The Most Dramatic Descent

How the traditional way to ride Hawai‘i’s mountains, he‘e hōlua, has been revived.

Text by Sonny Ganaden | Images by Jonas Maon

After paddling out to sea from narrow Keauhou Bay, several miles south of Kailua-Kona town on Hawai‘i Island, a glance landward reveals a historic remnant of daring athleticism: a rough path that shoots straight down the mountain. It is not a modern road, nor a graded footpath. It’s the Keauhou Hōlua Slide, a course that Native Hawaiians built for the dangerous sport of he‘e hōlua, which is a form of downhill racing on a wooden sled.

Since 1962, the Keauhou Hōlua Slide, also known as Ka Hōlua o Kāneaka, has been included on the National Register of Historic Places. According to Tom “Pohaku” Stone, the last time it was used was almost two centuries ago. “It ran for a little over a mile,” Pohaku says. “It ended in the ocean, just by the bay. It’s still the best one.” Its construction is one reason the sled path has survived. Native Hawaiians built the course like a Roman viae, with a lava rock base, pebbles, and sand compacted on top. Prior to its use, the path would be lined with mud and pili grass from top to bottom, creating a slippery slope leading all the way to the ocean.

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He‘e hōlua rivals the daring of any sport in the ancient or modern world. It is a pastime that Pohaku has spent the last 20 years reinvigorating: designing sleds, teaching courses, and hosting exhibitions like those that took place at Keauhou, only on a smaller scale. For Pohaku, making sleds, or papa hōlua, emerged from a lifetime spent rediscovering the origins of surfing. After his childhood on Hawai‘i Island and O‘ahu, he became a professional surfer, got caught up in the dicey side of O‘ahu—including serving a stint in jail—then became a lifeguard, and later, a college professor. He windsurfed the channels of the major Hawaiian Islands. He attempted to paddleboard from O‘ahu to Kaua‘i. He received a master’s degree from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in Hawaiian Studies, researching the discussion of chants, oral histories, and historic watercraft from the era, and is now studying for a masters’s degree in American Studies. “Surfing wasn’t really the sport of kings,” he tells students at his nonprofit, Kanalu. “Sure, if an ali‘i showed up, you had to get out of the water or make way, per protocol, but everybody did it.”

From the 1990s to the present, Pohaku has been part of a renaissance of the building of papa he‘e nalu, or pre-contact wooden surfboards, and surfing them at breaks around the islands. Similarly, after remembering the tales his grandfather told of a sledding sport, Pohaku decided to craft a papa hōlua. It took him three years to figure out the design and complete it, a process based solely on stories from his kāpuna—only later did he see the sled found in the caves of Ho‘okena, believed to have belonged to a chiefess named Kaneamama. “[Papa hōlua] accomplish the same thing that surfboards do, just one is meant to ride waves on land, and the other is meant to ride waves on the ocean,” he says. Also like surfboards, papa hōlua can be ridden while standing, kneeling, or prone.

The front of the runners of a papa hōlua point up and inward, like pigeon toes (unlike those of a bobsled, which are parallel). This design works to tighten the lashings of the sled, and keep the contraption from rattling apart at high speeds. “Kind of like the design of a double-hulled canoe, for stability,” Pohaku explains. While Bishop Museum had a sled that measured 18 feet in length, the typical sled is believed to have been between 11 and 12 feet long, weighing approximately 50 pounds, and bound only with lashings of coconut fiber. Several of the roughly 300 papa hōlua that Pohaku has created over the years have found their ways into private collections and onto the walls of commercial buildings. But they are all built to be used.

Like surfing large waves or skateboarding steep roads, he‘e hōlua can be inexorably dangerous. As momentum builds up, ditching the board or flailing limbs gains considerable corporeal consequence. At extreme speeds, the slightest movement awry makes for dramatic turns and disaster. To hold onto a board or sled with eyes open is an accomplishment in the mastery of fear. Hōlua racing has not been clocked, but Pohaku estimates speeds above 50 miles per hour, a velocity that approximates Tour de France cyclists in their most dangerous of descents.

Nobody has died doing he‘e hōlua in the modern era, yet. There are stories that date well into the 20th century, however, of both gods and athletes risking much on a hōlua race, which was said to be an aristocratic sport. In one legend, still enacted today in chant and hula, Poli‘ahu, the snow goddess, won a he‘e hōlua race on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i Island’s great dormant volcano, against Pele, the goddess of the volcano. In ire of her defeat, Pele hurled streams of lava at Poli‘ahu, who calmly brought down storms of snow, which froze the molten rock into place. Pele never returned to the summit of Mauna Kea, having been bested in both racing and in fiery retort. An excerpt from a story about he‘e hōlua in a 1865 Hawaiian language newspaper translates to “… Much pleasure was brought by this sport, though injury and death were sometimes the ending.”

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At least 57 sites where he‘e hōlua was performed have been documented, including a course on Maui nearly as long as the one at Keauhou, and another on the west side of O‘ahu, near Ka‘ena Point. On Hawai‘i Island, archaeologist Keone Kalawe and his hui have built papa hōlua, worked to restore traditional slides, and practiced the sport on smaller slopes. But unlike surfing in the modern era, a large-scale he‘e hōlua competition has yet to gain enough participants, sponsors, or insurance to take place.

Throughout his years of practicing the sport, Pohaku has suffered cuts, abrasions, lacerations, and major fractures. Now in his 60s, Pohaku’s daredevil ways have subsided, though he still avidly surfs with his granddaughter, teaching her how to read waves, and how to hold her own in a crowded lineup. “Throughout the 20th century, surfing was packaged, in an opportunity to create the myths that were later embraced by the surfing industry,” Pohaku says. “That hasn’t happened with hōlua. For me, the sledding has been an outcropping of a form of craft-making, out of a cultural and academic passion.” Having validated he‘e hōlua in the modern era, Pohaku has brought a centuries-old kinesthetic practice back to life. Most, though, are content to simply recite the dramatic stories of others who have hurtled down Hawai‘i’s mountain slopes.

 

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