The view of the cliffs above Hanalei is spectacular. Green walls rise 2000 feet straight up off the valley floor, reaching to the clouds that hide the summits. A cloak of jungle drapes over the vertical wall of lava rock. The sight fills the windows of the production van as we make our way back to the hotel in Honolulu after wrap. A couple crew guys talk about a fabled hike, the Stairway to Heaven, that scales these cliffs. I can�t begin to imagine where a trail would go up this wall before us. There are certainly no tell-tale switchbacks visible across the vertical shoots. Any �trail� up that face sounds more like the harrowing ascent out of the Guns of Navarone. The guys in the van say there are steps carved into the rock, missing in some places, any false step and it�s the proverbial express elevator straight down. Stairway to Heaven indeed. It all sounds a bit mythic, stories passed from one to another, no one actually having done it themselves. Before the highway disappears into the tunnel that takes us through the range, I crane my neck to catch a last glimpse of these cliffs. I�m dizzy just thinking about it. It sounds incredibly dangerous. This is a place someone could die. I had to find out more.

I�d been in Hawaii for a month working on a film, drawing storyboards in my hotel room, and exploring the island on spare weekends. As filming progressed, I was quickly running out of scenes to illustrate. Sure that I�d be sent back to L.A. any day, my services no longer needed, I wanted to make the most of my remaining time.

Two weeks after seeing the cliffs from the production van, I was parking my rental car in a quiet suburban neighborhood nestled in the Haiku valley, trying not to look like a trespassing tourist. Jason, an island local from the Art Department, came to show me where to start the climb. He said it was easier to show me rather than try to explain the convoluted directions. Something about 25 yards south of a point 200 yards in along the H-3 access road, whatever that meant.

Entrance to the trailhead is technically illegal as it sits on government land, and I later learn that hikers have been turned away or cited by Honolulu Police. I walk past five different �no trespassing� signs (decorated with hand-written directions to the trail head), pass a gate, and squeeze through two chain-linked fences before reaching the official start of the climb. On a footpath under the towering supports of the modern highway, Jason shakes my hand, wishes me luck and heads back to town. His guidance has brought me this far, now it is up to me to climb.

The path ahead shoots right up off the jungle floor, straight up the face of the cliff. A �trail� has been constructed out of eight foot sections of galvanized steel stairs that look like they�ve been salvaged from WWII destroyers. These metal sections are joined together with ancient bolts and drilled into the lava rock of the mountain creating a ladder that stretches up to infinity. Hand rails provided the illusion of safety and support.

The Navy originally built a wooden staircase here in 1943 to reach communication facilities atop Haiku Valley. Preparing for a long war in the Pacific, Navy officials wanted a signal that could reach both Australia and the Indian Ocean. The 2000 ft. mountains of Oahu in the middle of the Pacific provided the perfect location. In 1955, the wooden stairs were replaced with ones built of galvanized metal, the steps now rising over me, vanishing into the distance high above. The communications station was decommissioned by the Navy in 1957, and the Coast Guard took over the sight for long-range radio navigation.

There�s nothing like abandoned military facilities to give you the feeling you�re somewhere you�re not supposed to be. Within minutes I am panting and covered in sweat. I am using my arms to pull myself up, as much as my legs to climb. The original builders had no time for switchbacks. This is not for the faint of heart. Since these stairs are near vertical, the view straight ahead is of the step in front of my face. Every now and then there are reminders of previous climbers and the notes of encouragement or warning that they�ve left. �Don�t look down,� �Fire ladder 62,� �In the garden of love I found the rose of my heart.� I had started early in the morning and the couple that I passed at the bottom is nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere below me. I have the mountain to myself. The snaking highway that was so massive from below quickly drops away. Trucks that rumble over it�s smooth surface look like toys on a sweeping track. The valley opens up below me, sloping toward Hanalei Bay, Chinaman�s Hat and the range beyond. I can look across at the canyon wall directly opposite and roughly gauge my progress, since the contours of the cliffs are similar. Once over an initial jutting of ancient lava, the real climb begins. Then it�s a few hundred vertical feet before the cliffs slope back to create beautiful hanging valleys, home to ferns, the only thing that can cling here, and the birds that don�t appreciate the dizzying height.

What seems a sturdy staircase under foot, quickly diminishes in the jungle above me, dwarfed by the mountain. High overhead it becomes a silken thread draped along the ridgeline, a silver strand catching the sun rising up, and up, and up to be lost in the clouds at the summit - either an engineering miracle carried out by insane government workers or the latest living sculpture by Christo. I leave the white noise of the H-3 freeway behind me. Now I can hear the birds that make these hanging valleys their home.

I have never climbed anything so steep for so long. This is truly breathtaking. The stairs scale a jagged blade of a ridge sculpted from lava thrust from the ocean floor. Wind and rain have had their way for millennia, and the results are massive buttresses of rock, carved with vertical flutes. The jungle that clings here is a dark green skin barely enveloping a skeletal structure. This range feels like a massive prehistoric beast, and I am an ant lost in the folds of its razor sharp rib cage. As I pick my way up and along the contours of this strange world, I can only imagine the men who installed these stairs, and before them, the first humans to scale these cliffs.

To the southeast and 1000 feet below me over 400 human skulls were found when the highway was being put through. Special permission was granted by local elders and care was taken not to disturb what came to be seen as a mass grave at the foot of these mountains. These cliffs were the setting of an epic battle in 1795 with King Kamehameha�s thrust to unite the islands. His warriors drove the defending Oahu army up the valley from the Pearl Harbor side to the very edge of the Pali Cliffs. The defenders could not hold their position, and with nowhere left to go, were driven over to the valley floor.

Clouds have settled on the summit now, and there�s one last insane push up this ribbon of stairs. The trail is balancing precariously on a knife-edge ridge. They should hand out tight rope balancing poles at this stage. It�s this last section that is perhaps the most vertigo-inducing. I�m already on top of the world, yet the mountain is narrowing beneath me, the trail still continuing on higher. Now it�s not just a fall back down that I fear, but to either side are vertical drops as well. There�s not much else to do but take it one step at a time, and try to keep my legs from shaking.

Then I am on top, a small patch of level ground. Rusty and abandoned radar dishes, and a concrete building covered in graffiti stand in silence. So this is it. Heaven. The top of the mountain. I catch my breath, take some panoramic pictures, call my girlfriend. The North Shore is clearly visible from here, as is Pearl Harbor to the south. I�m standing on a peak thrust out of the middle of the Pacific with the ocean all around me. It�s exhilarating, graffiti and all. It�s somehow fitting that surrounded by so much jungle and beauty, in this sacred spot, is a sad cement shack. That�s life in this world that we�ve shaped. This climb that I never would have experienced, and this view that I never would have seen if not for men devising a better way to fight a war. The sacred and the profane, perched together on the same mountain top. There�s disappointment and ugliness mixed in with the exhilaration of achievement, the awe of natural wonder.

I retrace my steps, descending the stairs and working up some monster blisters on my palms from the hand rails. Approaching each section of stairs is like the drop of a rollercoaster. I am at the top step before I can see the bottom one, seemingly a mile below me. Gradually I meet my stomach again the closer I get to the valley floor, and houses and cars cease to be mere pin pricks in a vast landscape far below. I have survived the Stairway, and evaded local authorities.

Once again on firm (and level) ground, driving in my rented car, or in the comfort of my hotel room, or even months later back home in California, the grin of accomplishment still hasn�t quite faded.