Diamond Head, or, My Journey to Mount Doom

Touristing opportunities during my work trips usually come near the beginning or end, while things are still getting set up or after we’ve finished packing for the return home. I also prefer to sight-see on foot as much as possible, because it’s better for my health, and because getting behind the wheel of a rental car in an unfamiliar place is asking for trouble.

So, finding myself in beautiful Waikiki on a sunny Saturday morning, and not being much of a water person, I lifted my eyes to the hills, and saw this:

Diamond Head. The native Hawaiians call it Lē`ahi. It’s an ancient volcanic crater that dominates the skyline of Honolulu, a mere two-mile hike from my hotel. I could feel its magnetic, mystical power calling to me.

I had to climb it.

I slathered myself with sunscreen, grabbed a water bottle and a couple of granola bars, and set off along the gently-sloping road that circles the crater. I’d been told there was a trail to the top, somewhere, and signs along the road indicated the same as I strolled onward, whistling a merry tune.

Before long, the road branched uphill, and I found the entrance to Diamond Head State Monument. Hey, it’s a State Monument! Impressive! I paused for a quick snapshot courtesy of a friendly fellow tourist, to verify that I was actually there and not just collecting stock photos from Google Images.

The road grew steeper. I took a healthy chug of water and turned a sharp bend, discovering this daunting gate set into a wall of volcanic rock:

Ah, so the trail doesn’t climb over the edge of the crater, they’ve tunneled right through it. How convenient! Little did I realize that my journey was only beginning. I continued on, through the narrow tunnel, pressing against the wall to avoid passing automobiles, and emerged within Diamond Head, the crater walls surrounding me on all sides.

It was a lot roomier in there than I’d imagined. In technical terms, Diamond Head is a maar, or “tuff cone,” the remains of a cataclysmic explosion of pent up steam and magma thousands of years ago. The explosion hurled vast quantities of volcanic ash and rubble into the air. When it fell back to earth, the debris solidified into something resembling coarse concrete in the form of an enormous bomb crater. Vegetation gradually took hold, and all sorts of plants and animals now make their homes there. During World Wars I & II, Diamond Head served as an artillery spotting station, and there were several cannons installed on its slopes.

The real trailhead was about 200 yards ahead. There was a small kiosk with placards describing the history of the site and the wildlife found within. There was a food truck in the parking lot, selling burgers, shaved ice, and various Hawaiian snacks. I was already amply provisioned with water bottle and granola bars, so I pressed on with a dismissive sneer. I could see the peak, and it didn’t look far. Why stock up on supplies when I was so close to the goal?

The trail was wide and paved, and a flock of happy visitors traveled upward with me. A slightly smaller gaggle of frazzled-looking hikers staggered past us on their way downhill. Hmm.

A few steps more, and the pavement vanished. I entered a twisting footpath carved from the crater’s volcanic concrete, and the grade was steeper by three orders of magnitude. This trail was supposedly built so mules could haul equipment and supplies up and down the peak, but it was difficult to imagine mules surviving this trek with their legs intact. I could see a ragged line of pilgrims zigzagging along the treacherous slope above me. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Still, it was a pretty day, and I was in decent shape. I plodded on, swigging water and nibbling granola, some uneasy parallels beginning to form in the back of my mind.

Slowly, the summit drew nearer. I rounded hairpin curve number…okay, I’d lost count by then…and saw The Stairs–a narrow, towering, nearly-vertical series of tiny steps clearly designed for somebody with feet much smaller than mine. They would have given Sisyphus pause. They ended high overhead at the black, yawning maw of a tunnel leading into the rock. I toiled up the stairs, step by step, clinging to what felt like an utterly insufficient handrail, careful not to look down. Much.

Now I knew where I really was. I’d passed the gates of Mordor, and was following Gollum along the secret back-way into the Dark Lord’s kingdom. I didn’t want to think about what might be waiting on the other side of that tunnel.

The winding passage upward at the tunnel’s end, thick with corrosion and other nameless encrustations in a variety of disgusting colors, did nothing to inspire my confidence. “Almost there, little hobbitses…”

Another narrow tunnel, then a scramble through what used to be the slit window of an artillery spotting post, and I emerged into brilliant sunlight. A rather different view from the Crack of Doom, but just as awe-inspiring, in its own way. I lingered for a long while. I had a decent cellular signal, so I called my lovely wife to describe the magnificent vista spread out below me.

She listened with admirable enthusiasm, especially for a teacher preparing to begin a new school year on Monday. I wished I could magically whisk her away for a few minutes to share the panorama with me. Sigh. Where’s that wizard with the flock of eagles when you need him?

The trip downhill wasn’t nearly as eventful as the trip uphill, and inspired no Middle Earth flashbacks. I felt a warm sense of accomplishment as I passed through the stone ramparts of the Diamond Head gate on my way back home. I had gone There and Back Again, and lived to tell the tale.

Although a Second Breakfast, plus Elevenses, would have been welcome. Granola bars can only carry you so far.

Next time: On the Run, By the Sea, In the Park


One thought on “Diamond Head, or, My Journey to Mount Doom

  1. Cool! Reminds me a little bit of our Rangitoto here. Those volcano-carved footpaths are killers, but it’s awesome to get to the top.
    I also had a similar experience in Edinburgh climbing Arthur’s Seat – not volcanic, but it was all iced up that day. Amazing view for sure.

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