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The Trouble With Climbing

He just wanted to get on the sweet Maui stone, then someone stole his truck, and that was just the beginning.


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November 13, 2021

I stood with Guillermo Marun, a wispy, green-eyed Argentinian surfer, both of us holding our bolting hammers in the self-arrest position at the top of a deep gorge. Our climbing objective was somewhere below, a 90-foot blue-rock wall we’d previously discovered but had yet to climb on, having been thwarted by the approach. We’d tried accessing the crag by walking up the gulch on Maui from the ocean, but hundreds of feral goats had rained rocks down on us like bees fired from the racket hand of Novak Djokovic. Legions of the soft-hooved creatures patrolled the cliffs, trucking up and down canted ledges, leaping onto grass-covered bollards, sketching through fifth-class terrain, bleating and tussling and copulating on outrageous perches, frequently falling and dying. Down on the canyon floor we’d stepped over their broken-boned carcasses, which ranged from ripe-and-bloated to leather flattened by time and the sun.

Today we were trying a different approach—parking off Maui’s Pi’ilani Highway and hiking past a blue sign spray-painted gray until only the word “trespassing” was legible, and walking up the ridge to three Wiliwili trees where a week before, Guillermo and Uncle Chris, a Florida-born ex-pro endurance mountain biker in his thirties, had scouted an alternate top-down approach to the crag.

Couldn’t be worse than the gulch, I mused while standing on the rim.

The angle of repose refers to the steepest gradient at which stuff will stick to a slope, and soil and plants and crumbly rock stick at a higher angle in Hawaii than anywhere else on earth—not counting Middle Earth. Standing on the cliff top, Guillermo and I shared the solemn alpine moments of  “Are you sure?” and “We could turn back,” while watching head-sized lava clods we’d cut loose skip hundreds of feet and launch into the sunbaked canyon. Thinking: That’s exactly what our bodies will do if we slip.

It felt like we were embarking on something dangerous and sneaky—not heading to war; more like stealing horses. The stakes were high. Your enemies will kill you if they catch you, but the specter of blood elevates the game, and when you come back alive you feel like you’ve gotten away with something. You have the horses, but you also know what they do to horse thieves.

(Illustration: Tyler Dail)

July 11, 2021

On the night of July 11, 2021, somebody boosted my horse—a dirty white 2004 Toyota Tacoma pickup with 149,000 hard miles on it—right out of my driveway.

It was a bad time to have to buy a car. Pandemic-related semiconductor shortages coupled with rental-car companies cutting back their fleets created a usurious market. Tourists were flooding the islands again because of the effective COVID vaccines, and there were no rental cars. Locals leased their personal vehicles for hundreds of dollars a day, and trucks—especially Tacomas, which have a totem-like status in Hawaii—were fetching triple their Blue Book value.

I texted the tight-knit Maui climbing community, and a local climber named Scott Odell offered to sell me his Subaru for well under value. That was aloha at work, but it only partly solved my problem: A lot of my climbing gear had been in that truck, and I felt rootless without draws, a rope, harness, chalk bag, two pairs of rock shoes, and cams to three inches.

Down by the shrine, still a mile away, we could see a plume of smoke twisting above a white pickup like an ocean spout in the wind.

I never expected to see my climbing gear or my Tacoma again. Friends assured me that the truck was at some chop shop in Wailuku being repainted or parted out, while my gear probably languished in a dumpster behind the Kahului Costco.

But 24 days later, on August 4 at 11 a.m., Officer Halayudha Macknight busted Keoki Kealii Ikaika Cordeiro Boteilho and Stephen W. Randale in a Hawaiian Homelands settlement on the dry, rugged lava-flow highlands above La Perouse Bay, 40 minutes from my house in Makawao.

An hour after the arrest, I got a call from Detective Suzuki of the Maui PD. “Hey, I think we found your truck,” he said. “I’ll text you a picture. Does this look like your truck?”

I opened the text and saw a clean white Tacoma with a black hood and tailgate, massive off-road tires, a new Pioneer stereo system, and a camper top.

“No,” I said. “I’ve never seen that truck.”

But the detective was sure. “The guys who stole this didn’t sand off all the VIN numbers,” he said. “I think it’s your truck.”

So I drove to the Puunene base yard and—aloha!—my key opened the door. Up close, the truck didn’t look so good. The plastic wheel fenders were ripped off, and as I learned on the drive home, the big wheels rubbed on every bump and turn. The rearview mirror was gone, and the new stereo was only half installed. Wires stuck out like the innards of a blown-up robot. The topper’s windows were broken, and the back of the truck was full of tools, sodden socks, and sleeping bags.

