A new type of warning sign was placed at an entry to the most dangerous hiking trail on Oahu in November. Instead of typical signs saying “Slippery When Wet” or “Beware of Falling Rocks” which are often ignored, this sign at the start of the Olomana trail in Windward Oahu lists the dates and areas where six people have fallen to their deaths along the trail over the last decade, including two this year.
Troubled by these deaths and knowing more people are likely to die in the same places, Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Director Jim Ireland said it was time to take preventive action.
“Lifeguards will educate someone even before they get in the water. They will stop people in the parking lot and tell them right on the spot about that surf break or the tides and sometimes tell them flat out that this is not a good place for you to be today,” Ireland said. “I’ve learned this preventive action mind set from our lifeguards.”
About two weeks after the most recent death, Ireland had the $300 sign made and posted which reads, “Attention Olomana Trail Users – Six people have fallen to their deaths after hiking past the first peak,” with the years and locations of the deaths located directly below that.
The Olomana trail is on state land and open to the public but is not a sanctioned trail or maintained by the state and recommended only for experienced hikers with local knowledge.
“People hiking up Olomana often don’t realize the danger they are walking into, especially in the area between the second and third peaks on the mountain,” Ireland said.
After seeing social media posts or watching online videos, thousands of hikers attempt trails without considering proper safety precautions. Olomana, known as Three Peaks on many YouTube posts, is portrayed as a challenging and beautiful adventure.
“Unfortunately, all adventure has some risk,” Ireland said.
“When I look back at the six fatalities in the last 10 years, all men, all very sad situations and tragic for their families and loved ones,” he said. “The purpose of the sign is to let everybody know that there is this danger beyond the first peak and particularly beyond the second peak and allow them to make their own decision based on their skills and their acceptance of risk if that is what they want to do.”
Three of the deaths were visitors that likely had never climbed Olomana before and three had hiking experience, Ireland said.
Tony Barnhill is an experienced hiker who recently completed collecting data for 35 trails in Hawaii for the Na Ala Hele Universal Trail Access Project as an independent contractor. Barnhill compared the challenge of hiking the Olomana trail to a double black diamond ski slope.
“There are no second chances on Olomana. Some spots are only as wide as your foot,” Barnhill said. “It’s dangerous all the time. If it’s raining, that changes everything.”
“When you see videos on YouTube you see the beginning of the hike, then bits and pieces and the famous lookout at the end. You don’t see the spots where they have to concentrate and hold on tight so that you cannot even think about taking photos,” he said. “Some places you have to hug the wall tightly.”
Barnhill said it is too early to know if the sign is effective in deterring inexperienced hikers, but it is worth the effort.
“If you tell people they cannot do something they are going to try even more,” he said. “This new approach is simple. It is just the facts. If it saves one person that otherwise would be unprepared to go, it is worth it.”
City Council member Esther Kia’āina said the new sign is a welcome addition. Kia’āina, who represents District 3, said it can cost between $10,000 to $20,000 to mount a rescue operation that requires a helicopter, emergency vehicles and personnel.
“At Olomana, I’m happy about the leadership to put this sign in place and it is a gut check for the users on the dangers,” she said. “This should be replicated at other dangerous city and state parks.”
Kia’āina said warning signs are especially needed in areas where people hike on illegal trails, potentially exposing the city to liability lawsuits.
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