Living the HI Life: Adventures on the Big Island of Hawaii

Twenty feet up the wall, I eyed the roof above me. Long and nearly horizontal, I had to crane my neck back as far as it would go and still I could barely see its lip. Below me the swells came in, pounding against the jet black, porous rock. From above, a voice filtered in, offering words of encouragement and some much needed advice how to climb through it. I recited the lines in my head as I began my ascent. “Move fast. Grab the tufa with your left hand. Big move.” My feet pressed firmly against the roof from the left while my body exploded to the right. My hand latched the jug, but the fatigue was too much. My fingers, soft from prolonged exposure to the salt water, uncurled and I fell. Plunging feet first, I was injected deep into the clear, blue, tropical water below.

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Working the opening moves at the End of the World. Photo by Nico Testa.

After six weeks of nearly constant, high-end climbing adventures it was time for a break. I had opened a new route in Alaska and learned to bigwall climb in Yosemite. Both my mind and body were in need of a little bit of R&R. Thankfully, my family had just the thing.

My parents, celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, decided to do it up big. A vacation to Hawaii was planned, and the kids and their significant others were invited along too. I caught a ride straight from Yosemite’s Camp 4 to San Francisco, where an evening of debauchery ensued. Having left nearly everything behind with Tess, I commuted with public transportation to the airport with nothing but a small carry-on. Not a piece of climbing gear accompanied me. Not even my climbing shoes.

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Enjoying a perfect ocean sunset.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is a magical place. While I was very much looking forward to days on pristine beaches, it proved to be so much more. The ecological diversity was unimaginable to me. From the often snow-covered Mauna Kea to the lush, green jungles of the island’s east side, I could hardly comprehend that this was all the same island. As a family, we drove the island by day and returned to our vacation rental by night. We explored the beautiful beaches and reefs on the west coast and the dry, wind-blasted grasslands of the south, which reminded me so closely of the Patagonian esteppe that I nearly forgot where I was.

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The rural and arid southern plain.

Even so, after a bit less than a week the climbing itch returned. I began to catch myself in the evening scanning the web for information about Big Island climbing. Curiously, there was little information to be found. The only area that got repeat mentions was an area called End of the World, a deep water solo spot that, coincidentally, appeared to be just a 15 minute bike ride away from our house. Still, I was hesitant about going. There was many a warning online referencing the dangers of ocean swells. Humbly, I posted on a Facebook page about climbing in Hawaii. Against the odds, by the next evening I had found a willing partner to show me around.

Sweat-drenched and pedaling hard I arrived at the End of the World. Feeling naked (for I nearly was) I approached the cliff armed with nothing more than the swim trunks and flip flops I was wearing, and a towel in my hand. Quite the contrast to the 80+lbs haul bag I had carried down from the top of El Capitan just over a week before. My partner, who happened to be a professional dive master, queried me on if I was a good swimmer. Not knowing what is considered “good” on the dive master swimming scale, I answered cautiously, “I’m okay, I guess.” His responded with another question, “but your not a sinker, right?” I hoped I wasn’t to be.

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Nico showing me the ways of the DWS warrior.

At the area Nico taught me the basics of ocean swells. Three bigger swells followed by three smaller ones; this is the basic pattern almost anywhere in the world. The strategy then was if you fall in and can’t get out right away, don’t panic. Tread water, conserve your energy, and wait for the big swells to pass. Then, when the small ones cycle in, make your move.

In borrowed climbing shoes I took to the rock. Traversing in we stayed dry, at least at first. The mental game was as exhilarating as it was taxing. Climbing solo, with no ropes, over the very unfamiliar medium of a swelling ocean was like nothing I had experienced in climbing before. The rock, in total contrast to the smooth liquid below, was black as coal and coarse as asphalt. After a few hours our hands could take no more of the abrasive and highly-feature stone. Thinking my climbing experience was at its end, I expressed my gratitude and began to prepare for the bike ride home. “You passed the test”, Nico said with a sly smile. I was confused. What test was he talking about? As it would turn out, I had spent the afternoon under secret evaluation. Seeing that I could climb and was in fact not a sinker, I was extended an offer that I could have hardly expected.

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Rock above, water below.

Early the next morning Nico’s white pickup truck arrived outside the house. We were off to a semi-“locals only” climbing area, and what would be one of the most unique and memorable climbing experiences of my life.

Forty feet of slightly overhanging walls loomed above us. Smooth, water-sculpted holds were plentiful. The azure water below, over twenty feet deep, gave the appearance of being much shallower due to its clarity. Teeming with life, tropical fish of every color swam in the ocean below. Lava tubes, exposed at low-tide, made for mesmerizing explorations between climbs. Sea urchins, crabs, aquatic plants, and even small fish made their homes in the tidal pools around the cliffs. Off in the distance, just 200 ft from the wall, the island’s shelf dropped drastically; the dark blue color of the sea signaling its depth change to over a thousand feet. Free diving spear fishermen, effortlessly treading water, waited patiently for the perfect big game fish to appear.

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Nico traversing over the lip of the lava tube.

Moving freely, I picked my way up the wall’s deep pockets and rounded edges. Never once did I have to worry about the typical climbing concerns of rope and gear. With each route my comfort increased as the trepidation subsided. Before long I was following in my mentors footsteps, pushing my physical and mental limits until I would find myself swimming in the water below.

There is little rest when deep water soloing in the ocean. The cliffs need to be steep to be safe and even when you are not climbing, swimming and treading water keeps your muscles from totally recovering. After only half a day we were too tired to continue. Atop the last route we clinked bottles and I did my best to take in the scene before me. It is not the cliffs that impacted me the most, but the impossibly vast and open seascape that stretched out before us, all the way to the horizon.

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Topping out in paradise.

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