I picked through the mess but my gear—my climbing gear—was gone.

I registered the truck as “in storage” so I wouldn’t get busted for the missing tag, and parked it at the end of my driveway under a Christmas Berry tree, planning to hold onto it for my older son, who’d be needing a car in a year and a half. The “Maui Cruiser” Tacoma, with the big tires, black hood, and tailgate, would be perfect for the beaches and mountains, and I knew that Kai was psyched. He’d asked me several times if he might have the truck when he turned 16, and each time I’d answered, “Yes.”

November 11, 2021

It was Veteran’s Day, and I had a rare day off from teaching English at the U of H Maui College. Stoked to climb, I walked outside to load my new gear into the recently purchased Subaru and saw that my Tacoma—once again—was missing. The spot under the Christmas Berry was a lacuna, and I felt hollow, too. The thieves were stealing more than my truck—they were taking from Kai; they were robbing my peace of mind.

I called the Maui Police Department non-emergency dispatcher.

“My truck was stolen last night,” I said.

“You want to report a stolen vehicle?”

“Yes.”

“What are the plates?”

“Well, that’s the thing. There are no plates. It was stolen a few months ago, and the police recovered it with another car’s plates on it. So they took those plates, and now it doesn’t have plates.”

“It was stolen before?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you have the police report?”

“Sure do.”

I read her the number, and she offered to send a policeman over to interview me, but I had to go to “work.” Truth was I needed to get into that 90-foot buttress. The sculpted blue rock loomed in my consciousness, and Veteran’s Day was my first chance to sink bolts into its stone. Besides, what were the odds I’d get my Tacoma back a second time?

I met up with Tyler Dail, my partner for the day, at the Holopuni parking area, and we exchanged pleasantries as we drove through the Kula highlands and past the Ulupalakua Winery. Tyler, 27, had spent his college years at the University of Utah working as a setter for Momentum gyms in Salt Lake. His parents had moved to Maui two years before, and he’d been here a month, maybe staying. We covered the many pluses of being climbers on a tropical island before turning to the downsides.

“Nobody wants you to go mauka [mountain side] even though it’s public and technically legal. And the terrain is deadly, and all the climbs are steep and hard,” I said. “Most of the climbing is in backwoods areas with steep, chossy approaches, where you feel like an outlaw and the locals are rowdy. I’ve had my tires slashed, been yelled at and threatened, and I just had my truck stolen for the second time right out of my driveway.”

“Damn!” Tyler said.

“I was saving that truck for Kai.”

“That sucks.”

“Right? I’m over it!”

We topped a hill and looked down at the Kanaio settlement—simple houses, a road-side shrine, and a growing collection of dead cars about 10 miles from the crag. Black cows ranged free across Highway 31, a strip of two-lane asphalt that parallels the southeast coast between Keokea and Hana. Down by the shrine, still a mile away, we could see a plume of smoke twisting above a white pickup like an ocean spout in the wind. Then we dropped into a valley and lost sight of the truck.

“Some fool is getting their car burnt up,” I said. “You’ve seen the burnt-out vehicles on the roadsides, right? They steal cars and joyride, then burn them.”

“Wasn’t your truck white?” Tyler asked, and I felt a tightening of my splenius capitis—the flat muscle on the back of the neck.

Topping the rise, we spotted the shrine again: a flagpole with a Hawaiian flag hung upside down at half-mast and a six-foot driftwood cross draped with naupaka leis. We could also discern that the truck—a Tacoma—was not in fact on fire. It was lurching up the road, engine whining, back tires burning rubber like a polyisoprene soufflé in the devil’s dutch oven.

We dropped once more and rose and then we were a hundred meters from the shrine, passing the truck, which had come to a stop across from the parts yard. My truck. The slogan Country Boyz sprayed across the entire right side in gray paint. The front window tagged: CON 3. (I later learned it signifies Coun-“Tree,” the pidgin pronunciation of “three,” and makes up a portmanteau: “Country.”) The back window tagged UCB. I assumed it was another gang sign. The grill busted out, front bumper missing.

We watched head-sized lava clods we’d cut loose skip hundreds of feet and launch into the sunbaked canyon. Thinking: that’s exactly what our bodies will do if we slip.

