It Started With a Pile of Stones

THE JOB SOUNDED AGREEABLE: film the Cliff Diving World Championships in Lana’i, Hawaii, for a network sports show. I didn’t know Lana’i from Louisiana, but someone in the office had honeymooned there and called it heaven. Lana’i, just a stone’s throw across the Auʻau Channel from Maui, is so small that in 1779 Captain Cook missed it during his fatal recon of the Pacific. Dole “bought” the island in the early 1900s and transformed it into the world’s largest pineapple plantation. Around 1985, the billionaire David Murdock became Dole’s CEO and decided he wanted the place for himself, but was told, no, they weren’t selling. So in 2003, Murdock bought Dole and he had his island. He let the plantations go fallow and tossed up two luxury hotels, said to be among the finest on the planet. As part of the gig, we’d be comped at the swanker of the two, with an open meal pass as well.

A week before departing for Lana’i, my dreams became absurd, featuring a pageant of jumbo, pit-roasted porkers with pineapples in their mouths, flanked by lissome hula girls fanning me with palm fronds — and it got better from there.

The day before my departure, I logged onto an illustrated website of the island featuring a large spread of red lava cliffs, weathered sentinels to miles of wild seashore. I trawled through a few more web pages and in a half hour I knew this much: The majority of Lana’i coastline bore vertical basalt bluffs ranging from 100 to 200 feet; no modern climber had touched a single hold on the entire island. There were no tourist facilities on Lana’i save the two 5-star hotels, and given the airfare and lodging fees, a citizen from the mainland would be touched for around eight grand for a week’s stay. By any reckoning, Lana’i had all the makings of a tycoon’s private sport climbing paradise waiting to be tapped, and I envisioned my name over a stack of new routes. I bought a two-pound bag of chalk and charged up the drill.

Next day we flew to Oahu, took a puddle jumper 20 minutes over to Lana’i, and drove a few miles to the Manele Bay Hotel, an open-air palace with graceful little bungalows spilling off toward the ocean a hundred yards below. I checked into my room — plain but suave — grabbed my boots and chalk bag and jogged down to the beach and a sweeping grotto with 40-foot-high, blood-red cliffs rising straight off the sand. I’d tune up on the short stuff, then extend my curriculum once I dialed in the rock.

Buckets and gargoyles peppered the wall, and I straightaway pulled for glory. The initial 20 feet were rickety, then everything turned to crap and I nearly fell into the next world groveling over the top.

I sussed out a few other spots within hiking range and in half an hour realized I’d arrived several million years too late. The rock from the recently firing volcanoes on Hawaii, the Big Island, was diamond-hard, but this stuff on Lana’i was just awful — a bitter realization, given how my imagination had spun miracles about this billionaire’s crag with its boundless potential and the magnificence I’d reap from tossing up a slew of classics. But all was not lost. I still had that free meal ticket, and I was dead-center in Shangri-la, so I vowed to bankrupt the Manele Bay restaurant if nothing else.

I packed my daypack and trudged along the brink of the cliff to a butte overlooking a striking red sea stack perhaps 50 feet offshore and rising straight out of the drink. Undercut on all sides, the stack reared up like an upended, scarlet bowling pin, and featured the same chalky red choss as the surrounding cliffs.

Stones atop Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) / Image by Forest and Kim Starr

Then I noticed a huge mound of stones stacked on the anvil-flat summit, a clearly man-made production, tight as an Inca battlement and resembling a stone obelisk or maybe an altar. How someone scaled that red junker to stack those stones confounded me. A sea-level ledge, like a circular deck, ringed the stack, so I clambered around and down, swam to the ledge and started traversing around, looking for a route. The easiest line looked bleak: all slopers and big dynos on loose, salt-encrusted rubble. The idea that an ancient Hawaiian had free soloed up and down the stack was ludicrous, yet that altar on top said otherwise. I reefed up a few moves on what appeared the easiest route, and backed off at once. I finally left the stack, perfectly confused. Stumbling back to my $750-a-night room, I realized someone had simply helicoptered to the top. There was no other way. And I would know.

The following morning the divers and film crew took a short boat ride over to Kaunolu Bay, the site of the cliff-diving championships. The divers were superb and fearless, throwing Olympic caliber dives (most were Olympic platform divers) from an aluminum parapet hanging 90 feet above a working sea. But that’s another story, and I couldn’t have cared less when I saw the sea stack towering 200 yards from the dive spot.

Like the bowling pin I’d explored the day before, this stack stood about 50 feet high, and was undercut on every side. And like the bowling pin, an arrangement of intricately stacked stones rested on the summit. My production duties involved monitoring six cameramen and conducting interviews with the divers, but I sloughed that chore off to an intern and dashed over to the stack, which also had a sea-level porch of rock encircling most of the base, but this stack looked totally unclimbable. And yet someone, at some time, had obviously gained the summit.

