In Pursuit of the Precipice

An intrepid trio take on Maui's cliffs for a journey of steep dives and sheer climbs.

Text by Matt Luttrell & Anna Harmon | Images by Ryan Moss

Cliff Diver Dan Worden Tackles New Heights on Maui

As the sun slips down toward the horizon on the Valley Isle, Dan Worden overlooks a glittering bay and spots an enticing cliff rising roughly 60 feet. He hikes to the calm waters below it, then dives to the ocean floor to make sure there are no hazards that could inflict dangerous injuries when he leaps. The area is clear. As he climbs the cliff, Worden prepares his mind for the jump. Soon, he has arrived at his launching point. He takes a breath, exhales, then dives. Plummeting downward at roughly 40 miles per hour, he executes a flawless double flip, then glides into the turquoise waters.

NELLA_MEDIA_SELECTS (3 of 4)editCliff diving is an art form that has been practiced in the Hawaiian Islands for hundreds of years. Long before the kapu (governing set of codes, beliefs, and traditions) ended in 1819, Hawaiians would gather each year for Makahiki, held in honor of the god Lono. This annual gathering was a time of peace, feasts, and sport, with ali‘i (chiefs) competing in games like he‘e nalu (surfing), holua (lava sliding), canoe paddling, and lele kawa (feet-first cliff jumping) in order to secure their standings in society. Kahekili, the last king of Maui, is said to have excelled at lele kawa. To this day, a nerve-racking spot to plummet from on Lāna‘i still boasts his name: Kahekili’s Leap.

While it’s been almost 200 years since the Makahiki was last celebrated island-wide, a small group of men and women around the islands still test their bravery by jumping from cliffs. “It’s just you, the rock, and the ocean. There is no equipment,” says Worden of the ancient sport that has become one of his main pastimes. “It’s just a contest between yourself and the situation. You have to maintain control and rely on your instincts.”

For Worden, who is from Corvallis, Oregon, diving off of the islands’ impressive topography was a natural progression after having competed on the University of Hawai‘i’s swimming and diving teams and continuing on as an assistant coach in fall 2014. His interest in cliff diving was cemented in 2010 when he met Orlando Duque, who has 13 world titles in cliff diving and high diving, at the university’s pool. Inspired by the sport’s most accomplished athlete, Worden began testing the waters of O‘ahu with dives at sites like Spitting Caves, La‘ie Point, and Waimea Bay.

In February, Worden, boulderer Justin Ridgely, and adventure photographer Ryan Moss headed to Maui to locate new routes. The bay was their first stop. Together, they hiked around the edge of a cliff searching for suitable diving and bouldering routes. Asked how he finds new cliffs to dive from, Worden explained that he looks for where the fishermen hang out, and then goes to the spot when they are not present. “Respect the ocean. Respect the ‘āina (land). Respect the fishermen. It’s pretty simple.”

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Boulderer Justin Ridgely Has Eyes Only for the Cliffside

“It seems like it was a dream,” says Justin Ridgely of the trip to Maui in February. Not his first journey to the island for climbs, and definitely not his last, it was motivated by an opportunity to tackle a cliff that he had been eying since his first bouldering experience on Maui years ago. All it took to get him on the plane was a little nudge from his friend Ryan Moss, an adventure photographer raring to take photos. Dan Worden joined as a second lens eager to grasp his own moments on the edge. “Ryan is quite the pusher,” Ridgely says. “He finds the little triggers to get you to do stuff, and then he’s right alongside you with a camera doing crazier stuff.”

But adventure often comes from moments when plans are tossed out the window. The route Ridgely had in mind boasts challenging holds and incredible scenery, with a clifftop too crumbly to safely climb over and an overhang above a part of the sea where bad weather kicks up rough waves. To access its face, Ridgely booked a boat that would also pick him up when he dropped back into the sea. Everything was ready. But on the day of arrival, uncooperative weather and churning waters set in, and he had to accept that even his best-laid plans couldn’t compete.

So instead, he bouldered spots that were easier to access, and later linked up with the local bouldering community for a climbing session at surf spot Grandma’s. “It has a crazy overhang that’s really fun,” says Ridgely, who started bouldering 15 years ago. “The rocks are really sharp. It’s almost like there’s broken beer bottles in the rock. If you can handle, it makes for great grip.”

He, Ross, and Worden then headed down the road to Hana, another part of the island that Ridgely thought would offer up great dives and bouldering opportunities based on its bends along the way. “Boulders in riverbeds and streams tend to be better quality because of the water moving across polishing and hardening,” he explains. “Every time we came across a riverbed, we’d jump out of the car and look, then jump back in. It was a pretty crazy adventure.”

Increase your vertical:

  1. If you are one for top rope and lead climbs, Ridgely recommends McGregor Point Lookout near Ma‘alaea, and various stops along the route between Lāhainā and Kīhei. However, you’ll have to bring your own gear. Most importantly, always be respectful of sacred or off-limits areas.
  2. In May, Ridgely opened his second indoor climbing location, Volcanic Climbing and Fitness, in Honolulu at 1212 Punahou St. Alongside a bouldering wall, members can enjoy a sauna, full gym, swimming pool, yoga classes, açai bowls, and even an ice plunge. For a straightforward climbing experience, head to Ridgely’s first venture, Volcanic Rock Gym in Kailua at 201 Kapaa Quarry Pl.
  3. Direct conversation is always the best way to learn about what climbs are safe and respectful, and what gear you will need. To get the scoop, visit Volcanic Rock Gym at one of the above locations or contact Ridgely or staff at 808-397-0095.

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