A tall, lanky, creepy-looking dude was standing by the entrance to the parts yard holding a chihuahua under his jacket next to his bare chest. Across the street, three guys were leaning on my truck.

Just drive on, I thought. There’s no cell service in Kanaio and no dearth of stories about haoles—non-native Hawaiians—venturing onto the wrong part of the island and “catching cracks” or getting choked out. Better get some reception and call the cops. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, at the last possible second, I whipped a sharp left and blocked in my truck, jumped out and said loudly but calmly, “That’s my truck. That’s my fucking truck. It’s been stolen twice. I was holding onto it for my son.”

I opened the back door of the Subaru and started rummaging through my pack.

“What are you looking for?” Tyler asked.

“My knife,” I said. “Watch me.”

“OK … ?”

I couldn’t find the knife but decided to go for it unarmed, and walked toward the group. Two of the guys got into a small white pickup and drove off. The creepy dude across the street opened the gate to the parts yard and disappeared inside, and then it was just me and a short, heavily tattooed guy—5’5”, about 25 years old, maybe 120 pounds, perfectly matching the police description of Keoki Kealii Ikaika Cordeiro Boteilho, one of the guys accused of stealing my truck the first time, according to the police report.

Rock Climbing is Too Hard. A Lifelong Climber Considers Quitting.

“I just come up on this Tacoma running on the side of the road like this,” he said. “My uncle and me come on it just like this, and I tell him, ‘We can’t be this lucky.’ We was just driving over to my auntie’s place.” He pointed to the gate and the field of dead cars. “That’s where she stays. And we found this truck, just like this. Can you believe it?”

“No, not really,” I said.

Apparently he could tell I was riled because he said, “Nah, man. It ain’t like that. I’d buy this truck off you right now if I could.”

I sized the guy up, and there was something about his straight-backed, look-you-in-the-eye boldness that gave me pause. Maybe it was the confidence or maybe it was something else—a con—or maybe it was genuine warmth in his eyes. He wasn’t tweaking or acting threatening or sketchy. He seemed all right. I felt like I knew him at some level. Besides, if this was the guy who stole my truck—maybe twice—then he knew where I lived. It felt personal. How do you want this to go?

“OK, let’s do this right,” I said. “Go get me $4,000 and this will be your truck. Clear title. Totally legal. You know you can sell it for way more than that.”

“Nah, I only gots $1,800. I’d have to check my account and see if my sister bought food.”

“Give me $2,000 and it’s yours,” I said.

“I want to … ” he said and he seemed sincere.

“Let’s do it right this time.”

He looked to the side. “I would … ”

I waited, but he just shook his head.

“At least help me turn it off,” I said.

I opened the driver’s side door, and he opened the passenger side, took a long screwdriver off the seat, and pushed it into the drilled-out ignition cylinder. The truck died.

“I’ll take that screwdriver,” I said.

He reluctantly handed it over.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“George,” he said.

“Jeff,” I said. Then, for some reason, we reached out our hands and shook.

“What’s your number?” he asked. “In case I want to buy this truck.”

“You first,” I said. I handed him my phone and he typed in a number and name, George Boteilho—the same last name as Keoki Kealii Ikaika Cordeiro Boteilho. (Keoki is a Hawaiian form of George.)

Swimming With Sharks And Other Dangerous Things

We closed the doors and met again behind the truck, where George eyed a Milwaukee Sawzall and Hilti tool box. I reached into the bed and picked up the Sawzall.

“Lucky me,” I said. “I’ve always wanted one of these. At least I’ll come out with something useful.” I pointed to the Hilti case: “And I’ll take those tools, too.”

“But those are my tools,” George said.

“Oh, they’re your tools? Well, at least I got me a Sawzall.”

He looked from the tools to his boots, shaking his head. He knew it was a game, something risky, but we were both playing.

“Unless,” I said. “Is this your Sawzall?”

“Yes, mister. That’s my Sawzall, too.”

“And you were about to take it to your auntie’s and use it to part out my truck.”

He smiled slyly but didn’t say a word. We shared a quiet moment while my feelings toggled between smoldering rage and bemusement. It was hard to know how to feel or what to do. Should I try to physically restrain George? Tie him up?  Or should I be cool and appease him so he didn’t come to my house and steal my stuff? George clearly felt something like bemusement, too, as he kicked at a rock in an expression of “Aw shucks, brah.”

“I’m driving to the winery to get cell reception and call the cops,” I said after a pause.

