Climbing in a surfer's paradise: Hawaii.

September 16, 2021

'There is no climbing in Hawaii.'

I wasn’t far into my research on climbing in Hawaii when I first came across this saying. In fact, I was scrolling through the @boulderinghawaii Instagram page, growing increasingly envious with each second of the tanned boulderers and lush landscapes, when I spotted these words scrawled across the back of a climber’s t-shirt. ‘There is no climbing in Hawaii’. Perfect, I thought. A sure sign of an off-the-beaten track climbing destination.

It turns out that ‘There is no climbing in Hawaii’ has become somewhat of a saying among the local climbing community. Search hard enough and you'll find this phrase on the back of t-shirts, in the title of YouTube videos, strewn through countless blog posts, uttered ironically at the crag... According to Matt Lutey, co-founder of the Bouldering Hawaii website (and co-creator of the t-shirts!), the saying is based on the questions and assumptions of climbers from the mainland US: ‘Surely there can’t be any climbing in Hawaii’. Book a trip there, however, and you’ll soon wish you brought your climbing shoes.

A person bouldering in Hawaii. He wears a white t-shirt with the words 'There is no climbing in Hawaii' on the back
Joe on Peanut Butter No Jelly (V6) at Angel’s Boulder, North Shore, Oahu. Spot the words 'There is no climbing in Hawaii' on the back of his t-shirt. © Bouldering Hawaii.

A close-up picture of a boulderer wearing a t-shirt with the words 'There is no climbing in Hawaii' on the back
A close-up of the 'There is no climbing in Hawaii' t-shirt. © Bouldering Hawaii


From what I gathered during my chat with Matt, there is plenty of rock climbing in Hawaii and has been since at least the mid-1980s. The island of Oahu saw its first wave of climbing development during this period, led by pioneers such as Terry Kerby. While the focus was predominantly on developing the island’s trad and sport potential, it was also then that the now-popular bouldering area Waimea Bay came into its own. Reflecting back, Kerby notes:


"When I first started bouldering at Waimea in 1986 climbers were rare. I would go early every Saturday and Sunday and make a trip along the wall with a garbage bag picking up all the fast wrappers, dirty diapers, and broken beer bottles then stake out a spot and boulder. I was using grey chalk.  One day I came and there was white chalk.  I was not alone.  A few weekends later there was blue chalk.  One day I was bouldering and a guy came along and said “are you the gray chalk guy?  Yes says I, are you the white chalk guy?  He asked me how I worked out some problem and that is how it started.  Once I started putting up a top rope people would start coming off the beach to check it out and the next thing they knew they were in shoes and harness giving it a go. After a while there was a whole dedicated group of climbers bouldering on weekends’.

An old photo of a group of climbers top-roping at Waimea Bay
Climbers top-roping at Waimea Bay, circa early 1990s. © Terry Kerby


The real heyday of development in Oahu, however, began with the opening of Volcanic Rock Gym in 2010. A small but psyched community of climbers soon emerged, who spent the next few years exploring the island and finding some pretty excellent boulders. ‘The general rule of thumb when it comes to bouldering in Oahu is “few and far between”’, says Matt, ‘but you are bound to come across some real gems and unique rock’. In 2015, a wave of development also began on Maui. Today this island boasts the highest concentration of sport climbing areas in the state. 



So why is it so hard to find out any information about climbing in Hawaii?


Spend a few minutes researching climbing in Hawaii online and you’ll soon notice that there’s not much logistical information publicly available. In fact, if it weren’t for all the photographic and video evidence, you might be inclined to believe there are no outdoor crags at all!


The reason for this lack of information, Matt explained, is that many of Hawaii’s climbing areas are subject to access issues. Those on private land risk closure if they get too crowded. Access to crags on state land is unfortunately no more secure: crags have been closed in the past in an attempt to restrict participation in ‘dangerous’ activities, as the Hawaiian state is liable in case of accidents occurring on state land. Many of the climbing and hiking areas also require passing through spaces which contain native Hawaiian sacred sites, as well as endangered plant and animal species. For this reason, the local climbing community prefers that the location of certain crags not be posted publicly online. But don’t worry, all you have to do is turn up at one of the local climbing gyms, and you’re almost guaranteed to find someone willing to take you out.

A close-up of a male rock climber on a sport route in Maui, Hawaii
Brian Cork on Mongoose vs Mountain Chicken (7c+/8a). © Amar Thejas.



Why go climbing in Hawaii?


‘There’s all the usual reasons to visit Hawaii: it’s beautiful, there are amazing beaches, and a really welcoming, laid-back vibe,’ notes Matt. ‘But for me it’s the climbing community that makes it worth the trip. Hawaiian climbers are unusually warm and welcoming – they fully embrace the "aloha" spirit. Walk into a gym or one of the local crags and you’ll find that people are genuinely happy to see you. Climbers are a pretty rare type of person in Hawaii, so we’re always psyched to meet likeminded individuals.’


