Clinging to a narrow ridge, 2,000 feet above a tragic end, I had nowhere to go. To my right was a vertical rock face, to my left a long drop. The narrow and unstable trail around the rock face had come to a dead end, and my only choice was to backtrack or lean back and climb over the rock. I thought I could probably make the climb, but if I slipped, I would fall backwards all the way down to sea level. The wind was gusting. I felt the pounding of my heart in my fingertips. I began to lose it. It's funny how fast you can lose control. One minute you think you're good, and the next everything's spinning away from you.
Last April, Pollard and I attempted the first part of Pu'u Manamana, a hike that follows the narrow spine of a ridge in the mountains above Kaaawa in Windward Oahu. The views were stunning, but the hike turned into more of a climb along the narrow ridges that just kept going higher and higher above the Pacific Ocean. Pollard stopped to rest at one of the early peaks, and I decided to go a little further to see if it got any easier. It scared the heck out of me, but I loved the thrill. Every step mattered so much on a hike like this. The margin of error was almost nonexistent. Each move you made took the highest level of concentration and focus. I didn't make it too far. I paused at a steep mound of rocks that was surrounded by nothing but thousands of feet of air below on each side. I gave way to a group of military dudes coming up the trail behind me.
"You gonna keep going?" I asked.
"You're either AmeriCAN, or you're AmeriCAN'T," one of them replied.
I watched as they scaled the next peak, and the next, and the next. They got higher and higher. No way they're going to keep going up that way, I thought. But they did. Each peak they conquered was more dramatic than the last. Eventually they disappeared into the sky. I turned back and headed down to Pollard and we scrambled back to my car below.
I was a little relieved to be off of that ridge, but it left me wanting more. I had to be AmeriCAN.
Six months later, it was time to give Pu'u Manamana another shot. Matt Miller, my roommate from my year abroad in Florence, was in town visiting, and I figured he'd be a good person to bring along. We'd basically traveled the world together during the year abroad in Florence, and we'd been known face an adventure or two.
The first part was nice and wide, but the steep climb left us panting. Coming off a grueling work schedule and a long flight over the Pacific, Miller found himself in a cardiovascular hell. But he got stronger the further along we got.
Just like the last time, the trail kept getting narrower and narrower, and we found ourselves spending less time walking and more time crawling and climbing. Each time we scaled a peak, we saw a more daunting one hundreds of feet higher in the distance. Inevitably we would have to climb it.
We tried to break the tension with jokes and conversation during the especially nerve racking parts. But things started to get pretty quiet. I tried to zone out the steep drops on each side of me. But the blue sea and Lego-sized houses below kept catching my eye. I tried hard to quell the vertigo, but when I reached the dead end along that narrow ridge, I couldn't hold it back.
Miller is significantly taller than me, so he saw that the trail had expired before I did.
"Are you sure that's the way to go?" he asked.
"I don't know, man." I could hear the nervousness in my own voice.
I considered shimmying around that steep rock face, but there was really nothing to secure my feet. The odds of falling were too high. I could just turn and climb over the steep rock to the top, but it was at a bit of an angle where I would have to lean backwards, right back into the 2,000 foot drop. Backtracking was really the only option, but even that seemed too scary. Vertigo clouds your mind and numbs your body. The only thing I felt was an aching in my hands and a lump in my throat. I didn't know what to do. All I knew was that I wanted off of that ridge. I didn't know how, but I wanted out.
That wasn't an option. I took a sip from my Camelback and tried to nut up.
"Go back, go back!" I said. We cautiously backtracked to the beginning of the steep face, and sure enough, there was a small pink ribbon higher up the rock wall that marked the correct route. We slowly climbed the the peak. Whatever goes up must come down. The rock face dropped us back down to an actual trail, but it wasn't a gradual descent. It was a 15 foot vertical climb. The base was a very small perch of a trail that left little margin of error. Miller climbed down first. He had to take some time to negotiate the footholds...we quickly remembered that climbing up something was much more enjoyable than climbing down. He finally reached solid ground.
I knew it would be a different story for me. He pointed out the best spots to grab onto. "I got this," I said. But actually, I wasn't so sure. I made it down almost the whole thing, but then there wasn't anything left to put my foot in. I considered just jumping down the last 3 feet, but I would have to stick the landing like a gymnast. If I stumbled, I would stumble off the ledge. Desperate, I wrapped my left leg around the corner of the rock. There I finally found something to put my foot on. I secured my left foot, reached down for another rock to grab, and then dropped my right foot down onto the actually trail. I had made it.
The rest wasn't so bad. We kept getting higher and higher along a narrow ridge, but since it was deeper inland now, there was lots more vegetation. Trees and roots lined the trail, blocking the view of a potential fall and giving you something to grab onto. At some points the trail was covered in moss and roots, and it was actually pretty beautiful. We had a long way to go, but the worse was behind us.
The rest was a scramble down to Kahana Valley below. It got slick and muddy, and Miller described it best when he said we were like the Three Stooges on a hike. Slipping, sliding, and sore knees replaced the fear and vertigo. We finally dropped down to a final ridge. I found this last stretch difficult because it was back to high stakes hiking like before, but now my legs and ankles were shaking from fatigue. We gutted it out. When we were just about to the bottom of the trail, it started pouring rain. We hustled down the now wide trail, into a jungle with an eerie cemetery. The graves were overgrown and cracked from several decades of facing the elements. I thought it would have been more fitting to pass through the cemetery at the beginning of the hike, the graves foreshadowing those dangerous ridges above.
But maybe the end of the trail was the perfect location for those old crumbling graves. You got lucky this time, they whispered. We reached the road, leaving death behind us.