“Shoots,” George said. “But I wouldn’t just leave this truck here.”

“Please don’t steal my truck again.”

He smiled and kicked a rock. When Tyler and I drove away, George was looking off into the trees, holding the Sawzall in one hand and toolbox in the other. I didn’t expect to see him when I got back.

When we got back from the winery after calling 911 George was gone but, somewhat surprisingly, the truck was still there. Tyler and I parked and got out and looked around while waiting for the police to show up. The flagpole with the upside-down flag was planted in a raised bed bordered with fieldstone, overflowing with marigolds, zinnias, and daisies. There was a single white lawn chair beside the shoulder-high cross and a crate of plastic labeled RECYCLE with a Sharpie. The cross, studded with seashells and little charms and pieces of fabric, was lovely.

As we stood waiting, a white Astro van creaked down the nearest dirt road and turned onto the highway. We watched it approach and slow down until it stopped even with us. The side door slid back and we were face to face with a perfect, brown-eyed, dark-skinned boy around age 7 and his mom—blonde, somewhere between 30 and 60, with meth teeth.

“I built that shrine for his baby daddy,” she told us in a gravelly voice. “He died about a year ago.”

“It’s really nice.”

“That you tearing out earlier?” the boy asked.

“Oh no, that was someone else, but they were using my truck.” I looked at the woman. “Sorry about that. I hope it didn’t disturb your son.”

“Him?” she said. “He was asking because that’s what his daddy used to do. He’d come down here and burn rubber. We sure do miss it. That’s why we come over here. To watch.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Show’s over—it ended awhile ago. Cops are on the way.”

The boy looked disappointed.

“Well, anyway,” the woman said, “aloha.”

The first policeman showed up about an hour later—a tall, handsome, crisp-uniformed Hawaiian with a name plate and gold braid buckled under a shoulder epaulet. He asked me to describe what had happened, and I did. When I got to the part about exchanging numbers with George, he shook his head and interrupted to confirm that the suspect really gave me his phone number. I opened my contacts and he copied the info into his log, mumbling something about the “mysteries of Kanaio.” Two other cops arrived 30 minutes later, and I had to tell the whole story again to Officer Sugiyama since he was the one with a body camera.

Finally the report was done and it seemed like we were going to be able to go climbing.

“Where do you want this towed?” Officer Sugiyama asked.

“I guess just tow it to the base yard?” I said.

“It’s up to you,” Sugiyama said. “Do you have a towing company you want to use?”

“I’ll just use whoever y’all recommend.”

“Well, it’s on you,” he said.

“Wait. Are you saying that I have to pay for my truck to be towed?”

“Yeah, that’s on you.”

Learning the Ropes Could Kill You, and Other Realizations From a Sage

“That doesn’t seem right, does it? Somebody stole my truck and drove it all the way to Kanaio and started parting it out, and now I have to pay something like 500 bucks to tow my POS to Kahului? Where do you guys usually tow a vehicle when the owner doesn’t recover it himself?” I asked. “Because the last time my truck was stolen I picked it up down at the base yard.”

“I don’t know what they told you last time,” the Hawaiian officer said authoritatively. “But it’s on you.” I considered this. His tone hadn’t left the door cracked.

“Damn,” I said. “If any of y’all can start it, I guess I’ll drive it as far as I can and save myself some money.”

Sugiyama took the screwdriver and had it going in seconds. I climbed in and pressed the gas, and the engine roared—the catalytic converter had been chopped while I was at the winery. I thought of George grinning at me with his Sawzall.

The needle was sitting below E, and the gas light was blazing orange. I drove with my head craned to see through the CON3 graffiti and tried to ignore the suspicious bumping on the left side all the way to Ching Store in Keokea, 20 winding miles away. Mrs. Ching doesn’t have credit-card readers, so I stood nervously, expecting the truck to die at any second, waiting for her to ring up the sale and turn on the pump while she talked Tyler’s ear off in pidgin. And, if the Tacoma died, how would I restart it? The cops had peeled off miles back.

Tyler had been following me in the Subaru, and he reported a worrying wobble in the front left wheel. We checked and discovered only one lug nut holding it on. I thought about getting the truck towed from Mrs. Ching’s store, but that would still be expensive, and worse, necessitate more waiting. Daylight was burning. If we got the truck back to my house, it was possible we’d have time to get in some bouldering—the wall in the gorge would have to wait till another day. I reasoned that the wheel had stayed on through the steep curves in Ulupalakua, and now it was a downhill 60 mph shot to Makawao. What could go wrong?

