You Just Climbed Koko Crater Not Koko Head (which is way easier)


Koko Crater tramway.
Koko Crater tramway.

About the title: When I checked in on Facebook, this was an option. And, as I’m always correcting people about how they climbed Koko Crater and not Koko Crater Head or Koko Head Crater or Koko Head, I jumped on that location immediately. It took me a while to get up there. Here’s my tale.

Under the blazing sun at 1 p.m. yesterday, I had the curiously strange idea to go up Koko Crater, which is practically in my backyard. It’s a big draw for (insane or fit or insanely fit) residents and tourists alike. It’s also a draw for those who want to go on a little hike. How hard can it be, they must ask themselves. I don’t know why anyone would do this hike more than once. We used to go up quite often, before it became a tourist destination, and we even took our daughters up there a few times. We’d watch the sunset, take in the view, and take lots of pictures.

For mere mortals, it’s not a piece of cake. The tramway is treacherous, there is nothing to hold onto except maybe the rail if you bend over and grab it, the trestle, which always seems to have a hive of bees or wasps in activity, is terrifying (so I took the cheater path on the side), and there is no water anywhere. If you aren’t discouraged by my message of doom yet, take a 2-liter bottle for the way up and maybe another for the way down.

Yes, my awesome Brooks Pure Cadence running shoes. Yes, this is typically the condition of the tramway all the way up.
Yes, my awesome Brooks Pure Cadence running shoes. Yes, this is typically the condition of the tramway the whole way.

There are 1,060 steps up to the top, and then you have to climb up rock that has been smoothed with erosion and thousands of footsteps. Years ago, an encouraging soul painted markers on the rail marking progress. At 200 steps. At 400 steps. At 500 steps At 800 steps. At 1,000 steps it also says only 60 more to go!

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Everyone stops to rest, even the invincibles.

This being my off season, I haven’t been training for triathlons much recently. But how bad was it? Bad. Before I got to the 200th step I was having second thoughts. I knew I didn’t have to do it. I packed a little bit of water, but not nearly enough, and it was so hot. And it wasn’t until I got to the 400th step did I remember about the dreaded trestle. Although it seems to have been reinforced some, I do not have the constitution to go across, whether it’s climbing or descending. Fortunately, there is a well-worn path on its east side that takes some rock climbing and weaving in and out of the thorned haole koa thickets. To me, it was a better alternative.

A toddler is on dad's back, mom is right behind them, and their little big man raced ahead. It couldn't have been easy.
A toddler is on dad’s back, mom is right behind them, and their little big man raced ahead. It couldn’t have been easy.

I had to stop several times on the way up, and I wasn’t the only one. When people were coming down, it gave those of us on the way up a reason to step to the side and pause. I met several families on their way down, little kids fearlessly hopping about, dads and moms with babies on their backs (none too happy, either), a young couple in their 20s, of which the woman whimpered with every step down.

And then I met Julian and Evan. Carrying their bikes. On their way down. Julian was wearing a bicycle kit, was walking in his socks, and his bicycle shoes were stuck on his handlebars. Evan carried his big Giant bike on his shoulders. When I first caught a glimpse of them, I could see their bikes sparkling high above me at the top of the tramway, Julian’s front wheel spinning like a ferris wheel in the distance.

Julian and Evan walking down with their bikes after riding up to the peak on the tramway. This is who I mean by young invincibles.
Julian and Evan walking down with their bikes after riding up to the peak on the tramway. This is who I mean by young invincibles.

“Did youz guyz ride up from inside the crater?”

“Nope. We rode right up this trail.”

“Holy cow! Really? Are you in training?”

Julian told me he did the Honolulu Tinman, but he wasn’t doing this for training. If you could see that trail, you would be astonished at anyone getting a bike up there. If you have a rock hopper or a BMX or a trail bicycle, maybe, but these guys looked like they were on regular road bikes with regular tires.

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The payoff.

Between 400 steps, the trestle, and 800 steps, I had to give myself the self pep talk. I compared the heat to Ka Wela, the recent Boca Hawaii endurance triathlon I completed a few months ago. I told myself if I can do Kona 70.3 Honu Ironman twice (and next year makes thrice), I can climb Koko Crater one more time in my life. I said to myself that I was not a quitter. I don’t quit. I might be slow, but I achieve my goal.

Finally, at the top, breathless, heart pounding, I leaned on the World War 2 pillbox to take a break, take out my phone and shoot stuff, like scenery.

A week or a weekend doesn’t go by that we don’t hear the sirens wailing and the fire department’s helicopter flying to Koko Crater to make a rescue. Having done it one final last time, it doesn’t surprise me. It would be so easy to fall and twist an ankle or break a bone. For me, it was dizzyingly high and at one point on the way down, I didn’t measure the step as far down as it was and I nearly tumbled. And, although it feels like it takes forever to get to the top, it also feels like forever to get back down. I am so done with it.

Somethings I don’t get:

  • Why do people hike with boom boxes or radios and make the rest of us listen to their music? Why not listen to the wind rushing through the brush, or the bullets ricocheting off the targets at the shooting range below?
  • Why do women wear cute little shoes for this climb?
  • Why do people go to the top and have a cigarette?
  • Why do people even go up there?

Great mysteries.