This type of headline — “Another hiker died this past weekend…” — has become so routine that we almost hardly bat an eye when we see it. On Easter weekend, it was a man in his 20s who fell from the third peak of the Olomana Trail.

On the same weekend, two women had to be airlifted from the Kaau Crater Trail when they realized — after getting to the summit — that they needed help getting back down. (Perhaps they were unaware that it is best done as a loop trail.)

From 2006 to 2016, the number of Honolulu Fire Department rescues in Oahu’s mountains nearly tripled with each helicopter-assisted search-and-rescue operation costing about $1,500 per hour. In 2017, HFD said it made 367 hike-related rescues.

While no data exists to support the claim, there is a widespread, and probably justified, belief that many of those who get into trouble are unaware of the risks, ill-prepared or in over their heads.

Hiking Olamana on Windward Oahu has many benefits — not least the views. But it can also be dangerous. The author wants the state to invest more money in maintaining trails. Flickr: Kevin McCarthy

A bill proposed by state Sen. Laura Thielen, Senate Bill 2331, requested an appropriation of $1.8 million to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to improve access to and maintenance of state controlled recreational trails, as well as to promote hiker safety and hiker etiquette education and outreach.

The bill died after crossing over to the House, but I was told by a staffer that there might be other funding in the state budget to accomplish the same purpose. According to this source, we should know after bills go to conference April 16-25.

In the meantime, here are a few ways that DLNR could wisely spend any funding received:

• Establish a truly informative website: DLNR should establish a website that is the official and definitive source for useful and accurate information about hikes, or partner with an organization such as All Trails. Aside from All Trails and the state’s own Na Ala Hele Trail & Access website, what we have now is a collection of blogs or social media posts, some of which contain useful information, but none of which contain standard ratings for the difficulty of the hike, and few of which tell you what gear to bring along.

Moreover, some of these blogs and posts are themselves contributing to the problem by glorifying risk-taking. All Trails and the Na Ala Hele websites themselves are deficient in that they don’t provide ratings for difficulty or their ratings are not granular enough. Both sites lack detailed route descriptions akin to those one finds in a classic book such as Stuart Ball’s “The Hiker’s Guide to Oahu.”

A better model is Camp to Camp, which I’ve used to plan alpine climbing trips. This website provides standard ratings for the level of technical climbing ability required and the global rating of the difficulty of the excursion, as well as detailed descriptions of each phase of the trip. It also includes trip reports in which people describe their own experience including such things as the level of crowding, the weather conditions, their take on the difficulty of the excursion and access issues.

Similar information appropriate to the local situation could be provided for hikes in Hawaii.

A final issue with the Na Ala Hele website is that it only covers officially sanctioned hikes while we all know that hikers either are ignorant as to which hikes are officially sanctioned or they simply don’t care. Information about unsanctioned hikes is widely available on the internet; we should accept that reality and include accurate and realistic information about the risks inherent in doing such hikes.

• Increase education on hiker (not to mention ocean) safety available on multiple touch points: airline PA system, in-flight magazines, sightseeing pamphlets, tourism websites, etc.

Visitors to our islands are startlingly uninformed regarding the risks of hiking here. It’s possible to get hypothermia here, for example, if one lacks proper rain gear and has to stay out overnight. Yet many tourists probably think it’s going to be sunny even in the mountains.

Moreover, I’ve found that deceptively dry-looking but slightly damp mud surfaces are often the most slippery. Similarly, certain plants look reasonably solid but will break off in your hand. Woe be to the hiker who grabs them on one of the Koolau Mountains’ knife-edge ridge lines. We need to impart some of this local knowledge to all hikers, including (or especially) visitors.

• Maintain and add more signage: Warning signs are often ignored and going overboard with signage could mar the beauty of Hawaii’s landscapes. Nonetheless, there should be more signage on our trails.

I recently hiked Kuliouou Ridge with my wife and 4-year old daughter after an absence of a decade or more. I was dismayed that the signage is in disrepair or non-existent. Moreover, I was shocked and upset by the number of people who were cutting the trail rather than following the switchbacks. The erosion caused by taking short-cuts has reached the point where it’s no longer obvious to some people where the original trail is.

This created a potentially dangerous situation on our way down when my wife and daughter, who were ahead of me, took a wrong turn and headed down one of the short cuts. As they were already partly down the short cut, I unwisely let them continue. However, it soon got very steep and I felt that it created unnecessary danger for my 4-year old.

Don’t improve access: The Makapuu Lighthouse used to be a lesser known, less crowded trail; since the parking lot and pavement were put in (or maybe it’s social media?) it’s become an overcrowded stroll on asphalt. Manoa Falls is now mostly a walkway except for a few slippery spots at the end.

I know that those who made these improvements probably did so with good intentions, but maybe we should keep the wild, wild? Should every place be accessible to every person regardless of physical condition or level of outdoor experience?

• Teach respect for hiking as a discipline: While hiking may not be as technical as disciplines like mountaineering, rock climbing or trekking, people will be safer when they have at least a modicum of outdoor skills and know-how.

Particularly on more challenging hikes, a cavalier attitude can be fatal. 

• Analyze accidents: Every accident should be analyzed and information regarding why it happened made available to the public.

“Accidents in North America” is an annual publication of the American Alpine Club that documents “the year’s most significant and teachable climbing accidents.” Each incident is analyzed to show what went wrong, in order to help climbers to avoid similar problems in the future. Similar information for Hawaii’s hikes could be an invaluable resource and encourage people to take hiking more seriously.

Perhaps above all, we need to instill the correct ethos in everyone entering our beautiful mountains. As legendary American mountaineer Conrad Anker said: “Mountains are freedom. Treat them respectfully.”

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