Straight up and on the rocks.
Image: Matthew Kain

Solid entertainment found in O‘ahu’s rock climbing community

Outside / When people think of being outdoors in Hawaii, they typically picture being at the beach. In the world of rock climbing, Hawaii has never really been well known; moreover, most of our sharp, volcanic rock is assumed by most mainland climbers to be less-than-climbable. But thanks to local climbers and transplant enthusiasts, Hawaii’s climbing community is slowly but surely growing. Rock climbing is a great workout, and usually offers some of the best views on the island. Not to mention the adrenaline-soaked feeling of accomplishment one gets viewing the island’s natural beauty from an elevated perch high above the sand and surf.

The first climbing routes here on Oahu were developed in the 1980’s. Now, over 30 years later, with new spots being developed on neighboring islands like Big Island, Maui and Kauai, Oahu is still home to the best developed climbing in the state.

Oahu climbing sites like Makapuu Point and the Mokuleia Wall are two of the only established top-rope routes (think climbing in a harness while attached to a rope with a fixed anchor point above you), and both have many established routes upwards, ranging anywhere from novice to expert. There is also a plethora of bouldering sites (think climbing around on large boulders, typically closer to the ground, using no ropes) on Oahu with more and more being discovered all the time.

Climbing with Aloha?

Honolulu’s Climb Aloha, one of the leaders in the charge of Hawaii’s climbing revolution since 1999, is a main source on Oahu for technical climbing equipment. They also provide instruction to people interested in getting started.

“A lot of people think that Hawaii doesn’t have any rock climbing because they see the volcanic rock, but the island of Oahu’s got a couple of areas that had a real high quality result,” says Joe Mazzerella, a recreational coordinator/route and maintenance guide at Climb Aloha. “[The lava] cooled slowly and was able to support good, climbable rock.”

The team at Climb Aloha is passionate about climbing, having funded much of the maintenance of Oahu’s existing climbing routes and developing new ones here as well as on neighboring islands. In 2006-2007, Climb Aloha replaced bolts and anchors on 29 routes at the Mokuleia main climbing wall and did considerable trail maintenance along the Mokuleia trail. They also replaced all the remaining old bolts on the Makapuu wall.

Mazzerella continues, “Our clients range from first timers who have always wanted to try rock climbing and have always thought it was interesting…to people who have already tried it, and now they want to be educated and they want to know how to be safe. We’re not a tour company, we’re an educational company.”

Bringing the Outside In

Not everyone has the gumption to just go out and climb a large rock face. Even people who are especially interested in starting rock climbing might fare better by starting with, well, baby steps. For these people, as well as experienced climbers looking for a way to train and develop their skills, Justin Ridgely–the only professionally sponsored rock climber on the island–opened the Volcanic Rock Gym about a year and a half ago.

The place is a no-frills climbing gym that shares an airplane-hanger-looking space in Waipio with a gymnastics practice area. It is a great place to get started climbing and test your skill-level before going out and tackling some more challenging outdoor climbs (although there are more than enough challenging routes at Volcanic Rock Gym to keep even advanced climbers interested). There are routes for all skill ranges, a full ledge to attempt and even top-roping routes. Ridgely’s vision was to create a training hub as well a social hub for climbers who want a place to sharpen their skills and network with other climbers.

“That’s a major deal–socialization, and having that interaction with other climbers–you know?” says Ridgely. “To bring that (positive attitude) in here, then take that outside too; it’s just that spark to keep motivated.”

Ridgely prefers bouldering to top rope climbing but enjoys the fact that the gym draws climbers from both sides. He says it is common to see climbers tipping each other off about new climbing routes at their favorite spots, or even new spots altogether. The gym serves as a sort of message-board/forum for anyone who enters and is interested enough to ask.

“Just imagine,” Ridgely continues, “if you had a place to go and train for surfing, and go and chill with all the guys, like a big clubhouse almost. Some guys come in and they don’t even climb, they just come and hang out.”

This Rock’s for You, and You, and You

The climbing community on Oahu is a pretty small group of people, and they definitely don’t agree on everything. One thing they do all seem to agree on is that they would like to see more people getting into climbing and embracing it as another way to appreciate the beauty of this island. “Climbers are really receptive to new climbers being out on the walls, so they’re super helpful,” says Mazzerella from Climb Aloha. “It’s really that community-based sport where everybody is helping everybody.” Anyone who has ever tried to take up surfing knows that it can be a bit intimidating to paddle out into a lineup. Surfers can be notoriously territorial and many simply don’t have patience for novices, often loathing and even shunning their presence at the best surf spots. Rock climbers, however, appear to be a genuinely supportive bunch, always pushing each other–as well as the newcomers–in a healthy, non-aggressively competitive manner

“The boulders are always going to be there,” adds Ridgely. “It’s not like a wave where you only have one shot. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to share something like that?”

Joe Mazzarella has a similar outlook: “We’re not fighting over a limited resource, we’re sharing. Waves are here for three hours and then they’re gone. It’s hard to share. With a wall, it’s going to be there today, tomorrow and the next.”