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Climb Aloha offers tours and programs at Oahu cliffs at Makapuu and Mokuleia

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

LAST UPDATED: 3:44 p.m. HST, Aug 10, 2011

Twenty-two years have passed, but Mike Richardson, co-owner of Climb Aloha, clearly remembers the adventures that inspired him to become a rock star.

In the fall of 1989 he was a freshman at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Whenever time permitted, he and two friends headed to the mountains surrounding the small college town.

"We camped in the desert and started out by climbing boulders without ropes, called ‘bouldering,'" Richardson recalled. "We were so poor we had to share one pair of old climbing shoes."

Eventually they began bouldering on bigger and bigger rock formations. "I was hooked!" Richardson said. "It was a physically and mentally challenging workout. The shapes, textures and colors of the mountains were amazing, magical, especially at sunset. There's very little vegetation there — only shrubs and cacti — so the geological features really stand out in the landscape."

That semester, Richardson sold his textbooks early and scraped together enough money to buy his own pair of climbing shoes. Since then he has climbed mountains all over the world, including Thailand, Germany, Italy, Japan, Guam, Samoa, Mexico and, of course, Hawaii.

Those treks have rewarded him with incredible close-up looks at nature's wonders. "I've seen snakes slithering next to me hundreds of feet up a cliff," Richardson said. "I've come across beautiful ferns and flowers growing on small ledges and in crevices high up in the air. Waterfalls, monkeys, hovering birds — I've climbed so close to them, I could touch them."


» Address: 2241 Noah St., Honolulu

» Guided day trips: Available daily. Participants must be at least 6 years old.

» Meeting place: Varies. Although most people drive to the site on their own, round-trip transportation from Waikiki can be provided for $20 per person.

» Time: Usually 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

» Cost: Prices range from $75 to $125 person, including drinks and photos of the day (sent via email within a few days). Kamaaina rates run from $65 to $115 per person, depending on the size of the group.

» Phone: 738-6010

» Email:

» Website:

Notes: Bring water, lunch, a small backpack and a camera. Wear sunscreen, comfortable clothing, sturdy boots or running shoes and a light rain jacket.

Six classes are offered, including Climbing 101, an introductory course at Makapuu Point. Students enjoy magnificent views of Makapuu Lighthouse, the ocean and Oahu's windward coast as they learn the basics of rock climbing and rappelling.

All gear is provided. Participants may use their own gear as long as it is in good condition (the company reserves the right to examine personal gear and not allow it to be used if it is deemed unsafe). Call or check out the website for more information.

Climb Aloha will begin construction on the Honolulu Rock Gym, an indoor climbing facility in Kakaako, by early fall. It will feature 6,000 square feet of climbing surfaces, ranging from walls that young children can scale to large overhanging structures designed for advanced climbers.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi


Richardson came to Oahu in 1995 to earn a master's degree in entomology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Four years later he founded Climb Aloha as a small retail store selling shoes, helmets, harnesses, rope, carabiners and other climbing equipment.

While Richardson, nicknamed "Bugman," is at his day job as an entomologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, his wife and business partner, Fumi, oversees store operations. In 2001 Climb Aloha began offering outdoor programs that Richardson describes as "training" rather than "just" scenic eco-tours. The classes emphasize the importance of safety and minimizing the impact to natural resources. No prior experience is required, and participants don't have to be in tip-top shape.

"If you're not in ideal physical condition, rock climbing is an excellent way to get there because it usually involves hiking to the climbing area with a fair amount of equipment," Richardson said. "As you climb, you're getting a cardiovascular workout and using your whole body — toes, feet, legs, core, back, shoulders, arms, fingers and hands. It's fairly low impact since you're not doing any repetitive or jarring movements."

As with any type of exercise, the more people climb, the stronger and more flexible they'll become. It's not uncommon for adults to continue rock climbing into their 70s and beyond.

"The best climbers are calm, confident, focused, have good footwork and balance, and don't overgrip the holds on the rock," Richardson said. "If you're overgripping, you're wasting energy and needlessly tiring your muscles."

According to Richardson, Oahu has the best and most abundant climbable rock, and it's the only Hawaiian island with established routes — nearly 100 carefully chosen sites at Makapuu on the eastern tip and Mokuleia on the North Shore. Hawaii's tallest climbable cliffs rise only about 150 feet; in comparison, popular climbing spots on the mainland, including Yellowstone National Park, soar 3,000 feet high.

That said, a climbing outing doesn't have to be long or strenuous to bring a rush of adrenaline. "Reaching the top, even if it's only a 12-foot boulder, rewards you with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment," Richardson said. "Whether your ascent takes a few minutes or a few hours, you've pushed yourself and made it. Plus, you're building camaraderie with your climbing partners, connecting with nature and enjoying fantastic views, which in Hawaii always include the ocean."

Novice climbers should get proper instruction and work their way up to advanced levels just as they would if they were learning to surf. "With surfing you start with small waves, learn how to read them and understand your equipment," Richardson said. "It's the same concept with climbing."

Attitude is also key. "Relax, live in the moment, relish the experience," Richardson said. "The late great mountaineer Alex Lowe said, ‘The best climber is the one having the most fun,' and that's so true!"

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won many Society of American Travel Writers awards.

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