I spent an hour inspecting every inch of that stack but couldn’t locate the hint of a plausible route. Where the ledge ran out on the sea side of the stack, I breast-stroked out and swam around, getting repeatedly dashed against the face in a reckless bid to find a way, any way, up that tormenting heap.

I pawed from the sea, sat down on a boulder a ways back from the stack and glared at it like a mortal enemy. There were several authentic Hawaiians on location, the sons of this land and these rocks, and one of them wandered over. When I explained my confusion about how those stones got stacked on top he said one of his ancestors had obviously climbed up top and did the stacking. In fact, he added with pride, such obelisks were found on countless stacks about the island. I wanted to strangle the guy, or pitch him into the sea but he was around seven feet tall and went at about 300 pounds. I tried to imagine him soloing up and down that stack, and laughed. And the stack laughed right back at me.

At the hotel, I hounded the concierge to cough up a few local guidebooks and historical texts about Lana’i. One thin volume described how ancient Hawaiians had “mounted” the various sea stacks, such as the red bowling pin, to erect religious structures on the “numerous brine-rinsed summits.” I threw the book against the wall. Here I’d written an entire bookshelf of climbing manuals and had a fancy reputation for new routes, and couldn’t get two moves up some crag a barefooted native had apparently soloed up and down three centuries before. How? By what route?

I started considering the possibilities, however remote, about how those altars had been built. A scaffolding, like the Tower of Babel? Aside from a few pines on a summit ridge, planted in the early 1900s, I’d seen little wood and no bamboo anywhere on Lana’i. An enormous, staircase-like rock pile? I’d found no sprawling rock pile at the base of any stack, and since the altars were plainly visible, a rock pile 50 times that size should still be around in some form. I had no explanation or clue how any of this was possible.

I grabbed a pair of binos, a map, and a production rental van, and tooled along the coastline, scouting no less than eight other stacks, all on the same crumbling red rabble and each featuring an intricately stacked rock monolith on the summit. The last sea stack, barely 30 feet high and shaped like a golf tee, sat in a calm inlet only 30 yards offshore, and it too had a stone monument stacked on top. A small victory was better than total failure, so I dove into the sea, swam to that stack and started heaving on the first holds I found. This stack had no rock ledge about its base and the surrounding water was deep, and at this point I didn’t care if I fell. Which I did, repeatedly. I’d get about 10 or 20 feet up and when the choss went overhanging, either the holds ran out or something popped off and, spa-lash! This went on for half an hour till I was so gassed I could barely crawl to shore. I sprawled back on the sand, beat it with my fists and finally cursed God and then sulked. Some Greek once said that all humans must meet complete and utter defeat to ever become fully human, but that didn’t help much. I gathered my stuff and went back to the hotel, locked myself into my overpriced cell and paced.

THE NEXT DAY, AFTER the competition, when everyone save a few of us production folks had fled the site, I wandered into the middle of the craggy, sacred ground above Kaunolu to conduct my last interview, this one with a native Hawaiian elder, maybe 70 years old if a day, his face quilted with lines and dark as a coconut. As my eyes swept about the lava moonscape, the elder casually acquainted me with the Wahi Pana, which means a storied place, a place where the heart of the past still beats, a place like Kaunolu. This stony ground had, centuries before, been a cultural nucleus to the ancient ways, as well as the spiritual home of Kahekili, monarch of the seven islands of Maui-Nui (Kahekili was said to have invented cliff diving from the adjacent brink, as well as clawing up those hateful sea stacks). But now the place felt like a volcanic wasteland, strewn with the stone foundations of dwellings ravaged by time, relieved here and there by scattered rock shrines — the mineral wreckage of a culture extinct for 15 generations. The whole place felt dead in the middle, and I said as much to the elder, who studied me for a long beat. Had he been an island Socrates spewing corny folk wisdom, I would have dismissed him. But his drift had no trace of a lecture or homily. He simply invited me to sense into the place, and myself, and together we’d go from there.

It wasn’t a matter of what we could see, said the elder, but what we might hear in the shadows now stretching off the old monoliths, shrines sacred to Hawaiians living and dead, and for the only reason that mattered: the Wahi Pana.

The Wahi Pana, said the elder, was real only if it was kept alive, and then it was a force of nature that could sustain us through anything. Without the Wahi Pana, we were not human beings at all. We were just hungry ghosts wandering alone — or venal has-been climbers trying to claw up tottering spires to prove it wasn’t so.

