Hawaii is quite simply breathtaking. Fortunately, as I covered China during my career in the US government, I was lucky enough to go to Hawaii at least twice a year for nearly a decade. My last time on island was for a three month TDY, in the Spring of 2014, and I endeavored to make the very most of every single moment—not as a tourist but as much like a local as possible. And for me, that meant hiking as many of the beautiful and often times dangerous trails as possible.
The Olomoana Ridge, or Three Peaks Trail, lies on the North side of the island of Oahu. You park in a small lot at the edge of a country club and hike in about half a mile before you find the trailhead. Despite seeing the peaks off in the distance, rising up from island floor like backs of a leafy green serpent, the hike itself is a lot more strenuous than it initially appears.
Nathan Stowell, perished on Olomoana Trail, Easter Sunday 2018. TwitterMy friend Stephanie and I decided to take a shot at Three Peaks early in May of 2014, with perfect Oahu weather and a GoPro. It wasn’t until I came back down and looked at the footage I had shot, that I realized just how dangerous that hike really was. Sadly for 25 year old Nathan Stowell, Easter Sunday on Olomoana proved deadly when he fell 400 feet to his death while climbing peak three
The entire hike is only 4.5 miles but the elevation gain is roughly 1,643 feet and the terrain is strenuous. You find yourself climbing almost the entire way. The first peak is about 1.5 miles in and the drop offs on either side of you are extremely steep. Never is that more obvious than when you are making your way back down again.
I remember thinking to myself, during the descent “how in the hell did you get up here?”
Three others have lost their lives on Three Peaks in the past few years. In 2015 a tourist from Florida feel 200 feet to his death. An off duty firefighter died there in 2014, as well as another man in 2011.
All of the trail guides I read before heading up the mountain myself noted the dangers. After a rain, the trail can be muddy and getting your footing is made more difficult in the jungle terrain. There are sections where rock scrambling and climbs aided by ropes are necessary. No part of the trail is walled off and there are no railings. You are simply one with the mountain and the sky.
When I broke through the canopy at the top of peak one, it was the first time I saw the magnificent 360 degree views— looking out over mountains and crystal blue oceans— with the town of Kailua lying serenely below in the distance.
Three peaks is not a hike for those afraid of heights as I am. But if you know me, you know that I am super competitive and nothing makes me attempt something like being told I cannot. I have found the only way to conquer my fears is to face them head on and that first moment standing on top of peak one, shook me to my core. But thanks to Stephanie’s encouragement, sheer will, and a killer soundtrack coming from my phone, I pressed on past my shaking knees and a deep desire to turn around.
That particular Spring, I had something to prove to myself after one of the hardest winters of my life. I was climbing up to the sky to leave my human demons behind and walk where angels tread.
You can find a partial video of the rock scramble at the top of peak one that I took with my GoPro here. My battery ran out at the top but at about the 1:30 mark on, you get a good idea of what that drop off looks like in first person.
The section coming down from peak one and back up to peak two is where things begin to get dicey. There are some older ropes tied on to some questionably loose tree branches that are meant to help with the descent. There is a tremendous amount of faith you must have at certain points – faith mixed with a little devil may care attitude. Most people stop at peak 1. Pushing on to peak three just borders on deadly as Nathan Stowell found out this weekend. Some reports say he was reaching for his hat when he fell. First responders had to shake the trees at the base of the peak to find his lifeless body.
His coworkers at Handy Andy Hawaiian Fresh Farms took to Twitter to celebrate the life of their friend, saying:
“Today we lost one of our own … He tragically fell while hiking this morning and died the way he lived, taking chances, and living everyday to its fullest …”
The final climb is takes you up a narrow cliff, hanging on to a rope even more questionable than the ones that came before. There really is only room for one person and the accomplishment feels as amazing as it does frightening.
Seeing the notice of Stowell’s death today struck a nerve for me because I can place myself exactly in his position. If given the chance, I would hike Olomoana again — for its difficulty, for its majesty or the chance to live every single day— as Nathan Stowell did— to its fullest.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Author