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John Long Tales

John Long: It Started with a Pile of Stones

Chasing ghosts on Hawaiian sea cliffs.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 122 (October 2003).

The job sounded agreeable: film the Cliff Diving World Championships in Lana’i, Hawaii, for a network sports show. I didn’t know Lana’i from Tallahassee, but someone in the office had honeymooned there and related the basics. Lana’i, just a stone’s throw across the Auau channel from Maui, is so small that Captain Cook missed it during his fatal recon of the Pacific, circa 1780. Dole “bought” the island in the early 1900s and transformed it into the world’s largest pineapple plantation. Around 1985, zillionaire Rupert Murdoch decided he wanted the place for himself, but was told, no, it belonged to Dole, and they weren’t selling. So Murdoch bought Dole and he had his island.

Art by Jeremy Collins.
Art by Jeremy Collins.

Rupert let the plantations go fallow and tossed up two luxury hotels, said to be amongst the finest on the planet. As part of the gig, we’d be staying at the swanker of the two, for nothing, with an open meal pass as well. Perhaps a week before departing for Lana’i, my dreams became absurd, featuring a pageant of jumbo, pit-roasted porkers with pineapples in their mouths, flanked by ravishing hula girls fanning me with palm fronds—and then onto terrain I can’t traverse in this article.

The day before leaving for Lana’i I logged onto a website and a photo exposé of the island, including a large spread of towering red lava cliffs, weathered sentinels to miles of wild seashore. I trawled through a few more web pages and in half hour I knew this much: The majority of Lana’i coastline bore vertical basalt bluffs ranging from 100 to 200 feet; no modern climber had yarded from a single hold on the entire island; there were no tourist facilities on Lana’i save the two 10-star hotels, and given the airfare and shocking lodging fees, a citizen from the mainland would be touched for around eight grand for a week’s stay. By my reckoning Lana’i had all the makings of a tycoon’s private sport-climbing paradise waiting to be tapped, and I envisioned my name over a stack of new routes. I bought a two-pound bag of chalk and charged up the drill.

Next day we flew to Oahu, took a puddle-jumper 20 minutes over to Lana’i and drove a few miles to the Manele Bay Hotel, an open-air palace with graceful little bungalows spilling off toward the ocean a hundred yards below. I checked into my room — plain but suave — grabbed my boots and chalk bag and jogged down to the beach and a 200-yard-long grotto with 40-foot-high, blood-red cliffs rising straight off the sand. I’d tune up on the short stuff, then extend my curriculum once I got dialed into the rock.

Buckets and gargoyles peppered the wall, and I straightaway pulled for glory. The initial 20 feet were a tad rickety, then everything turned to crap and I nearly fell into the next world groveling over the top.

I sussed out a few other spots within hiking range and in half an hour realized I’d arrived roughly 10 million years too late. The rock from the recently firing volcanoes on Hawaii, the Big Island, was diamond-hard, but this stuff on Lana’i was just awful — a bitter realization, given how my imagination had spun miracles about this “millionaire’s crag,” and its boundless potential and the magnificence I’d reap from tossing up a slew of classics. But all was not lost. I still had that free meal ticket, and I was dead-center in Shangri-la, so I vowed to bankrupt the Manele Bay restaurant if nothing else.

I packed my daypack and trudged along the brink of the cliff to a high butte overlooking a striking red sea stack perhaps 50 feet offshore and rising straight out of the drink. Undercut on all sides, and featuring the same chalky red choss as the surrounding cliffs, the stack arose like an upended, scarlet bowling pin and was a marvel to behold.

Then I noticed a huge mound of stones stacked on the flat-topped summit, a clearly man-made production, tight as an Inca battlement and resembling a stone obelisk or maybe an altar. How someone scaled that red junker to stack those stones in that manner rather confounded me. A sea-level ledge surrounded the stack, so I clambered around and down, swam through mild surf over to the ledge and started circling the 50-foot-high bowling pin, looking for a route. The easiest line looked bleak: all slopers and big dynos on loose, salt-encrusted rubble. The idea that an ancient Hawaiian had free soloed up and down the stack was ludicrous, yet that altar on top said otherwise. I reefed up a few moves on what appeared the easiest route, and backed off at once. I finally left the stack, perfectly confused. Stumbling back to my $600-a-night room, I realized someone had simply helicoptered to the top. There was no other way.