We talked for a while longer, till the shadows gently stole over us. Then a shadow darker and fiercer than the other stole over me, and I experienced one of those moments I suspect happens rarely in any person’s life, the kind of intimate encounter with yourself where you see that hungry ghost face-to-face, and know it’s been marching point through the contours of your life. And finally you realize that ghost will always be hungry because something essential has gone missing.

I understood at once why my wife always felt sketchy when away from the pueblos of her native Venezuela, as I understood that a man alone is nothing but an outlaw will, a starving ghost, dead in the middle.

My situation, sitting there in silence, was naked as the sinking sun. I didn’t consider the elder a mystic or some fancy empath, but his timing was good.

“You probably think the Wahi Pana belongs to the old ones, or maybe to me,” he said, “but it belongs to everyone.” I looked at him strangely, and he swept his hand toward me and simply repeated, “Everyone.”


Sea stacks off the coast of Lana'i

Forest and Kim Starr / Creative Commons

THAT I COULD belong to something greater than myself came as a revelation. But the concept made me feel like an interloper, a stowaway on someone else’s ship on whose passage I desperately needed and wanted. I knew the Wahi Pana — be it here on Lana’i or in Venezuela or even in Camp 4 — was one’s only answer to our crushing aloneness, and the one thing that might sate the hungry ghost. And I knew the Wahi Pana was not mine. I might have had it at some time, in some form, but I’d mortgaged it to become what Silvia Plath called “exceptional,” the exception that cuts one off from his fellows, “the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill, or sits in the desert and hurts his mother’s heart.” And his own. Why it happened was less significant than the fact that it had.  I’d never felt so lost, not even in the middle of Borneo when Jim “The Bird” Bridwell used our only map to start a fire.

“What do you think the Wahi Pana really is,” the elder asked. “That pile of rocks over there?”

I didn’t say anything.

Each provincial Wahi Pana has its symbols, said the elder. His ancestors stacked rocks; others fashioned coats of arms, signets, flags, and so forth. In each case, true believers would plant their flags or stack their rocks in order to remind them of the source and extend the dominion of the sovereign Wahi Pana. “But all those stones,” the elder added, thrusting his chin toward a monument, “they’re just reminders of what’s here.” And he patted his chest slowly.

I can’t remember his actual words, but basically the old man said that when people travel from the heart of their native Wahi Pana, they look around and they don’t see the old church or the totem pole, or hear the songs they know or smell the food they grew up with, and so their eyes naturally look backward to remember who they are. Folks have fought to death to preserve this flag or that pile of stones — as well they should, because these are their maps of the human heart. But the map is not the territory. The real Wahi Pana is an internal affair, basic as our bones. And only that hungry ghost could show me as much, which is surely the strangest fact to come from the elder, and from the mysterious piles of stones on the ancient island of Lana’i.

We wandered over jagged ground to the brink of the tall cliff. I was always so full of warp and guile that only the gracious simplicity of this stranger could ever have pulled me past it. Now it was just the two of us, gazing out over the ocean.

“The true Wahi Pana is immense,” the elder said, his eyes adrift in the magnificent distances of the Pacific.

Late the next day, I was flying over the “great water.” It seemed awesome and reassuring that far below loomed dozens of sea stacks that folks had somehow “mounted” three centuries ago, a mystery to me then and now, just as real and rousing as what those ancient climbers might have felt had they seen me hurtling across the sky in a giant metal bird.

I sat back in my seat, awed that a pile of stones could elude and thwart me, then invoke something essential I had long misplaced, lost, forgotten. When you covet the Wahi Pana for your own lonely harvest, it will throw you back into the sea every time. It is the birthright of every person, and so is the essence of belonging to something greater than our ghosts.  Sustainable Play Logo30x30

John Long, climber, writer, and filmmaker, has written or edited over 40 books, varying from Pale Moon: American Indian Folklore and Legends, to short-form literary fiction anthologies, to photos/narrative books on beach culture and big wave surfing. His how-to books on adventure sports have been industry leaders for twenty years. His Advanced Rock Climbing won the Banff Film Festival Award for Mountain Exposition, and he is the 2006 recipient of the H. Adams Carter Literary Award from the American Alpine Club. His large format book, The Stonemasters: California Rock Climbers in the Seventies, was released in October 2009, and on November 4, 2010, won the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Book Festival. His novella, Rogue’s Babylon, was the basis for Sylvester Stallone’s hit movie, Cliffhanger. Recently, Long co-authored The Trad Climber’s Bible.

In 1975, Long made the first one-day ascent of the 3,000-foot Nose route on El Capitan, with Jim Bridwell and Billy Westbay. In the same year, Long, Ron Kauk, and John Bachar made the first free ascent of Yosemite Valley’s East Face of Washington Column, later dubbed Astroman. Starting in 1980, Long made the first coast-to-coast traverse of Borneo.