud would pass and the view would open up. No such luck.
I took my time going down. I never saw Mike again on the ladders. I began to wonder if I imagined him: some fictional phantom I concocted to lead and guide me to heaven. We seem to have that need, as humans go. I’m glad I got pictures that prove Mike is real. He is an inspiration. I didn’t need more motivation to make the climb; I was going to do it if it killed me. If nothing else, I know I can have another good 20 years or more of rugged outdoor activity — if I can be like Mike.
Coming down makes you giddy. It feels great to have done it and feels even better to take in the stunning views once you get below the clouds. You get into a zone. Going down, I wondered when I would get to the first platform. I later realized I had already passed it, but have no recollection of doing so. You most certainly don’t want to leave, which is reason enough to call the climb “heaven.”
The trip up and down the Haiku Stairs is a great solo experience, but a wiser endeavor with a climbing partner or two. It’s good to have someone up there with you, leading the way.
If this made you smile, please give the recommend heart a pop.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on WiseTribe.
Also by Julian Rogers:
Get there and do the Haiku Ladder … if you’re up for it.medium.com
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