Sometimes I push myself physically, sometimes mentally. Yesterday I did both at once: I climbed the Ha’ikū stairs. 

The stairs, also known as the Pali Ladder or the Stairway to Heaven, were constructed by the US Navy during the Second World War for access to a secret radio facility which transmitted messages to boats in the Pacific. 3,922 narrow metal steps take you from a Hawaiian suburb to the top of a volcanic mountain ridge, with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet.

It’s illegal to climb the Ha’ikū stairs. They were closed to public access in 1987, and the latest Tripadvisor review labels it ‘dangerous and forbidden’. This kind of language obviously makes it extra enticing, and numerous websites provide ‘how to’ tips, including routes to avoid encountering security guards and fines of $1000 or jail time.

My new friend Lisa (we have known each other for three days and became instant hiking buddies) and I were nervous as we walked through a leafy Hawaiian suburb and along a government road to the starting point, after hearing stories about angry neighbors taking pot shots at would-be climbers and knowing there would be security present.

Would we even make it to the summit, with its insane views to the ocean and spectacular mountain ridges of Oahu?

Thankfully, the security dude ignored us, and soon it wasn’t a potential Hawaiian prison sentence that concerned me so much as the fact that I was ascending vertical steps on a precarious mountain ridge. It reminded me of surfing in waves too large for my skillset, or giving a speech to a large group of strangers – I was way out of my comfort zone, but also in too deep to go back now.

I coaxed myself up the 3,922 steps from the base of the steps to the radio tower, telling myself I was grounded, strong, capable and safe. Lisa and I cheered each other on, and we chatted to a couple of friendly mainlanders who ascended about the same time as us and offered a sip of whiskey when we made the summit.

At the top, I sat for a while and thought about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor bombing tomorrow, and the people who had run up this ladder and back down during wartime. I felt so lucky not to have lived through (or died during) a world war.

And when we made it back down, I was glad to have lived through the climb, having incurred only a brief lecture from the security guard as we passed.

We wandered back through the neighborhood, our legs aching but our minds soaring. A local stood in his front yard and smiled towards us.

“Did you do the stairs?”

“Noooooooooo!”

“How was it?”

“Amazing!!”