The following morning the divers and film crew took a short boat ride over to Kaunalou Bay, the site of the cliff-diving championships. The divers were superb and insane, throwing Olympic caliber dives (most were Olympic platform divers) from a parapet hanging some 90 feet above a working sea. But that’s another story, and I couldn’t have cared less about it when I saw the sea stack towering 200 yards away from the dive spot. Like the bowling pin I’d explored the day before, this stack stood about 50 feet high and a few hundred feet around at the base, and was undercut on every side. And like the bowling pin, an enormous structure of intricately stacked stones rested on the summit. My production duties involved monitoring six cameramen and conducting interviews with the divers, but I sluffed that chore off to an intern and dashed over to the stack, which also had a sea-level porch of rock encircling most of the base. I thought it possible to toprope the bowling pin—providing every hold didn’t bust off—but this stack looked totally unclimbable. And yet someone, at some time, had obviously gained the summit.

I spent an hour inspecting every inch of that heap but couldn’t locate the hint of a plausible route. Where the ledge ran out on the sea side of the stack, I breast-stroked out and swam around, getting repeatedly dashed against the face in a vain and reckless bid to find a way, any way, up that tormenting heap.

I pawed from the drink, sat down on a boulder a ways back from the stack and glared at it like a mortal enemy. There were several authentic Hawaiians on location, the sons of this land and these rocks, and one of them wandered over. When I explained my confusion about how those stones got stacked on top he said one of his ancestors had obviously climbed up top and did the stacking. In fact, he added with maddening pride, such obelisks were found on countless stacks about the island. I wanted to strangle the guy, or at any rate pitch him into the sea but he was around seven feet tall and went at about 300 pounds. I tried to imagine a bare-footed, grass-skirted, 300-pound native soloing up and down that stack, and laughed. And the stack laughed right back at me.

At the hotel, I hounded the concierge to cough up a few local guidebooks and historical texts about Lana’i. One thin volume described how ancient Hawaiians had “mounted” the many sea stacks, such as the red bowling pin, to erect religious structures on the “various brine-rinsed summits.” I hurled the book against the wall, lay back on the bed, and sighed. Here I’d written a whole bookshelf of climbing manuals and had a fancy reputation for new routes and couldn’t get two moves up some crag a bare-footed native had apparently soloed up and down three centuries before. How? By what route?

I started considering the possibilities, however remote, about how those altars had been built. A scaffolding, like the tower of Babel? There was really no wood or bamboo anywhere near the place, or anywhere on the island, from what I’d seen. An enormous, staircase-like rockpile? I’d seen no sprawling rock pile at the base of any stack, and if the altars still stood on top, a rock pile 50 times that size should still be around in some form. The whole business tied my brain into a knot.

I grabbed a pair of binos, a map and a production rental van and blasted along the coastline, scouting no less than eight other stacks, each steep as the last one, all on the same crumbling red rabble and each featuring an intricately stacked rock monolith on the summit. The last sea stack, barely 30 feet high and shaped like a golf tee, sat in a calm inlet only 30 yards off shore, and it too had a stone monument stacked on top. A small victory was better than total failure, so I dove into the sea, swam to that stack and started heaving on the first holds I found. This stack had no rock ledge about its base and the surrounding water was deep, and at this point I didn’t care if I fell. Which I did, repeatedly. I’d get about 10 or 20 feet up and when the choss went overhanging, either the holds ran out or something popped off and, spa-lash! This went on for half an hour till I was so gassed I could barely crawl to shore. I sprawled back on the sand, beat it with my fists and finally cursed God and then wept. Some Greek once said that all humans must meet complete and utter defeat to ever become fully human, but that didn’t help much. I gathered my stuff and went back to the
hotel, locked myself into my overpriced cell and sulked.

The next day, after the competition when everyone save a few of us production folks had fled the site, I wandered into the middle of the craggy, sacred ground above Kaunalou Bay to conduct my last interview, this one with a native Hawaiian elder, maybe 70 years old, his face quilted with lines and dark as a coconut. As my eyes swept about the lava moonscape, the elder casually acquainted me with the vahepana, which means a storied place, a place where the heart of the past still beats, a place like Kaunalou. This stony ground had, centuries before, been a cultural nucleus to the ancient ways, as well as the spiritual home of Kahekili, monarch of the four-island kingdom of Maui-Nui (Kahekili was said to have invented cliff diving from the adjacent brink, as well as clawing up those hateful sea stacks). But now the place felt like a volcanic wasteland, strewn with the stone foundations of dwellings ravaged by time, relieved here and there by scattered rock shrines — the mineral wreckage of a culture extinct for 15 generations. The whole place felt dead in the middle, and I said as much to the elder, who studied me for a long beat.

