Rock Climbing on O‘ahu

Rocking Out on O‘ahu: From 85-foot walls to epic arches, local rock climbers have plenty of routes to choose from.

In rock climbing, a highball is a dangerously tall boulder, to peel is to fall, a flat-lander is a person who does not climb, and to peel from a highball onto a flat-lander is … well, you got that one. Like any sport, rock climbing has its own jargon. It also has its hot spots. We toured a few:

Makapuu Crag

If this crag with the sweeping view looks familiar, that’s because it’s been a popular television and film location since at least the early days of Hawaii 5-0. Although it’s located 200 feet above Waimanalo Bay, the actual climbing cliff is just 35 feet tall, and features a handful of easy to moderately difficult routes. While it’s perfect for beginners, “beginner,” in rock climbing, doesn’t mean “not scary.”

Mike “Bugman” Richardson negotiates a Makapuu wall.

photos: diana kim, thinkstock

Kevin “Faisca” Nesnow, about to tackle a Mokuleia problem.

Waimea Bay

Even when there are no climbers in sight, every fingerhold and toehold in the low, black cliffs here is typically smeared with white chalk, evidence of Waimea’s popularity as a bouldering hot spot. The rock has plenty of routes—or “problems” as they’re called in bouldering—and the sand makes for a reasonably soft landing if you peel. Unlike ordinary cliffs, which do not routinely get taller or shorter, the height of these cliffs can vary by 10 feet or more, as giant winter surf strips away or deposits sand at the base. Climbers prefer coming early or late in the day, when flat-landers lounging on the beach aren’t using the cliffs for shade.

Mokuleia Main Wall

The 85-foot basalt wall—loaded with cracks, overhangs, crimpy faces and all sorts of other features that rock climbers live for—has more than 50 top-roping and sport-climbing routes, with names like “Mission Impossible,” “Slice of Death” and “Red Tower of Pain.” The great variety of routes, their complexity and the panoramic North Shore views from even the base of the cliffs (which are located way up the mountain near Mokuleia Airfield) make this the premiere rock climbing spot in Hawaii. “It’s our crown jewel,” says Mike “Bugman” Richardson, of Team Climb Aloha, the spot’s unofficial caretakers.

Climbing Styles

Top roping: A climber wears a belay line for safety.

Sport climbing: A climber attaches a safety line to anchor bolts mounted along the route.

Bouldering: A climber uses a crash pad, but no other safety gear. Not so good for great heights.

The Arch

Remote, dangerous and newly discovered (by rock climbers, at least), The Arch is generating buzz among the world’s bouldering elite. Located at Kaena Point, it’s a natural rock arch with a ceiling that crests at 30 feet, and that expert climbers cling to like human lizards. “It’s an epic highball,” says Justin Ridgely, the pro climber who discovered the site while messing around on Google Earth.

Volcanic Rock Gym.

Indoor walls

For $4, as all of the teenagers who hang out there after school know, anybody can use the climbing wall tucked in the back of SoulTrex in Kaneohe (with free Tuesday climbing classes). In Waipio, the Volcanic Rock Gym has both a climbing wall and an enormous man-made boulder that’s covered with “problems,” ranging from super easy to completely upside down.

Day passes, $12.
SoulTrex, Windward Mall, 247-8735,

Day passes, $12.
Volcanic Rock Gym, 94-423 Ukee St., 397-0095,