Story by Jesse Katz
The summit is invisible, lost in a halo of steel-wool clouds. The moon, even ablaze, is of little help, powerless to part the murk that clings to Kauai’s center. Somewhere out there, inland, upward, is the peak of Mount Waialeale, the one I saved for last. In the span of a week, I’ve made my way to the pinnacle of six Hawaiian islands—from the lunar dome of Mauna Kea to the pine forests of Lanai to the bomb-scarred knolls of Kahoolawe—to discover the opposite of what most visitors seek: the mysteries of the land farthest above the sea.
Five thousand feet below Waialeale’s summit, on the tarmac outside the shed that is both his hangar and home, Ken D’Attilio is sizing up the sky, reading the mountain. He’d risen in the dark, zipped himself into a jumpsuit and wrapped his head in a bandanna, then aimed his night-vision goggles at Waialeale, renowned as the wettest spot on the planet. Decades ago, US Geological Survey technicians would ride mules to the top to check the rain gauges, which collect an average of 460 inches a year. But now the only practical, or prudent, way up is by air. At dawn I am supposed to hitch a ride with Captain Ken, the founder of Inter-Island Helicopters, and, if all goes according to plan, scale my seventh summit in nine days. “You might get a window of opportunity,” he’d told me the night before. “Or it could sock in and never open up for a month.”
Do not take me for a peak bagger. My garage is full of Little League equipment, not crampons or trekking poles or even a CamelBak. I am a bit squirrelly about heights, truth be told, and my doctor has been on me to do something about my blood pressure. But when I was offered a chance to go to Hawaii’s mountaintops—when I stopped to consider that Hawaii had mountaintops—there was really not much to mull. I’d just spent a year and a half working on a book, chained to a computer in a dark, lonely office, and the chance to be transported to a frontier that I could barely conceive was more of a rescue, frankly, than an assignment.
I understood the pitfalls of reducing my expedition to notches on a belt. The summits of Hawaii are magnificent and subtle, largely untrammeled, often dangerous and frequently contested. Some require paperwork to ascend (permits, waivers), and most call for special transportation (boats, four-by-fours, a chopper on standby). I needed to pack for heat and rain, of course, but also for subfreezing winds and volcanic ash and bogs deep and squishy enough to swallow your leg with one wrong step. The lowest of the summits, at 1,477 feet, was barely a hill; the highest, at 13,796, was capable of shutting down bodily functions.
In Hawaiian a summit is a piko—a word that also signifies “bellybutton”—and it was from the pikos, the volcanic spires that rose from the ocean millions of years ago, that an archipelago was born. The summit of each island, in that regard, is not just the high point, but a lifeline, the source of both natural and spiritual power. If the communities that lined the coast were thought of as the wao kanaka, the realm of people, then the mountaintops could be deemed the wao akua, the realm of the gods.
“Most of the people who try going up there on their own, we end up rescuing,” my pilot Ken mentions with just a hint of bravado. “That’s the way the mountain is. It likes to keep its secrets.”