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The Spirit of Aloha: Piloting Responsible Access in Hawaii

How Kānaka Climbers is encouraging ethical outdoor recreation in the state.

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Skye Kolealani Razon-Olds was with her grandmother when the bulldozers came. The machines guzzled and groaned as they moved in to level the heiau, a hallowed space like an altar or temple in Hawaiian religion. But a hotel needed to be built, or something of the sort, and the dozers droned on. Grandma won that fight, but it wouldn’t be the last confrontation. When the land is taken from your ancestors—the islands were confiscated by the United States of America from the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1898—it’s a constant struggle to protect the places that are no longer yours.

“Development is running rampant,” said Razon-Olds, a Native Hawaiian climber, on the Access Fund panel, Climbing on Sacred Land, about recent destruction of Indigenous cultural resources and religious spaces. “We’ve had burial sites being desecrated on a regular basis, petroglyphs are being damaged, we’ve had boulders taken out of areas and moved on to hotels.” 

“It feels like we’re being erased from our own land. That our culture isn’t important enough to preserve,” she said.

In March of 2020, climbers on Oahu in Hawaii ignored newly uncovered archaeological findings at Nuʻuanu, Kapena Falls State Park, about 30 minutes from where Razon-Olds lives. The petroglyphs were faint and the rocks had been climbed on for years, but for the first time an archaeologist confirmed the existence of the engravings. Other cultural artifacts in the park are denoted by rebar fencing and feature a plaque outlining their importance. Part of the assumption was that if the state deemed these newly uncovered pieces significant they would have the same treatment. The last time the park was inventoried was in the 1930s, though, when the state did a major documentation push across the islands, and they had been hands off in the park for over a decade. So the climbers kept climbing.

Petroglyphs at Nuʻuanu, Kapena Falls State Park. Photo: Vance Uribe

Kapena Falls is one of the few well-preserved historic sites in town. “It’s amazing to be in a place that’s truly Hawaiian that’s perfectly preserved. And it’s great to be able to climb there,” says Razon-Olds. Mo-elo, oral history, for the area dates to the 1,100s, and as the low point on the island it was a resting zone for a trail that ran from one side to the other. There were dwellings to sleep in and terraces filled with kalo, taro, and ʻuala, Hawaiian sweet potatoes, that were used in a manner akin to a community garden. Like many tubers, if you bite off a piece and plant it it will re-grow so the next person that comes along has something to eat. That’s aloha, says Razon-Olds: “It doesn’t matter who you’re planting it for, but it’s for the betterment of the entire population.”

The park remains important to contemporary Kānaka, Native Hawaiians, climbers included. Rimming the Nu’uanu Stream are pali, cliffs, which had to be scaled during island crossings for hundreds of years. The pā pōhaku, walls, are imbued with ancestors, caves were used for burial sites and the spirit of Kaupe, a demi-god, can be found in the boulders. 

Activism played a central role for Razon-Olds growing up. Her grandmother and great aunt helped create part of The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which established rights for burial sites. She saw how the matriarchs worked with the federal and state governments and the importance of collaborating with archaeologists for preservation. “It set a standard that I’m always supposed to be doing something along those lines,” she says.

When the issues at Nuʻuanu came up, Razon-Olds says it was a tipping point in defining her identity: “I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I guess it would have been the moment I kinda realized I needed to do more.” She launched Kānaka Climbers shortly after the discovery of the petroglyphs. The Native Hawaiian-led non-profit has a mission to encourage responsible and ethical outdoor recreation in the state. 

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In Kapena Falls Park, the White-rumped Shama, all black plumage and dark orange breast, chirps like a chorus of car alarms and thick snake-plant clusters slink along trails and basalt walls that have been used for nearly a millennium. The park is roughly four acres and has multiple collections of petroglyphs from pre-and-post-contact with Westerners in 1778. A stream runs all the way through that you can hear from anywhere inside the forest. While the terrain and artifacts are distinctly Hawaiian, the birds are native to Southeast Asia and the plants are from Spain, a result of external forces coming in and proliferating.

Today there are five separate zones cleared for climbing with seven boulders and about 15 problems in total. The re-discovery of petroglyphs put two boulders off-limits. 

An off-limits boulder with 3 faint petroglyphs. Photo: Razon-Olds

Razon-Olds has been coming to the park since she was a child and now enjoys days out with her family of five. While she works her highball arete project her children shoot up and slide down the Slab Moss boulder, which is exactly what it sounds like. The rock is all hard basalt and the problems are either pumpy compression on sharp stone or smooth slab with shallow crimps.

The king line is Rise of the Night Marchers, an overhanging compression problem that starts by spanning the boulder and doesn’t let up until it winds over the lip for a mantle finish. “Anyone that hits that and comes up, it takes back from you—you can’t get through without cutting your arm,” says Razon-Olds. “Everyone that’s finished it shares the same scar.”

Over the past month, volunteers with Kānaka Climbers and Strategic Trash Management have cleaned the park to uncover and document additional archaeological features. They’ve removed over 7,000 pounds of invasive snake plants and vines and more than 1,500 pounds of trash. Hawai’i State Parks archaeologists were on site mapping cultural and historical resources as they became unmeshed, including 600 feet of traditional basalt-stacked agricultural terraces that were hidden underneath the invasives. They uncovered climbing potential as well. The state park just approved a new 12-foot tall boulder and there is a 70 foot section of cliff that might be okayed. 

“Everyone wanted to blame the climbers, but the park is responsible for oversight,” says Razon-Olds about the petroglyph incident last year, noting that the archaeologist who spotted the rock art wasn’t a state employee. “The thing is, they hadn’t checked in on it in over 10 years. We’ve taken responsibility and action to fix this, and we want to make sure everyone is held accountable.” Working with the state they are creating a trail system that will protect existing sites, marking on and off boulders, and putting signage under each boulder that is restricted with information to explain more about it. 

Skye Kolealani Razon-Olds. Photo: Vance Uribe

The goal is to assist the state with a plan for responsible recreation while protecting the cultural resources within parks across all the islands. For one, they want to simplify park regulations to make it easier to understand what is and isn’t allowed when you go hiking or climbing. “You can take a hike and cross five boundaries without knowing it,” says Razon-Olds. Land divisions—from national parks to state parks to Forestry land to nature preserves and even shoreline—all have different rules. Razon-Olds argues there should be cultural and environmental signage on every state approved hike, for example, “Then you have climbers and hikers enforcing the laws because they know what to do,” she says.

“The state is definitely pro restrictions. Closures over access,” she says. For most parks, climbing is not listed as a recognized sport. And while it isn’t technically illegal it makes access especially sensitive. There is only one official sport climbing area in Hawaii, the Mokulēia Wall on the northshore of Oahu, that operates under a Revocable Permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources. In 2019, the same department closed cliff access in the Lihau section of the West Maui Natural Area Reserve because climbers had bolted in areas that threatened endangered plants such as the Maui chaff flower and the Menzies’ schiedea. Through Kānaka Climbers Razon-Olds hopes to get climbing listed as a recognized sport.

Razon-Olds makes it clear that she doesn’t blame climbers for what happened last year in Kapena Falls. “Honestly, if an archaeologist hadn’t pointed them out nobody would have seen them,” she says. Still, as a climber and Native Hawaiian she feels extra responsibility for protecting a cultural legacy that is under constant threat and advocating for responsible access for a sport she loves. 

“I truly believe that the climbing and hiking community overlaps in so many ways with Native perspectives when it comes to environmental care,” she says. “It makes too much sense for them to work together because we intersect so often.”