Nothing, apparently. We got home without incident and even managed to climb a little.

November 12, 2021

I called Guillermo the next day—Friday—and told him what had happened.

“Amigo,” he said. “Don’t worry. My friend Cabra is coming and he is going to buy your truck. He’s staying at my land and he needs a project. Your truck can keep him busy for a long time. We’re still on for tomorrow, right? I can’t wait to check out that wall.”

Venga,” I said.

“Let’s approach from the top this time,” Guillermo continued. “What do you figure?”

“Sounds good.”

“To be honest, it’s a little sketchy, dude.”

“Couldn’t be worse than the goats.”

“It would be very, very bad if you slipped,” Guillermo said. “You’ll see. Either way, we should get your truck to my land today so we don’t have to deal with it tomorrow. That’ll give us more time to climb. I’ll come after work.”

Guillermo stopped by my place at 4:45 p.m., stabbed the screwdriver into the ignition, and twisted. To my shock, the engine roared to life.

The traffic at 5 p.m. on Kapakalua Road between Makawao and Haiku flows downhill apace. Vehicles—mainly lifted Tacomas—bank the blind curves at speeds that generate Gs. At one hairpin, steeper than a kink in a garden hose and crazy as a marble run, there’s a vertical cliff on the right with nowhere to pull over and, of course, this is where my Tacoma’s left front wheel came off and went rolling down the hill, bouncing over the hood of a speeding Tesla, slamming right into a guard rail.

Guillermo had been following me and hit the brakes. He jumped out and sprinted after the wheel while I jogged around the blind curve and started directing rush-hour traffic.

It was a worst-case traffic snafu, but as happens on a small island, someone we knew immediately drove by in a Tacoma—Guillermo’s windsurfing friend Zembo Zemborain. He happened to have a spare and lug nuts. Twenty minutes later, crisis averted, we pulled into the pines at Guillermo’s property near the legendary surf break of Jaws.

“Thank you so much,” I said, thinking about quirks of fate. If I hadn’t been driving through Kanaio … If that wheel came off when I was going 60 mph … if Zembo hadn’t driven by ….

“You know, man,” Guillermo said, “to be honest, I enjoyed that very much. Even when I was chasing the tire and it was almost hitting cars, I didn’t get upset. I don’t know why, but that was very enjoyable.”

November 13, 2021

Which brings us back to Saturday, November 13, at about 10 a.m., standing with Guillermo clutching our bolting hammers on the rim of the canyon by the three Wiliwili trees, about to descend the dangerous choss to finally check out the 90-foot buttress.

As we began the downclimb, I thought about risk and what Guillermo had said about “enjoying” losing a wheel in rush-hour traffic, and that’s when it occurred to me that George and the Country Boyz might feel the same way about stealing cars.

I’m aware that I don’t really know George. I looked up the demographics on motor-vehicle theft in Hawaii, and in a statistical profile on adult offenders I saw that most hadn’t finished high school and were currently unemployed, hanging out with other criminals doing drugs. About half had been treated for one or more mental-health conditions.

The majority of car thieves and I have almost nothing in common. They are the “other,” the oil to my vinegar, and it would be natural to get scared and nurse a grudge—install powerful motion-sensor cameras, electrify my car every night the way I bear-proofed my chicken coop in Colorado (seven thousand volts is about right for a black bear). But I’m not going to do any of that. There are so many things to be scared of—vaccines, politics, social media—and I’m not afraid of any of them. The Country Boyz don’t scare me either, because everything they do is offset by the aloha of my friends—Scott Odell, Cabra, Guillermo, Uncle Chris, and Zembo. Perhaps that’s overly optimistic, but do I need another enemy? Must I live in a state of rage and fear?

Instead I imagine commonalities—George and the Country Boyz standing in my driveway late at night, geared up and sharing the sacred alpine moments of  “Are you sure?” and “We can still turn back,” the tightening of the splenius capitis, the feeling of commitment and risk elevating the game. When George and I shook hands and exchanged numbers, I recognized him and I think he recognized me, and I have to believe that in some Marvel multiverse where kids in Kanaio grow up with the opportunities I had, George is the climber and I am the car thief.

We called the first route we put up on the 90-foot blue wall of pockets and cracks Country Boyz (5.11c).

Jeff Jackson is an editor at large for Climbing.

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