It wasn’t a matter of what we could see, said the elder, but what we might hear in the shadows now stretching off the old monoliths, shrines sacred to Hawaiians living and dead, and for the only reason that mattered: the vahepana.

The vahepana, the elder insisted, was real only if it was kept alive, and then it was a force of nature that could sustain us through anything. Without the vahepana, we were not human beings at all. We were just hungry ghosts wandering alone—or venal has-been climbers trying to claw up tottering spires to prove it wasn’t so.

We talked for a while longer, till the shadows gently stole over us. Then a shadow darker and fiercer than the other stole over me, and I experienced one of those moments I suspect happens rarely in any person’s life, the kind of intimate encounter with yourself where you see that hungry ghost face to face, and know it’s been marching point through the contours of your life. And finally you realize that ghost will always be hungry because something essential is missing.

I understood at once why my wife always felt sketchy when away from the pueblos of her native Venezuela, as I understood that a man alone is nothing but an outlaw will, a starving ghost, dead in the middle.

My situation, sitting there in silence, was naked as the sinking sun. I didn’t consider the elder a mystic or some fancy empath, but his timing was good.

“You probably think the vahepana belongs to the old ones, or maybe to me,” he said, “but it belongs to everyone.” I looked at him strangely, and he swept his hand toward me and simply repeated, “everyone.”

That I could actually belong to something greater than myself seemed incredible. But the concept made me feel like an interloper, a stowaway on someone else’s ship on whose passage I desperately needed and wanted. I knew the vahepana—be it here on Lana’i or in Venezuela or even in Camp 4—was one’s only answer to our fiendish isolation, and the one thing that might sate the hungry ghost. And I knew the vahepana was not mine. I might have had it at some time, in some form, but the more “successful” I’d grown in the world, the more remote I’d become. How it happened was less significant that the fact that it had. I’d never felt more lost in my life, even in the middle of Borneo when Bridwell used our only map to start a fire.

“What do you think the vahepana really is,” the elder asked. “That pile of rocks over there?”

I didn’t say anything.

Each provincial vahepana has its symbols, said the elder. His ancestors stacked rocks; others fashioned coats of arms, signets, flags, and so forth. In each case, true believers would plant their flags or stack their rocks in order to remind them of the source and extend the dominion of the sovereign vahepana. “But all those stones,” the elder added, thrusting his chin toward a monument, “they’re just reminders of what’s here.” And he patted his chest very slowly.

I can’t remember his actual words, but basically the old man said that when people travel from the heart of their native vahepana, they look around and they don’t see the old church or the totem pole, or hear the songs they know or smell the food they grew up with, and so their eyes naturally look
backward so they can remember who they are. Folks have fought to death to preserve this flag or that pile of stones — as well they should because these are their maps of the human heart. But the map is not the territory. The real vahepana is an internal affair, basic as our bones. And only that hungry ghost could show me as much, which is surely the strangest fact to come from the elder, and from the mysterious piles of stones on the ancient island of Lana’i.

Now dusk, we wandered over jagged ground to the brink of the tall cliff. Hours before the rigging crew had broken down the diving tower and helicoptered it off, and it was just the two of us gazing out over the ocean.

“The true vahepana is immense,” the elder said, his eyes adrift in the magnificent distances of the Pacific.

Late the next day I was flying over the “great water.” It seemed awesome and reassuring that far below loomed dozens of sea stacks that folks had somehow “mounted” three centuries ago, but perhaps not as incredible as those ancient climbers might have felt to see me hurtling across the sky in a giant metal bird.

I sat back in my seat and considered how strange and how fantastic that a pile of stones could elude and thwart me, and then invoke something essential that I had misplaced, lost, forgotten. When you covet the vahepana for your own, lonely harvest, it will throw you back into the sea every time. It is the birthright of every person, and so is the essence of belonging to something greater than our ghosts.

Longtime Rock and Ice contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.

Also read John Long: Legends of the Mind