Hawaiian culture is pretty different from that of the mainland United States. Instead of an achievement-focused, competitive way of life, you’ll find one characterised by ‘emotional warmth, acceptance and dedication to living well’ (in the words of Rock and Ice’s editor at large, Jeff Jackson). For many people, this can be a refreshing environment to climb in. Ditch the obsession with grades and constant need for self-improvement. Embrace the imperfect conditions, make peace with the rock and reconnect with why you started climbing in the first place: long days out in nature, time spent with friends, beers and snacks at the crag, climbing for the fun of it. Don’t be fooled by the laid-back vibe though: Hawaiian climbers still crush hard! Just learn to leave your ego at home...

An old photo of a group of climbers at Waimea bay. On person on the right is bouldering, while someone is top-roping on the  left. 4 people are sitting in the shade of the rock.
Not much has changed when it comes to the climbing culture in Hawaii! Photo of Waimea Bay from the late 1980s. © Terry Kerby


The variety of climbing styles available also makes Hawaii well worth a visit. The rock ranges from incredibly chossy to compact and hard, offering crimps, slopers, highballs, lowballs, short powerful climbs, endurance monsters, deep water solos and even multi-pitches. Diverse landscapes and climatic zones make each crag totally unique, and worth a visit for the adventure alone. Climbing is the perfect way to see a different side of Hawaii, to get a richer, more authentic experience than lounging on the beach alone.

A female climber balancing across a boulder on a sandy beachg
K. Salazar making her way up Olivine (V3) at Waiahukini beach on the southern tip of Hawaii Island. © Bouldering Hawaii


Which climbing crags should I visit first?


There are a few iconic bouldering areas on Oahu which are not to be missed. 


The first of these is Waimea Bay. Located on the North Shore of Oahu, this beach is known for its 10m surf in winter, and, in summer, as a nice spot for swimming, snorkelling or just chilling. Since the mid 1980s, Waimea has also become a popular bouldering destination, and is now one of the go-to places if you’re looking to meet other climbers. Waimea is ideal for beginners or those looking to do some easy mileage at the start of a trip: you’ll find plenty of problems in the VB to V4 range and deep, sandy landings meaning you don’t even need a crash pad. Just be aware that some of the problems can be a bit highbally!

A female climber on an overhanging boulder in Waimea Bay, Hawaii
K. Salazar on T-Rex (V6), a Waimea Bay classic. © Bouldering Hawaii


The Arch is one of the other classic bouldering areas on Oahu, and in many ways the opposite of Waimea. This is THE place to head for some hard roof bouldering, with plenty of powerful test pieces and link-ups from V3 to V11, and some even harder open projects. The Arch is, however, not for the faint hearted– the approach requires a 1-hour walk-in, and the problems can be quite highbally with landings on loose rocks. That being said, if you’re a seasoned boulderer with a hankering for overhangs, this is the place to visit.

The Sacred Boulders are also well worth a visit for their ease of approach and generally excellent rock. This is one of the few spots in Oahu where you’ll find a high concentration of boulders in one place, with anything from roofs to slabs, VB to V9. Unfortunately, as the Sacreds are right on the coast, the number of accessible boulders tends to depend on the height of the surf. Furthermore, the approach passes through an ancient Heiau (Hawaiian Church) - a sacred space which Native Hawaiians still use today to feel connected to their deceased family members. Please ensure you act respectfully while passing through!

A male boulderer climbing on volcanic rock.
Brian on Mai Tai (V2) at the Sacred Boulders, Northern Oahu. © Bouldering Hawaii


Those of you who prefer clipping draws to landing on crash-pads should head over to Maui. This island is home to some of the best rock in the state and the highest concentration of sport-climbing crags. At present, you find around 10 different sport crags with routes up to 8c, a 150m high big-wall with 3 multi-pitch routes and hundreds of quality boulders. Maui boasts a wide variety of altitudes and climatic zones, meaning that the landscape, vegetation and rock type at each crag is pretty unique. As with Oahu, the climbing community is small yet welcoming, and you’re bound to feel at home right away.

A close-up shot of a person sport climbing in PK, Maui
Some of the awesome sport climbing available on Maui. © Reis Shimabukuro.


Where can I find out more information about climbing in Hawaii?


The Bouldering Hawaii website is a great place to start, especially if you’re interested in climbing in Oahu. You can also head to any of the climbing gyms on the island where you’re bound to meet some friendly climbers who might invite you on a trip outdoors.


If you’re planning to climb in Maui it’s worth getting in contact with the folks over at Maui Rock Climbing.

Finally, it's important to note that Climbing in Hawaii is a privilege that must be earned by showing a willingness to recreate responsibly and conscientiously - especially as someone who is not from this land. The Hawaiian climbing community is extremely kind, welcoming and supportive, but in order to remain that way it is imperative that newcomers do their research and are sensitive to sacred places and the delicate ecosystem. To learn more about climbing responsibly on the island, take a look at the Kanaka Climbers website.

A shot of a male climber bouldering on an arete, with marshes and the sea in the background
Matt Lutey on a FA of Daylight Mind (V4) at Paliokalani, Hawaii Island. © Anthony Wrightsman

A huge thank you to Matt Lutey for the interview, contacts and images. Make sure you go check out the Bouldering Hawaii website.

Top image caption: Matt taking the plunge in the Cinder Cave, a remote and dangerous DWS spot on Oahu’s South shore © Daniel Hoopers.

Cover image kindly provided by Reis Shimabukuro.

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